The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Dream, the Deadlift, and the Dunk of Death
Welcome to the Vilcek Foundation’s Summer 2012 Newsletter! In this issue, we show our support for the immigrant athletes representing the United States at the 2012 Olympics Games. Sportswriter Kevin Ding and filmmaker Jimmy Tsai kick us off with a recount of their favorite Olympic moments, before we get to know the immigrant Olympians in London. Afterwards, be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing commentary and a Medal Mania count by Jimmy and Kevin!
Go Team USA!
The Vilcek Foundation
KEVIN DING IN THE HIZOUSE!!! Super excited to be with you here to help introduce this edition of the Vilcek Foundation newsletter, focusing on foreign-born athletes representing America in the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics. I feel like I've been elevated to another stratosphere just by being in the same virtual space with such a professional and well-respected sports journalist. AWWWW, YEAH!!!
Wow, I don’t know if I can bring that level of enthusiasm to my part of this chat. Is C-Dub going to compete for the U.S. in—I’m going to ahead and take the easy joke—ping pong? Ping pong is a real Summer Olympic sport, ya know. [Ed. note: C-Dub is a hilarious character from Jimmy’s hilarious movie, Ping Pong Playa, hilariously portrayed by Jimmy. Check it out!]
C-Dub would get slaughtered in the first round of the Olympic qualifying trials. And it'd be the Junior Olympics at that. Know what I mean?
Maybe his parents were too hard on him.
Word. But back to the Olympics—as much as I love you, Kevin, my friend and Lakers writer for the Orange County Register, there is another, equally impressive, “KD” who’s going to be making waves. You know of whom I speak, I presume?
I've been on hand to witness some of his fine work, yes. And an Olympian, too.
Correctamundo! Of course, for the non-basketball junkies, we're referring to the "other" KD: Kevin Durant. And as you mentioned, he's planning on being a big part of these London Olympics. A lot of people know Kevin Durant, as he's arguably one of the top two or three players in the NBA, but what I love about the Olympics is that we get to shine the spotlight on athletes that might not normally get the publicity. But their stories are just as inspirational as—if not more than—the ones we're accustomed to with well-known athletes.
Agreed. I have countless recollections of reporting on and interacting with Kobe Bryant over the years, but one of the images that sticks with me is from afar—Kobe being mobbed by Chinese fans in Beijing in 2008, when he was trying to sit in the stands and support the far less acclaimed U.S. Women’s Basketball team.
It’ll be interesting to see how much Kobe and LeBron let Durant carry the scoring load in London. But let's talk about another athlete from UT (the University of Texas, where Durant played for one college season): Leonel Manzano. Manzano was born in Mexico in a village without running water. For him, college wasn't an afterthought like it is for a lot of one-and-done NBA players; it was a true opportunity he made the most of. Dude ended up getting a track scholarship in order to attend—and graduate—from UT and is now representing the U.S. in track and field at the Olympics! Tell me you don't find that kind of story amazingly inspirational!
Gotta love it. Look at the USA tennis team, which figures to be carried by Serena Williams. The Olympic event is going to be a lot like Wimbledon—even staged at the same All England Club. But there’s no way the Olympic patriotism of another U.S. woman can be topped: In 2001, Varvara Lepchenko left Uzbekistan for the U.S. at the age of 15 for a legitimate chance to fulfill her tennis potential. She got her green card as she overcame all sorts of social, financial and language barriers— all while working the whole tennis circuit. She started representing the U.S. in tournaments in 2007, and just became a full American citizen on Sept. 24, 2011. Now she’s one of just four women to represent the U.S. in singles tennis at the Olympics!
The idea that some of these lesser-known athletes and sports get their time in the sun every four years…it actually had me thinking a lot about what it would take to bring about this type of phenomenon if we did not have the Olympics to look forward to. There was a particular phenomenon this past season in the NBA that saw a relatively unknown player shoot into the upper echelon of popularity. Can you possibly see where I'm going here? What was the top phenomenon in the NBA this past year? Off the top of your head. Don't think too hard—
Son of an immigrant family, perhaps...
We've discussed some of this before in our conversations, but the only way Linsanity could have occurred the way it did was through the convergence of several unlikely (or at least uncontrollable) events that all had to happen, in order for this relatively unknown person to be vaulted into the annals of sports history. But the Olympics occur every four years, and it's the ideal platform for this type of thing to happen. We don't necessarily need all the stars to perfectly align for athletes to leap from obscurity into the national—nay, WORLDWIDE—spotlight. I mean, come on, how many people really knew who Michael Phelps was before the 2008 Olympics, am I right?
You're right. And that's what I'm talking about in the unique draw of the Olympics. Jeremy Lin was some of the Olympic spirit dropped right into the big-time NBA business world—shaking everything up and inspiring everyone around it. Even though basketball is one of the Olympic sports, I'd say the coolest thing is that some of these other sports are so clearly off the grid. You can get desensitized, to some extent, to the ridiculous athleticism or intensity in mainstream professional sports. But when you’ve rarely or never seen the human body exert itself in a certain way to compete at the highest level, it’s jarring…and it’s enthralling. It provides a great escape to a different world in exactly the way sports does so often for our society.
Exactly! And as you mentioned, there are those sports that we don't regularly follow in everyday life that get vaulted into the Olympic spotlight: swimming, archery, badminton...ping pong!!!
Ping pong is a good example of a sport that is crazy to watch at its highest level. Guys standing like two miles away from the table, the ball moving faster than a dart, spinning every which way.
Seriously. And speaking of fast: did you know that a shuttlecock (or "birdie") travels more than 200 mph in a professional game of badminton? KABLAMO! We actually almost did Ping Pong Playa about badminton...almost. And check this: there is a badminton player on Team USA that individually has more medals in badminton than our country does in its entire history!
OK, here’s your shot to sell badminton to America. Let’s see what you’ve got…
Tony Gunawan is his name, and he played for Indonesia before, but now, he's playing for the good ol' U.S. of A., livin' the dream and attempting to elevate the sport of badminton here in the states. It's pretty cool reading his story and finding out that the American Dream is still truly alive and well and that it is a constant, replenishing cycle. Because at the end of the day, in the U.S. (with the exception of Native Americans), we are all immigrants or the children of immigrants, aren't we?
That's one of the great and constant themes in the Olympics: it makes the world feel smaller. And there's something particularly special about immigrants loving America so much that they want to represent the U.S., and in so doing, elevate the standing of their sports in this country. Khatuna Lorig competed for the Soviet Union archery team back in 1992 (and won a bronze medal)—and she was chosen by her fellow American athletes to be the U.S. flag-bearer in the Closing Ceremony in 2008. She's back again this year—and you know archery is going to be huge now with it being in Hunger Games and the Disney movie Brave.
Yeah, and the fact that she basically taught Katniss Everdeen (or at least the actress that plays Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence) how to shoot an arrow? Mad respect. RESPECT! Kevin…POP QUIZ: favorite Olympic memory?
My favorite Olympic memory? Kerri Strug, dude.
The one-foot landing in the ’96 Olympics?
Yeah, she did have to use the second foot momentarily, but could hold it no more than that. Complete rupture in the ankle ligament. Truly legendary. Her coaches told her the team needed it for the U.S. to win gold over Russia. She delivered in the clutch for her country.
Well, I’ve got two for you: first was more of an experience rather than an actual Olympic event, and that is my family—mostly my brother, my father, and me—attempting to collect all 12 Collectors’ Cups of the original (the one and only) Dream Team at Mickey D's! You remember that?!
Ha-ha…nice. Somewhere Charles Barkley is slurping Coke out of his Collectors’ Cup, lamenting the lost physique of his past painted on there.
On that note, another one of the athletes we're profiling, "Marathon Meb" Keflezighi, had his first job at McDonald's. And I didn't even intend that as a segue. It's just one of the cool facts you get from reading about these naturalized American athletes! After fleeing the war-torn country of Eritrea, Marathon Meb worked his first job at Mickey D's—and now he's one of the USA’s best shots at medaling in the marathon!
Next thing you’re going to tell me is that Marathon Meb got McDonald’s to publicize nutrition facts for the world’s greater good while he worked there.
Wouldn't surprise me if that were true, brother! Back to my favorite memories. The second? I’ve got your Kerri Strug beat by a mile here. Two initials: VC. You know what I'm talking about?! HII-OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I hear ya. But see, we'll have to agree to disagree. We see guys dunking over people every day of the week! In the Olympics, gimme the folks who seem like regular Joes doing the superhuman things.
Come on, man. That is the first time that I had ever seen that in an actual game! Without the use of a trampoline, mind you. And this was before the age of YouTube when you could just pull up the clip online and watch it repeatedly...
Kerri Strug, all 4-foot-9, would've drawn the charge on Vince Carter!
I remember trying to watch that Vince Carter dunk on Frederic Weis as many times as I could on whatever newscast was recapping it. Did you know that in the French press, they called that the "Dunk of Death"? BOOYAH!!! Awe-inspiring. Or should I say "jaw-inspiring", 'cause my jaw was literally on the floor after I saw that.
I'll give you that. I just can't EVER give you Vince Carter over Kerri Strug in embodying the real Olympic spirit.
Go back and watch that dunk on YouTube and tell me your jaw doesn't drop down to the floor, even twelve years later.
I will say that there is something undeniably cool about seeing NBA stars all wearing the red, white and blue. That part of it does help make it sink in how we feel like we're all on the same team when it's Olympic time.
And what will also be cool is seeing what new jaw-dropping memories and stories that will be created by some of the athletes highlighted in this newsletter, athletes who have come from other countries but have made America their home. Will one of them jump over a 7-foot French guy and posterize him in front of the entire world? Probably not...but check this: Anna Tunnicliffe, one of the athletes profiled here, is competing in sailing for Team USA and can deadlift 275 pounds. Two hundred seventy-five, Kev! Did Frederic Weis even weigh 275? She may not be able to jump over him, but she could deadlift him, yo!
OK, you have Anna and your guy Tony G. in badminton. My guy to watch is Tony A. in water polo: Tony Azevedo is one of the best in the world, captain of the U.S. team and determined to bring the first water polo gold to the U.S. And he has Kerri Strug beat in this regard: Tony was dead on the table at age four for several minutes before being revived. Doctors said he would never be able to play sports after severing his trachea and esophagus. Here he is anyway.
It doesn't get any more real than that right there! And now it's time for us to get the popcorn ready and the DVRs set (for those can't-miss events that take place at three in the morning)!
Let’s do it…
Jimmy Tsai (@superflytsai) is a writer-actor-producer known for films including Ping Pong Playa and The Venom Sportswear Ad Campaign. In addition to his filmmaking activities, Jimmy draws, reads comic books, occasionally sings, and co-manages the "greatest fantasy league ever" (as declared by The Sports Guy Bill Simmons).
Kevin Ding (@KevinDing) started out driven to fill up every page in the daily journal his mom gave him one childhood Christmas and wound up at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, The Miami Herald and The Orange County Register, where he’s a sportswriter covering the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was chosen the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association.
Archery | Badminton | Equestrian | Fencing | Field Hockey | Gymnastics | Judo | Rowing | Sailing | Shooting | Soccer | Synchronized Swimming | Tennis | Track & Field | Triathlon | Volleyball | Water Polo | Wrestling
Country of birth: Soviet Union
The name Khatuna Lorig might be on the records of only the most recent summer games, but don’t be fooled: this master archer is a four-time Olympian, and the London games will mark her fifth time competing for the gold. In 1992, the Georgia native competed as Khatuna Kvrivichvili on the Unified Team from the Soviet Union, earning a bronze medal; she finished sixth in the individual competition. In the 1996 and 2000 Games, now playing as Khatuna Lorigi, she represented the Republic of Georgia. It was not until the 2008 Games in Beijing that she competed, for the first time, under the name Khatuna Lorig, and under the American colors. There, she finished fifth in the individual competition, her best Olympic ranking thus far.
Thanks to the presence of Lorig, the profile of women’s archery in this country has improved considerably. With her on the team, the U.S. women took home the World Cup bronze in 2010 and the silver the next year—the first-ever silver medal for the team. Currently, Lorig is ranked second in the nation and fifteenth in the world.
Lorig was elected by her fellow U.S. Olympians to carry the American flag at the Closing Ceremony in Beijing, 2008.
She coached actress Jennifer Lawrence in preparation for the 2012 film, The Hunger Games.
Lorig plans to co-launch a line of women’s boutique archery apparel, RastaCentaur; she will be a spokesperson and model.
Country of birth: Indonesia
Badminton may be a power sport in Asia, but it remains relatively obscure in the United States. That’s about to change, thanks largely to Tony Gunawan, Indonesian-born world champion and Olympic gold medalist. Gunawan started playing badminton in East Java, where he grew up, and quickly rose through the ranks. At the age of 25, he won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and claimed the 2001 World Badminton Championships while representing his native Indonesia.
After these victories, Gunawan was offered a chance to coach badminton in the United States, and although he knew it would mean the end of his competitive career, he relocated to California, along with his wife, Eti, herself also an Olympic badminton athlete. There, Gunawan became a successful coach, pushing the training regimen and skill level of U.S. badminton players forward.
As part of his coaching practice, Gunawan took up a racquet again to prepare his students for international tournaments, where they would face much more sophisticated opponents. Eventually, he found himself back on the courts and playing competitively, teaming up with Vietnamese-born Howard Bach to play men’s doubles. Together, in 2005, the duo brought home the World Badminton Championship gold medal—a first for the United States. Gunawan had to sit out the 2008 Olympics because he was not yet an American citizen, but in 2011 he became a naturalized citizen and is looking forward to representing the United States at the 2012 Games in London.
Gunawan has more Olympic medals in badminton than the U.S. has collectively as a country.
At the professional level, a badminton shuttlecock can reach speeds of over 200 mph.
Badminton did not become an Olympic sport until the 1992 games, in Barcelona.
Country of birth: South Vietnam
Country of birth: Australia
Over the next month, many hugs, kisses, and tears will be witnessed worldwide as Olympians win or lose with their teammates. We’ll watch for the same from Boyd Martin and his teammate, the 12-year-old thoroughbred horse Neville Bardos.
Eventing is the only sport in the Games in which a man and animal compete as teammates. And while many Olympic athletes will forge bonds that last a lifetime this summer, it is doubtful any of them will be able to say that their teammates saved their lives—twice. If he could speak, Neville Bardos would say just that. The first time was from a slaughterhouse, where the horse’s days were numbered; fortunately, Martin saw the horse and decided to take a chance on training him. The second time, Martin ran into a barn engulfed in flames and rescued the terrified horse, just before the building collapsed.
These incidents have, understandably, strengthened the bond between the two equestrians, a crucial advantage in eventing, which is regarded as the most difficult of all the Equestrian events. Comprising three disciplines—dressage, showjumping, and cross country—with each taking place on a different day, the event demands complete trust between horse and rider.
For years, Great Britain has had an extraordinary amount of success in eventing, but Martin and Neville are determined to change that. And chances are good they can, as Martin is no stranger to the pressure of performing on the world stage. The Australian native is the son of two winter Olympians, and he himself has competed for the United States on numerous occasions since relocating to this country in 2007. He began riding as a boy in the Land Down Under, where he was extremely successful, including winning the 2003 Adelaide CCI. But he was hungry for the greater challenge of international competition, and found it in the United States.
Neville Bardos has a personal horse chiropractor, masseuse, and psychic.
The thoroughbred was named Horse of the Year in 2011 by the United States Equestrian Federation.
Country of birth: Australia
Country of birth: Germany
Country of birth: Germany
Country of birth: Poland
Dagmara Wozniak might have emigrated from her native Poland when she was only a year old, but she maintains close ties to her roots. Now 23 and a resident of New Jersey, she has been fencing with the Polish Cultural Foundation since the age of 9. Fencing has brought her more than just an understanding of her family’s heritage though; since the talented sabre fencer started competing on the international level in 2005, Wozniak has traveled to over a dozen countries in various competitions.
The result of all this international competition is a ranking of number 2 in Women’s Sabre fencing in the U.S., and number 10 in the world. As a junior-level fencer, Wozniak helped the U.S. team take home a medal each year she competed in the World Championship Games. On the senior team, she helped win the bronze medal two years in a row at the last two World Championship Games, and the gold medal at the last Pan American Games. Although she was present at the 2008 Olympics as a substitute, her impressive performance since then has guaranteed that Wozniak will be a name to watch this summer, when she adds the United Kingdom to her list of countries visited.
Wozniak also studied Polish history, music, and language.
She was named an NCAA All-American four times, while at St. John’s University.
Country of birth: South Korea
Sport: Field Hockey
Country of birth: Cuba
Country of birth: Montenegro
Nick Delpopolo’s prospects might have once been precarious—he spent the first part of his life in an orphanage with dirt floors and crumbling walls—but today his future is looking bright. He is ranked number 1 in the United States and number 12 in the world in men’s judo. Adopted by a couple from New Jersey when he was 21 months old, Nick began learning judo at the age of 5, and at the age of 12 began training with Olympic medalist Jason Morris.
In high school, Delpopolo focused on his other passion, wrestling, but returned to judo after an injury ended his wrestling career. In 2006, after a three-year hiatus from judo, he made the Junior World Team by defeating Bobby Lee, at the time ranked the number 1 Junior competitor in the United States. Over the next three years of his Junior career, Delpopolo went on to win 22 Junior National titles.
In 2009, Delpopolo transitioned from the Junior to Senior level, and by October of that year had defeated Michael Eldred to become the number-1 ranked Senior competitor in the country. In the global arena, he entered the Senior world rankings at number 99, and less than a year later, had risen an incredible 83 spots to claim the number 16 ranking in 2010. A year later, he rose even further to number 12, and now, Delpopolo has his eye set on Olympic gold, aiming to be the first American to take it home in judo. If he breaks into the top 10 rankings at the Games, he will be the youngest in his weight class (73-kg) to have ever done so; be sure to tune in for history in the making.
Delpopolo competes in judo as a lefty, but is right-handed at everything else.
He has been teaching judo since the age of 12.
His favorite sports team is the New York Giants.
Country of birth: Ukraine
Country of birth: Hungary
Event: Women's Eight
Behind every Olympian’s dream of gold is a lifetime of training, dedication and discipline. Even by these standards though, Susan Francia is something of an overachiever. The 6-foot-2-inch Hungarian native played many sports in high school, though she did not find her niche until she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Francia quickly realized she was a natural at rowing, and stayed with the team throughout the rest of her four years there.
Upon graduating, with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminology, Francia joined the U.S. National Rowing Team, helping the team claim five World Championship titles, as well as a 2008 Olympic gold medal. Ranked number 3 of the top female rowers in the world in 2011, earlier this year, Francia and the U.S. Women’s National team set a world record (5:54:17) in the eight at the Samsung World Rowing Cup II.
The Hungarian beauty is making a splash out of the water, too: Francia recently signed on with the renowned modeling agency Wilhelmina Models, and was featured in the inaugural issue of ESPN the Magazine, the Body Issue. At this point, the only question is not whether she will surprise us again, but how.
Francia was named Female Athlete of the Year by U.S. Rowing in 2010.
Her favorite movies include American Psycho, The Big Lebowski, and Piranha 3-D.
Country of birth: Cuba
Event: Lightweight Men's Four
Country of birth: Peru
Event: Men's Eight
Country of birth: Denmark
Event: Men's Four
Country of birth: England
Event: Elliott 6m
Anna Tunnicliffe will return to England this summer, but don’t call it a homecoming. “I’m American; I’ve spent more than half my life in America,” she will tell anybody who says otherwise. Tunnicliffe began sailing when she was 2 years old in Doncaster, England and spent the first twelve years of her life there. Ask her where she is from, though, and will firmly reply “Ohio”.
Tunnicliffe honed her sailing skills at the North Cape Yacht Club on Lake Erie, after her family immigrated to the States, and it wasn’t long before she was one of the elite sailors in the area. When it came time to enroll in college, it was a surprise to no one when she chose sailing powerhouse Old Dominion University. During her four years at ODU, Tunnicliffe won several national championships and was named an All-American her sophomore, junior, and senior years; she was named the ODU Female Athlete of the Year in 2005.
Tunnicliffe’s dominance in her sport continued after she graduated from college and began racing for Team USA. At the 2007 U.S. Olympic Trials, Anna secured a spot on the 2008 team and headed for Beijing. There, in a race that came down to the final leg, she proved victorious and came back the States with a gold medal. Four years later, she is looking to bring back another gold medal for the United States.
Tunnicliffe has been playing cello since the age of 6.
She can deadlift 275 pounds.
Country of birth: Bulgaria
Event: Rapid Fire Pistol
Country of birth: Singapore
Event: Sport Pistol
Country of birth: Canada
Country of birth: Russia
Sport: Synchronized Swimming
Country of birth: Uzbekistan
In the Republic of Uzbekistan, it is almost impossible to find financial backing and sponsors to enable tennis players to compete in qualifying events. Varvara Lepchenko and her father, who also doubled as her coach, faced this reality early on and left the country when she was only 15 years old, leaving behind her mother, who would not be able to join them until four years later. “There was no future for me, no future for my career,” Lepchenko says of her birthplace. They moved to Florida, where Lepchenko was granted political asylum; within 12 years of leaving Uzbekistan, she is now considered one of the top U.S. women’s tennis players.
It was not until last September that Lepchenko was granted U.S. citizenship, which meant the world to her. “You have no idea,” she says, “how amazing it is to be a U.S. citizen. It’s like having a big diamond on my hand.” But those on the tennis circuit have some idea; they will tell you that since receiving her citizenship, Lepchenko’s game has changed dramatically. She is finally able to travel without restrictions and train at the United States Tennis Association with the full advantages of the other U.S. players.
Lepchenko is now playing the best tennis of her life, and she intends to put her best foot forward when she takes the court at the London Olympics.
Lepchenko began playing at the age of 7, with her father as her coach.
She plays left-handed.
Country of birth: South Africa
Mebrahtom “Marathon Meb” Keflezighi
Country of birth: Eritrea
Sport: Track & Field
Long distances are nothing new to the Keflezighi family: Russom Keflezighi, patriarch and rebel sympathizer, fled war-torn Eritrea by walking 100 miles to the Sudanese border in the early eighties. From there, he made his way to Italy, where his family later joined him before they all immigrated to the United States in 1987.
In hindsight, it is no surprise that Keflezighi, one of Russom’s 11 children, has become the champion marathon runner that he is today. After completing high school in San Diego, Keflezighi attended UCLA on scholarship and won four Track & Field National Championships. After college, he established himself as one of America’s premier distance runners when he took home a silver medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics. Severe injuries forced him to sit out the 2008 Olympics, but by 2009 he was back to his winning ways, crossing the finish line first at the ING New York City Marathon, with a time of 2:09:13. He was the first American man to do so since 1982.
Earlier this year Keflezighi made history when, at the age of 36, he became the oldest Olympics marathon trials champion in U.S. history. With a track record like this, we’re sure Keflezighi still has a long way to go before he hangs up his track shoes.
Meb’s first job was at a McDonald’s restaurant.
His laurel wreath from the 2004 Olympic Games was stolen during a press conference; it was later replaced.
Leonel "Leo" Manzano
Country of birth: Mexico
Sport: Track & Field
Growing up, college was not a milestone Mexican-born Leonel Manzano was expected to reach. That, however, only made the goal more precious. “Most of my American-born friends knew their entire lives that college was not just an option, but was demanded of them,” he says, in between training sessions in London. “But for me, it was an opportunity I had to work for and seize. The fact that I did not have the same expectations, opportunities, and mind-set has made me work harder to obtain what I [was told I] could not have.”
Work hard he has, ever since childhood. Born in a Mexican farming village without running water, Manzano came to Texas with his family at the age of 4. At the age of 11, he took his first job to help his parents support their young family. In addition to schoolwork and evening jobs, Manzano added early-morning track practices to his routine, and soon began collecting honors: in time, Manzano won nine Texas 4A state championships while becoming the first person in his family to complete high school.
Manzano went on to achieve his goal of attending college—he was accepted to the University of Texas on a track scholarship—where he became a five-time NCAA champion and still holds the school records in the 1500-meter, the indoor mile, and distance medley races.
College degree in hand (Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese, with a minor in business), Manzano now has his sights set on Olympic gold. This summer will be Manzano’s second time at the Games; he qualified for the 2008 Olympics, only to be eliminated during the semifinals. But when the starter pistol fires, he’ll be running for more than just a medal. “I feel as though this is a victory for everyone, but especially for the working-class people [of] my background—los hispanos,” he says. “I have first-hand experience on how hard it can be, sometimes working minimum-income jobs or extremely long hours to make a living; and sometimes [being subjected] to racial profiling. But I am here to show everyone that the Hispanic people can also do good things. And I hope that when they see me run or compete that they say to themselves, ‘I can do that too.’”
Manzano has medaled at every USA Outdoor Track and Field Championship since 2006.
He currently holds the record as the fastest Hispanic man in track and field.
A genetic trait has given Manzano an oversized heart, with the aerobic capacity of a man 7 feet tall. According to researchers, only a handful of people in the world share this trait.
Country of birth: Jamaica
Sport: Track & Field
Event: 400m; 200m
It may have been four years ago, but the Olympic Games in Beijing are still fresh in the mind of Sanya Richards-Ross. In 2008 she was the favorite to win the 400-meter race, and until the last leg of the race appeared a lock; but then she faded into third and had to settle for the bronze medal. “I know I have a better performance in me than in 2008," she says about the 2012 Games in London.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Richards-Ross spent most of her childhood there. She began running at the age of 7 and realized early that she was faster than the other children. At the age of 12, she and her family moved to the United States, settling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she continued to run and, over time, established dominance in her signature event, the 400-meters. By the time she graduated from college, she was the 2002 World Junior Silver medalist, the 2002 U.S. Junior Champion, the 2003 NCAA 400-meter champion, and the 2003 USA Track & Field Athlete of the Year.
It seems Richards-Ross’s career is a series of highlight moments, one after another: she has a gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay and, in 2009, was the American Record Holder in the 400m, to name just two. But when she steps onto the track in London, she will have just one thing on her mind: to win the gold in the 400-meter race for Team USA.
Richards-Ross was named U.S. Women’s Athlete of the Decade 2000−2009 by Track & Field News.
She co-founded the Sanya Richards Fast Track Program to promote literacy, numeracy, and sports education to children in her native Jamaica.
She married her college sweetheart, Aaron Ross, a two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback with the New York Giants.
Country of birth: Somalia
Sport: Track & Field
Country of birth: Trinidad
Sport: Track & Field
Event: 400m Hurdles
Country of birth: Kenya
Sport: Track & Field
Country of birth: South Sudan
Sport: Track & Field
Country of birth: Kenya
Sport: Track & Field
Country of birth: Cuba
For many spectators, a major part of the Olympic thrill is watching athletes push themselves to break records and reach new heights. Manny Huerta, a 28-year-old triathlete, knows a little something about heights, living as he has on an active volcano in Costa Rica, at an altitude of 10,000 feet. A believer in high-altitude training, the Cuban-born triathlete swam 20 to 25 kilometers, rode his bicycle 9 to 12 hours, and ran 80 kilometers, week in and week out, in preparation for his first Olympic competition.
Huerta was 13 when he and his family arrived in Miami, with little money and no English skills. Nevertheless, having lived under the restrictions of the communist government in Cuba, they were grateful to be in America. Within five years, Huerta had found a place for himself in his new country: on the track field. By the time he was 18, he was the Junior National Champion, and he ran cross-country for Florida Atlantic University while working as a sports manager for the school.
Huerta’s rise to the 2012 Olympics has been that of a dark horse. He won the silver medal at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico—one of his career highlights—despite only qualifying 10 days prior to the race, when teammate Hunter Kemper broke his elbow and was unable to compete. This past May, he finished the ITU World Triathlon just in time to claim the last of the nine spots for the London Games.
Then, like the true Olympian he is, he headed back up the volcano to prepare himself for the Games ahead.
Huerta was named the 2011 Olympic/ITU Athlete of the Year by USA Triathlon.
He likes to go spearfishing in his spare time.
Country of birth: Albania
Donald Suxho’s current position as the starting setter on the U.S. Men’s Volleyball team seems, upon first inspection, to be the result of chance events. The first involved his paternal grandmother. The Philadelphia native, while visiting family in Albania in the 1940s, found herself trapped there when the government closed its borders.
The second involved another restriction imposed by the Albanian government: Though Suxho’s father Peter wished to become a chemist, the powers-that-be remained suspicious of the family’s American ties, and he was forced to study physical education instead. Fortunately for his son, Donald, Peter made the most of it, becoming a setter for Albania’s club and national volleyball teams, and in time, bringing his young sons into the sport.
Since then, there has been nothing happenstance about Suxho’s career. One of the most charismatic players in the sport, he is well known on the volleyball circuit. He was a starting setter for the Albanian national team until his family was allowed, over 40 years after his grandmother first traveled there, to return to the United States. Suxho arrived in 1991, just in time to apply to college; he enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he became the starting setter for each of his four seasons on the team, and set the school record with 164 aces.
After graduating, Suxho became a starting setter for the U.S. National Team, leading the way to gold and silver medals at FIVB and NORCECA tournaments, and resulting in his nomination as the 2005 USOC Sportsman of the Year. At the 2004 Olympic Games, he served as a backup setter. A ruptured Achilles tendon took Suxho out of play for the 2008 qualifying Olympic Trials, but he will be returning to the Games this summer as starting setter—the first player to claim that position since 1992, held all those years by four-time Olympian Lloy Ball.
Suxho is fluent in Greek, Italian, English and Albanian.
He serves as a United Nations Sports Ambassador for the Art Miles Mural Project.
Country of birth: Canada
Position: Middle Blocker
Unlike most elite volleyball players, Foluke Akinradewo never played for club teams while in high school, nor did she attend volleyball lessons, camps, or clinics. In fact, Akinradewo, who graduated with one of the most impressive records in collegiate volleyball, did not take up the sport until her sophomore year in high school, when one of the coaches, noticing her height, encouraged her to try her hand at the sport.
Initially, Akinradewo was not passionate about volleyball, and contemplated quitting. Luckily for Team USA, she changed her mind. By the end of 2008, she was named an American Volleyball Coaches Association First-Team All-American, as well as Volleyball Magazine Co-National Player of the Year (with Nicole Fawcett). She currently holds the Stanford record in hitting percentage, is third in blocks, and eighth in kills.
Akinradewo attended the 2008 Games as an alternate. Since then, however, she has proved herself, and then some: she led the U.S. women’s team to gold in both the 2010 and 2011 FIVB World Gran Prix games, and was named MVP and Best Blocker in 2010; in 2011, she was ranked second among all blockers. An alternate no more, she’s arriving at the 2012 Games in London as a starting middle blocker.
Akinradewo competed on the same high school track team as fellow Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross, who will be competing in the Women’s 400 meter race.
She holds tri-citizenship in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria.
Country of birth: Switzerland
Country of birth: Brazil
Sport: Water Polo
When Tony Azevedo and his teammates left the Beijing Games in 2008, they had just recorded the best finish for Team USA Water Polo in 20 years. Somehow, though, the silver medal that hung around his neck just wasn’t enough. Now, four years later, he has just one thing on his mind: to lead his team to Olympic gold.
When asked recently how he captains his team, he responded: “I make sure that I train as hard as I can every day so that my teammates look up to me as a hard worker.” Azevedo put these words into action during the 2011 Pan American Games. Sidelined with a muscle strain, he was forced to watch his teammates for most of the competition. But for the championship game, he muscled up the strength to play, scoring three goals and helping his team win gold—and, more importantly, punching their ticket to the London Games.
Azevedo has water polo in his blood. His father Ricardo was a member of the Brazilian National Team, before he moved his family to Long Beach, California, when Azevedo was a year old. There, Azevedo’s father took a job as the Assistant Coach of the U.S. Water Polo Team, and was later named head coach.
The London Games will be Azevedo’s fourth appearance as a member of Team USA, but it will actually be the fifth consecutive Olympics he has attended: in the 1994 Games in Atlanta, he was a ball boy for Team USA.
Azevedo treads water for five hours each day, on average.
His sister Cassie was named three-time All-American at Long Beach for water polo; and mother Libby formed the Shore Aquatics Moms, a water polo team for mothers.
Country of birth: Soviet Russia
Class: Freestyle 63kg
When you are one of nine children, sibling spats and rivalry are inevitable. For Elena Pirozhkova, though, a rivalry with big brother Viktor has carried her all the way to a place on the Olympic wrestling mats. Russian-born Pirozhkova first tried the sport in high school, at Viktor’s suggestion. Expecting the experience to be along the lines of a televised World Wrestling Entertainment match (think chair throwing and shiny belts), she was both surprised and disheartened by the level of physical contact the sport demanded—so much so that she would have quit, were it not for Viktor’s teasing.
By the end of her high school career, Pirozhkova picked up enough to win the USGWA National Championship in 2005, after which she was invited to attend, first, the Junior training camps at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and then the Senior camps. Taken under the wing of Women’s Assistant National Coach Izzy Izboinikov (a fellow Russian), Pirozhkova underwent a radical transformation and threw herself fully into the training.
Since then, Pirozhkova has established herself as one of the leading wrestlers in the 63-kg category. She won the gold at the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Pan American Championships, though she lost in 2011 to two-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho of Japan. Her career highlight thus far has been the silver medal she took at the 2011 World Championship, where she again lost out to Icho, a seven-time World Champion. Pirozhkova will face Icho again this summer, but perhaps her talent for wearing out a rival will prevail this time—as it once did with older brother Viktor.
Pirozhkova would like to be a chiropractor one day.
Although men’s wrestling was a mainstay of both the ancient and modern Olympics, women’s wrestling was only added to the Games in 2004.
Country of birth: Bulgaria
Class: Freestyle 120kg
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