Going for gold: 14 with Utah ties competing in Summer Games
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Friday night they will march into Olympic Stadium in London wearing the colors of their countries and carrying the hopes and dreams of a lifetime.
The athletes are what make the Olympic Games so memorable. It's their stories, their challenges, their triumphs and even their heartbreaks that pull even the casual sports fan into the 17-day experience.
Fourteen of those athletes who will walk through Olympic Stadium Friday night have ties to Utah. Four are native Utahns, while 10 others came to Utah for college or professional athletic opportunities.
Some have had a clear and easy to watch path to these games, while others have toiled in obscurity, fighting through adversity to be able to compete on the world's largest sports stage.
The pull of the Olympics is that the games are not just about athletic achievement but also about human interaction and accomplishment. Not all of those with Utah ties will wear red, white and blue, but they have fan support, regardless of the uniform they wear.
Here are the athletes with Utah ties who will compete in London over the next 17 days.
Arielle Martin was in elementary school when she first started dreaming of being an Olympian. It was the 1996 gymnasts who earned her adoration.
But while the Cedar Hills native loved sports like track and soccer, her heart belonged to BMX racing. She'd been riding as long as she'd been walking. In fact, she admits she started racing so young, she doesn't remember her first competitions.
But very quickly, the 26-year-old became one of the world's best racers and was the youngest woman to go pro in the sport at age 15.
She was the front runner and favorite to represent the U.S. in her sport's first Olympic appearance — Beijing 2008. She crashed in the quarterfinals of the World Championships and her training partner passed her in qualification points.
"It was pretty horrible, to be honest," said the Lone Peak High graduate.
"Looking back, though, it taught me a lot about perseverance," she said. "It humbled me, and I am a better rider, a better person and a better athlete for it today, without a doubt. And while it was heartbreaking, it makes it all a little sweeter now."
Four years after that devastating crash, Martin will realize her dream of representing the United States in the sport she loves on Aug. 8 and 9 in the 2012 London Games. She placed fourth in the World Championships on May 30 to earn her spot.
"It's overwhelming," she said of realizing a childhood dream to be an Olympian. "The first Olympics I watched were in 1996 in Atlanta, and I remember being completely inspired by the U.S. women's gymnastics team. I said, 'I want to do that. I want to be an Olympian.' "
Former Highland High standout Logan Tom been called the "glue that holds the American (volleyball) team together" by Sports Illustrated.
It's no surprise as the 31-year-old Stanford alum has been on the national team since 2000. The 6-1 outside hitter is consistent and athletic.
The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world and that's largely because the squad is deep at every position. Interestingly, another native Utahn, Kristin Richards (Timpanogos High/Stanford), is an alternate for the team at the same position — outside hitter.
The U.S. women have won two silver and one bronze medals, but they are hoping 2012 will be year the women's team wins gold.
"The main goal for the entire team is to win gold, for sure," Tom said in a YouTube video on logantom.info. "Wearing the U.S. uniform anytime is special, but especially at the Olympics, it's so huge. I think if you ask any athlete, they have a hard time describing it with words. It's a feeling so intense, you just have a hard time describing it."
She admitted that while earning silver was bittersweet at that moment, she now realizes the magnitude of that accomplishment.
"It was huge for us," she said. "I'm very proud of that medal."
Competing in her fourth Olympic Games would not be possible without the support of her family and friends, she said.
Rich Lambourne knows exactly what it takes to reach the pinnacle of Olympic success as he was part of the U.S. gold medal volleyball squad in 2008.
And while it seems that accomplishment may raise expectations, he told NBC that it doesn't change the pressure the U.S. players put on themselves.
"I think the pressure comes internally, from the guys that were a part of that team," said the former BYU standout (1994, 1997-1999). "In my personal opinion, the great thing about winning a medal at the Olympics is that's something that you can't like mess up the rest of your career and then it gets retroactively taken away from you. You can only hopefully add on to it. So I don't think it's like, "Hey, we won it once, we need to do it again, otherwise that other one's diminished."
He said earning the sport's highest prize was a defining moment.
"It's kind of hard to quantify," said the Libero who has played professionally in half dozen countries. "The best thing I can really come up with is that it's something that anybody can relate to as far as the magnitude of that accomplishment. What I mean by that is, a few weeks before the Olympics we won the World League, which in some ways may be even a more difficult competition. But if I go, "Hey, we won the World League," that means nothing to anybody who doesn't know the ins and outs of international volleyball. But if you say, "I'm an Olympic gold medalist," everybody in the world pretty much knows that's kind of a big deal."
The win in Beijing was emotional as head coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law was stabbed to death in China just before the tournament began. The U.S. defeated Brazil for the gold medal.
Playing in London will be like playing at home for U.S. volleyball team's Russell Holmes.
The 6-8 middle blocker served an LDS mission in London before beginning his standout career with the BYU volleyball team in 2004. He's been a member of the national team in 2009, a year after he graduated from BYU.
He's an Eagle Scout, married with a daughter, and enjoys surfing and snowboarding.
He's originally from Fountain Valley, Calif., and has a younger brother and an older sister. He started his athletic career as a soccer player, but switched to volleyball his junior year of high school because of his height.
At BYU, he was a redshirt freshman when the Y. won a national title, and was a part-time starter his freshman season. In his sophomore and junior seasons he earned All-American second team honors. He was named to the Mountain West's first team his senior season. After graduating from BYU in sociology, he played professionally in Austria, Brazil and Poland.
The former University of Utah standout said helping her country qualify for the Olympics eclipses any accomplishment she's enjoyed thus far.
"Earning that Olympic spot with the win over Japan was pretty overwhelming," the 28-year-old told the Vancouver Sun. "There was relief, excitement; you immediately started crying, well half-crying, half laughing, half screaming. It was, by far, the most amazing moment of my life and to do it on Canada Day in the hardest way we could was pure relief."
The 6-1 guard/forward is from Mission, British Columbia, and majored in speech communications at the University of Utah. She's been a member of the Canadian National team for nine years.
The former University of Utah point guard (2002-2006) still holds the assist record for the Utes. But the 5-10 point guard is hoping to lead Team Canada to new heights in London. She's joined by two other former Utah basketball players as they make the first trip to the Summer Olympics for a Canadian women's basketball team since 2000.
She described the challenges that will face the Canadian Olympic team in London.
"Other than Teresa (Gabriele, member of the 2000 team), we have no Olympic experience," she said. "The other teams we will play have a lot more experienced players. So maybe at times nerves might get the better of us. That being said, we are the underdogs; we don't have any pressure on us, so hopefully that keeps our nerves in check."
Thorburn has played with Ute teammate Kim Smith for 11 years, starting with junior national teams.
"We had a dream when we were teenagers to play at the Olympics together and now finally that dream is coming true."
That dream began when she watched the Canadian Team compete in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
A native of Hamilton, Ontario, she was drafted in the first round of the WNBA by Minnesota, but now plays for Girona, a professional women's basketball team in Spain. She's been a member of the Canadian National team for six years.
Thorburn took a break from the national team for nearly eight years before returning last year.
Her advice to aspiring Olympians is simple — work hard.
"If I made it, dreams can come true," she said. "Be prepared to work harder than you ever have; be willing to make sacrifices so when you look back it's all worth it. I encourage everyone to follow their dreams because you never know what might happen."
At 19, Michelle Plouffe is one of the youngest members of the Canadian women's basketball team. She will be a junior at Utah this fall after leading the Utes in scoring in her sophomore season.
She agrees with Thorburn that Team Canada's lack of experience will be their toughest obstacle.
"I think because it is the first Olympics for almost everyone it might be hard to not get distracted by everything that is going on because it is one of the biggest events in the world." she said.
From Edmonton, Alberta, the 6-4 small forward has been with the Canadian Team for four years, but on the women's senior squad for just a year.
As thrilled as Plouffe is to be part of the Canadian Olympic Team, she's also looking forward to seeing veterans Gabriele and Smith compete during the games.
"I am so excited to see Teresa and Kim take the floor. They are the hardest working, most resilient people I know and it has been a long journey and a battle to finally get here," she said.
She suggests Olympic hopefuls have to be able to push themselves.
"I can honestly say that all the extra time you put in, all the shots you put up, all the workouts you do when no one is watching and no one is there to push you but you, is so worth it," Plouffe said. "And if someone tells you you're not good enough or you get cut from a team, use that as motivation to get better. It worked for me!"
A Bountiful native who became a force on the beach volleyball scene after returning from his mission, Jake Gibb is competing in his second Olympic Games with his partner Sean Rosenthal. They finished fifth in Bejing and qualified en route to winning their first Grand Slam title.
"It was crazy," Gibb said in an NBC.com interview. "We had the little mini celebration where we're like, 'Hey, we qualified for the Olympics." And then, all of a sudden, we're like, "Hey, we're in the semifinals of a Grand Slam!"
The duo defeated the reigning world champions from Brazil to earn that Grand Slam title.
"I've played professionally now for 11 years, and I've never had a Grand Slam win," said Gibb. "It was the sweetest win I've had."
Both men said they're playing their best volleyball this year, and they credit coach Mike Dodd.
"He's been the key to our turnaround," Gibb told NBC. "Last year we were kind of just wavering, we were floundering, not real focused and not playing well. And once we had a chance to snatch him up again, we've jumped on it and he's changed our game a lot. He really put a lot of emphasis on our serving and aggressive hand setting and aggressive transition setting. We owe a ton to him."
Shalaya Kipp thought about wearing a U.S. Olympic Team uniform every day in training. But she didn't know if it would become a reality until a few weeks ago.
Before finishing third in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Trials in Oregon last month, she hadn't even run fast enough to compete at the games.
"I wasn't that sure if I was going to make it or not," she said in a press conference after she qualified for the team by finishing third. "I'm still enrolled in summer school."
The Skyline standout said it was a conversation with one of her University of Colorado coaches that made the possibility of the Olympics seem a little more like a reality than a day dream.
One of her coaches told her it was a "very real possibility" for her to make the 2012 Olympic team.
"It's definitely been on my mind," said 22-year-old redshirt junior. "That kind of stuck with me. Every day I thought of that during training. Now that it's sinking in, it feels really good."
Kipp grew up ski racing, but it was running that offered her a college scholarship. It was a coach at CU who talked her into giving steeplechase a try. She trains with the country's top woman, Emma Coburn.
"Emma is phenomenal," said Kipp. "In training she's encouraging me. We do a lot of our workouts together. I get to kick against her. It's great having Emma … I'm so fortunate to be able to train with Emma. I'm really excited."
Cam Levins is a Canadian distance runner who qualified for the Olympic team with two jaw-dropping performances. He won the 5,000-meter event at the Mt. SAC Relays and then nine days later, he won the 10,000-meter race at Stanford's Payton Jordan invitational. Both races were the fastest times in the world at those distances.
The Southern Utah University student athlete attributes his success to high mileage. While some distance runners compete by training about 60 miles a week, he trains more than double that.
"I felt like I had to risk something to get the results I wanted," Levins told the Deseret News last month.
The native of Black Creek, British Columbia, Levins attended a high school so small, it didn't have a track team until he and some of his classmates organized one. There were 10 students on the team and Levins was the only distance runner.
Even training alone, he managed to run a mile in 4:17. He received just one Division I college scholarship offer and that was from Eric Houle of SUU.
At SUU, Levins improved, running a sub-four minute mile. But it wasn't until he began double his training miles that he began to see the possibilities of representing his country at the 2012 Olympic Games. He said competing in London will be the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
"Like any young athlete, I dreamed of going to the Olympics," he said. "I felt like I was a long ways from it. It was the end goal and suddenly I'm almost there."
The former Jazz point guard will help Team USA take on the world in what promises to be an exciting basketball tournament.
The Texas native and two-time, first-team Big Ten player, was drafted by the Jazz with the third overall pick in 2005. Williams was traded to New Jersey in Feb. 2011, and he recently re-signed with the now Brooklyn Nets.
He is a three-time all-star and was on the 2008 gold medal Olympic team.
He and Carmello Anthony led team USA in a win over the British Olympic team with 19 points each.
Williams told NBC that winning an Olympic Gold medal was the greatest professional accomplishment of his life, and that he's hoping to have that feeling in London.
"It just means so much to win a gold medal, to represent your country, to put on that red, white and blue and have that USA across your chest," he said. "There's no feeling like it when you're standing up there on that podium getting that gold medal and listening to the national anthem. I just want to have a chance to feel that again."
Asked if he thought the U.S. was a favorite in 2012, he said yes.
"You know, anything could happen in the Olympics," he said. "It'll be interesting. You never want to overlook anybody."
After leaving the Jazz in 2011, Andrei Kirilenko chose to play in his home country of Russia. He won the Euroleague MVP and is immensely popular.
The small forward is expected to sign with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but before he makes his NBA return he will lead the Russian Olympic men's basketball team in London.
At 31, Kirilenko helped the Russian team finish third in the EuroBasketball 2011. In order to qualify for the games, the Russian team had to play in the last-chance tournament held in Venezuela this month.
The Russian men's basketball team finished ninth in 2008.
Swimming in the Olympics is a life-long dream for BYU swimmer Rafel Alfaro.
"I put it in my mind when I was eight and I have had it as my dream ever since," the junior from El Salvador told the Daily Universe. He will compete in the 200-meter individual medley in London.
BYU swimmer Andrew Rutherfurd is competing in the men's 100-meter freestyle. The 23-year-old, who has dual U.S. and Bolivia citizenship, broke Bolivia's national record in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle races.
"We don't have the Super Bowl or anything like that," Rutherfurd told the Daily Universe. "So for us, this is the biggest stage we have and something we all work and train for."
TRACK AND FIELD
Cameron Levins (Canada) SUU
Shalaya Kipp (U.S.) Skyline High
Deron Williams (U.S.) Utah Jazz
Andrei Kirilenko (RUSSIA) Utah Jazz
Michelle Plouffe (Canada) U of U
Kim Smith (Canada) U of U
Shona Thorburn (Canada) U of U
Jake Gibb (U.S.) Bountiful
Arielle Martin (U.S.) Lone Peak High/BYU
Rafael Alfaro (El Salvador) BYU
Andrew Rutherfurd (Bolivia) BYU
Logan Tom (U.S.) Highland High
Russell Holmes (U.S.) BYU
Rich Lambourne (U.S.) BYU
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