Friday, April 18, 2014

15 Utahns prove that pursuing an Olympic dream takes unparalleled determination, resilience and desire

By Amy Donaldson, Deseret News

Published: Sun, Feb. 2 10:05 a.m. MST

 Olivia Nobs of Switzerland, right, Helene Olafsen of Norway, center and Faye Gulini of the USA, left race during the ladies snowboardcross quarter final at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010.

Olivia Nobs of Switzerland, right, Helene Olafsen of Norway, center and Faye Gulini of the USA, left race during the ladies snowboardcross quarter final at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010.

(Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Eddy Alvarez found an abandoned corner of the U.S. speedskating locker room before succumbing to the emotion of realizing a dream.

Kate Hansen made her way through the crowd of well-wishers at Utah Olympic Park and into the embrace of her sister and parents celebrating what felt more like relief than elation that first night.

Heather Richardson couldn’t stop smiling as she dedicated her Olympic trials performance to the cancer patients with whom her mother works.

And Devin Logan politely navigated media interviews before escaping into the arms of the man who’s been cheering her ski career since she was a toddler.

Making an Olympic team is a feat so monumental, so overwhelming, most athletes can’t describe it, even as they celebrate the accomplishment.

“I don’t even have words for it,” said short-track speedskater Kyle Carr. “For me, this is something I’ve worked for for eight-plus years, and I don’t know, complete elation, relief, happiness, excitement, everything rolled up into one. I’m just excited that I get to go represent my country on the highest platform.”

It’s often a dream born in childhood naïvete and nurtured through injuries, doubts and rejection.

“Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve wrapped my head around it yet,” said Jessica Jerome, who will compete for the first U.S. women’s Olympic ski jump team. “It’s just, it sounds cliché, but it is a dream come true. I can’t wait to go and represent my country. It’s definitely a feel-good story with a happy ending.”

Just earning the right to be called an Olympian requires the kind of dedication and sacrifice that very few can maintain. It isn’t just about athletic skill. Chasing an Olympic dream requires more than a commitment to training and competing. It requires a mental toughness that even eludes some professional athletes.

And it’s a prize so unique that even the most successful in their athletic endeavors yearn simply for the opportunity to be included.

Detroit Red Wings forward Daniel Alfredsson will compete for his home country of Sweden for a fifth time in Sochi, and he said — win or lose — it’s unlike any other athletic competition.

“It’s an unbelievable experience,” he said.

The games are so enticing that athletes will sacrifice just about anything for a chance at an Olympic moment.

Snowboarder Justin Reiter actually retired after missing out on the 2006 Olympics by one spot and then injuring his knee before the 2010 Games. For two years, he wrestled with regret and unfulfilled promise. Last summer, the 32-year-old decided he had to give his 20-year-old dream one more chance.

Like most winter sports athletes, he lived on a ridiculously tight budget, even opting to live out of his truck while he trained in Park City this summer. His perseverance paid off when he found out last weekend that he’d been selected as a member of the Alpine snowboarding team.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Reiter said. “But that’s kind of how everything in my life has been. It’s always been kind of a drive. It’s never been easy.”

Among those athletes trying to make history competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are 15 of Utah’s own. While the USOC’s official count of Utahns in the Winter Games is 15, there are also dozens of other athletes competing with ties to Utah. Many moved here to train in the facilities built for the 2002 Salt Lake Games.

Only four states are sending more native residents to the games than Utah — California (20), Colorado (19), Minnesota (19) and New York (19). Wisconsin, like Utah, is sending 15.

Utah’s delegation is led by Park City native Steven Holcomb, who won the four-man bobsled gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. He is a heavy medal favorite in Sochi, having won nine World Cup medals this season — eight of them gold. His dominating performance in the first half of the season earned him the two-man World Cup title and the combined overall title. Holcomb, 33, overcame a degenerative eye disease and severe depression to end the U.S. Olympic medal drought in 2010, and he’s hoping to add to his career medal count of 52 in Sochi.

* * *

Alpine’s Chris Fogt, 30, will play a part in Holcomb's defense of that four-man gold medal. The alum of American Fork High and Utah Valley University is one of Holcomb’s push athletes, and the two also teamed up for two gold medals in two-man.

Fogt is a captain in the Army who served a year in Afghanistan after competing in the 2010 Vancouver Games as a push athlete for USA 2. In August, he married his college sweetheart in the Salt Lake LDS Temple, and they’re expecting their first child in May.

* * *

Park City’s Ted Ligety, 29, put on a historic performance in last year’s World Championships, and most are expecting him to win multiple medals in Sochi. The three-time Olympian won three World Championships in eight days in the super-G, combined and giant slalom. Ligety has won 20 World Cups in his career, and he’s looking to overcome a disappointing performance in the 2010 Games. He won the gold medal in the combined in 2006.

* * *

Park City’s Lindsey Van isn’t just famous for her talent as a ski jumper. Not only was she the first world champion in her sport (2009), she and teammate Jessica Jerome led the fight to have women’s ski jumping included in the Olympics.

Shy and unassuming, the 29-year-old didn’t relish becoming the unofficial face of her sport, but her personal sacrifices paid off when she was named to the first women's Olympic ski jumping team last week.

Jerome, 26, and Van were the first two plaintiffs (15 total) in a lawsuit that challenged the IOC’s refusal to allow women to participate in ski jumping, one of the Winter Olympics' oldest sports. The women lost that lawsuit, but officials agreed to include women’s ski jumping in the 2014 Games in April 2011, in large part because of the efforts of the U.S. women.

Jerome won the first Olympic trials on Dec. 29, ensuring her spot on the historic squad. And while Jerome and Van have both had multiple top-10 finishes this season, it’s their younger teammate, Sarah Hendrickson, who is the medal favorite. The 19-year-old was a long shot to even compete in Sochi after tearing her ACL and MCL in late August.

A rigorous but cautious recovery program paid off for Hendrickson when she was named to the team alongside Van and Jerome. Hendrickson is the reigning world champion but was unable to compete in any of this season’s World Cups.

* * *

In eight skeleton World Cup races this season, Noelle Pikus-Pace, 31, has won four. Actually, she won five, but the Orem native was disqualified after her first win for having a small piece of tape on the handle of her sled. That disappointment fueled the mother of two, who convincingly won the second World Cup race on her home track in Park City.

But Pikus-Pace has proved to be one of the most determined and resilient athletes. The UVU graduate was a medal favorite heading into the Olympic trials in 2006 when a runaway bobsled smashed into her, breaking her leg. She had a remarkable recovery but barely missed making the Olympic team. The Mountain View High alumna returned to win the first World Championship in women’s skeleton for the U.S. and then realized her dream of making an Olympic team in 2010. She missed a medal in Vancouver by one-tenth of a second, finishing fourth and announcing her retirement. After a miscarriage in 2012, Pikus-Pace decided to come out of retirement to try one more time to earn that elusive Olympic medal and heads into Sochi a gold-medal contender.

* * *

Park City’s Joss Christensen didn’t find out he’d made the first Olympic slopestyle ski team until a few days after he won the final qualifying event. In fact, that victory was his first in a major event, although he’s been on many podiums in his young career.

The 22-year-old graduate of the Winter Sports School is part of a young and dynamic freeskiing team that promises to make the Winter Games exciting and unpredictable.

* * *

Jared Goldberg hoped he’d earn a spot on the Alpine ski team, but the 22-year-old Skyline High graduate wasn’t entirely convinced it was possible. This was, after all, his first complete season on the World Cup circuit, and Alpine racing is as much about experience as it is about courage and skill.

He was fortunate that he was able to ski a few World Cups last season, one of them in Wengen, Switzerland. He finished 28th in the combined and then 12th in the downhill, proving to himself and his coaches that he deserved a shot at the Olympics.

* * *

Preston Griffall knows both the joy of making an Olympic team and the agony of watching from home. The 29-year-old Salt Lake native competed in the 2006 Olympics in doubles luge but missed competing in 2010 after losing a race-off with teammates.

While he wasn’t certain he wanted to commit to training for a third Olympic Games, he and partner Matt Mortensen eventually decided to give it another shot. He’s a three-time luge start champ for the U.S. and a two-time junior world champion. Like Fogt, he’s a member of the Army’s world-class athlete program.

His best World Cup finish this season was sixth at Lake Placid, but the Olympus High graduate is hopeful they can do better than that in Sochi.

* * *

Faye Gulini is one of the few snowboarders who had to leave her home state to pursue her sport. The former Brighton Bengal grew up riding at Snowbird and moved to Vail, Colo., to pursue snowboard cross. It paid off as she made the 2010 Olympics, where she made it to the quarterfinals.

The 21-year-old overcame a knee injury in 2012 and is hopeful about her chances in Russia as she placed in the top eight in the FIS World Cup on the course last year.

* * *

Anders Johnson is only 24, but he’s making his third Olympic appearance. He made his first Olympic team in 2006 at age 16, and he’s been competing on the World Cup circuit since 2009. The Park City resident had a knee injury before the 2010 Games but has come back to do some of his best ski jumping since then. He tied with Peter Frenette in the U.S. large hill national championship in August, and then won the normal hill national title outright. He finished second at the Olympic trials on Dec. 29. His sister Alissa Johnson narrowly missed making the U.S. women’s ski jumping team.

* * *

Sage Kotsenburg waited until the last Olympic selection event to show the world what he’s capable of this season. The 20-year-old Park City resident’s victory at Mammoth Mountain secured his spot on the U.S. Olympic slopestyle snowboading team — an event that will make its debut at the games.

Big tricks are Kotsenburg’s speciality as he won a bronze in the X Games Big Air competition in 2011. But he's a proven contender in slopestyle as he won silver medals in 2010 and 2012. He was also the youngest ever Dew Tour champion in slopestyle at 16 in 2009-2010.

* * *

Park City’s Megan McJames will make her second Olympic appearance in Sochi. She competed in the women’s slalom in Vancouver, but didn’t finish.

The 26-year-old graduate of the Winter Sports School started skiing when she was just 2 years old at Alta. She joined the Park City ski team when she was 8 and made the 2005 Junior World Championship team. Now attending Westminster College, McJames started skiing on the World Cup circuit in 2006.

* * *

Steven Nyman almost seemed destined to become a ski racer. His father ran the ski school at Sundance, and he started skiing alongside his parents at age 2.

The 31-year-old Sundance resident showed incredible resilience when he won the World Cup in Val Gardena, Italy, in 2013 after missing a year with a torn Achilles. Interestingly, he won that same World Cup in 2006.

This will be his fourth Olympic Games, where he is seeking his first Olympic medal.

* * *

Athletes who have Utah connections to watch in Sochi include Alaskan Kikkan Randall, who is poised to win the first U.S. gold in cross-country skiing; Billy Demong, who won the first Nordic combined Olympic medals (gold individual, silver team) and hopes to add to his collection in Sochi; speedskaters Heather Richardson (North Carolina) and Brittany Bowe (Florida) who should compete for medals in long track at all three distances, as well as leading the team in the relay. They’ve earned multiple podiums in all three distances, and Bowe set a new world record in the 1,000 meters at the World Cup in Kearns in November; Emily Cook and Ashley Caldwell, aerial skiers, who hope to compete with the deep, consistent Chinese team in Sochi; J.R. Celski, who makes short-track speedskating look like art and hopes to add to the bronze he won in Vancouver; Alvarez, who played baseball at Salt Lake Community College and overcame double knee surgery in hopes of becoming the first Cuban-American man to win Olympic gold in short track; Jessica Smith, who gave up a lucrative professional inline skating career to pursue an Olympic dream in short-track speedskating. She won five of six Olympic selection races in December and has multiple World Cup podiums; Logan, a ski slopestyle competitor who hopes to be the first in her sport to win Olympic hardware; Maddie Bowman, a ski halfpipe competitor who won an X Games gold last week and is a favorite to win gold in Sochi; and Hansen, a BYU student from California who parlayed surf and skateboard skills into success on a luge track.

Twitter: adonsports

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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