ATHENS In the second coming of the Olympic Games to Greece, both in the modern era and in perpetuity, there is a definite theme of "twos" for athletes with Utah connections entered in the historic competition.
At least 27 Olympians among the nearly 10,000 about to represent 200 countries when the Games officially begin Friday can claim some affiliation with the Beehive State, or vice versa. Only a handful are either native-born or currently reside within the state's boundaries, but using liberal adoption policies that qualify anyone who was born here, attended school here, played professional baseball at Franklin Covey Field, accepted a paycheck from Larry H. Miller or lives within rock-throwing distance in western Wyoming (the Rulon Gardner rule), the number of "Utahns" in the Athens Olympics easily hits 27, and that's just the ones we know about.
These athletes pair up in an interesting way.
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There are two wrestlers Heber City's unbeatable (at least in college) Cael Sanderson and already legendary Rulon Gardner, of Afton, Wyo. There are two returning volleyball Olympians 1999 Highland High School graduate Logan Tom, the heart and soul of the U.S. women's team that is considered a definite medal contender; and 1999 BYU graduate Ryan Millar, a leading force on the U.S. men's team also expected to contend for a medal. There are two, believe it or not, divers who were born and reared in landlocked Utah Rachelle Kunkel of West Valley City (Hunter High School and BYU) and Justin Wilcock of Smithfield (Sky View High School and BYU). There are two women BYU graduates with hyphenated names who are both entered in the track-and-field heptathlon Tiffany Lott-Hogan from Pleasant Grove and Marsha Mark-Baird from Trinidad & Tobago. And there are two guys named Carlos employed by the Utah Jazz guard Carlos Arroyo, who will play in Athens for his native Puerto Rico, and forward Carlos Boozer, who will suit up for his native United States of America.
If those aren't enough "twos," Utah can also lay claim to former BYU sprint champion Frank Fredericks of Namibia, a k a "Mr. Number Two," who has finished second four times in four Olympic finals at 100 and 200 meters, and former BYU gymnast Guard Young, a second-generation Olympian following in the footsteps of his father, Wayne Young, who competed for the United States as an Olympian in 1976.
Others on the "Utah" list are current University of Utah basketball player Andrew Bogut, who will play for Australia; Sasha Pavlovic, the former Jazz draft pick, now a Cleveland Cavalier, who is a member of the Serbia-Montenegro national team; former Jazz draft pick Jose Ortiz, a four-time Olympian for Puerto Rico; BYU assistant track coach Leonard Myles-Mills, who will run sprints for his native Ghana; hammer thrower James Parker of Layton (Northridge High School and Utah State University), BYU runner Maggie Chan-Roper of Hong Kong, who will compete in the women's marathon; three BYU men's team swimmers: Mark Chay and Gary Tan of Singapore and Diogo de Oliveira Yabe of Brazil; cyclist Levi Leipheimer, a Montana native (currently living in California) who attended Rowland Hall-St. Mark's High School in Salt Lake City and, after that, the University of Utah for two years while racing for local Wasatch Front bicycling teams; and Heather Moody of Green River, Wyo., a mainstay on the U.S. women's water polo team.
Rounding out the Utah squad are four baseball players who played at the minor league professional level in Salt Lake City. Pitcher Eric Cyr and outfielder Jeff Guiel, who once played for the Stingers, and Ryan Radmanovich, who played for the Buzz, are members of the Canadian baseball team that is picked to win bronze behind Cuba and Japan, while ex-Stingers utilityman Clay Bellinger is a member of the Greece national team.
Another four Olympians may be of local interest due to their membership in the LDS Church. At the head of this list is U.S. rower Megan Dirkmaat, a California native who attended BYU as a student only before transferring in 1998 to the University of California-Berkeley to join the rowing team. Dirkmaat is part of an eight-woman U.S. team that is undefeated in World Cup competition this year and is the odds-on favorite to win gold in Athens. Other LDS Olympians include rower Lucia Fernanda Palerma, who will compete for Argentina; race-walker John Nunn, a member of the U.S. Olympic Team from Indiana; and the aptly named Mosiah Rodriguez, Brazil's top male gymnast.
Besides the Canadian baseball players, the Jazz's Boozer, who should ride the unpredictable but still enormously talented U.S. men's basketball ship to at least some color of medal, and Pavlovic, who plays for defending world champion Serbia-Montenegro, a number of others named above have better-than-average chances at standing on a podium in the land where the Olympics began 2,780 years ago.
Speaking of Gardner, the talk of the Aussie Games is generally considered a good bet to defend the Greco-Roman super heavyweight wrestling title he claimed in Sydney when he hung the first and only international loss, not to mention retirement, on superhuman Alexander Karelin. Gardner has proven capable of beating anyone in the Athens field, although it remains to be seen how much of a toll the snowmobile, motorcycle and assorted other crashes he has endured during his four-year break has taken.
In freestyle wrestling, Heber City's Sanderson never lost in 159 matches in four years of college competition at Iowa State, but since turning "international" he has lost close matches to Russia's Sajid Sajidov and Cuba's Yoel Romero the two men favored to relegate him to bronze in Athens. Young, inexperienced but unstoppable once he gets on a roll, the former Wasatch High School Utah state champion and four-time NCAA champion could be four years away from a gold medal or on the cusp of an undefeated Olympic run to match his college days.
Both the men's and women's U.S. volleyball teams are among the world's best, but the women's team, starring Salt Lake City's Tom, is given the likeliest shot at a podium finish, possibly gold. It is hard to name something in women's volleyball Tom, now 23, hasn't accomplished other than an Olympic medal. She was national player-of-the-year at Highland High, where she was on two state-winning teams; national player-of-the-year at Stanford University, where she was on an NCAA-winning team; and as both a professional and national team player she has competed in virtually every major competition the sport has to offer. After shining on the U.S. team that finished fourth in the Sydney Games, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt declared Dec. 22, 2000, "Logan Tom Day." If she wins gold, she'll probably get a week.
Millar is part of a U.S. men's volleyball team that will try to break a cold spell of not reaching the medal round since winning bronze in Barcelona in 1992. At BYU, where another national men's volleyball championship was added this past season, they'll not soon forget the 1999 season when middle-blocker Millar led the Cougars to a 30-1 record and their first national volleyball championship.
Young's career at BYU didn't end in that kind of glory. After his senior season in 2000, the school dropped men's gymnastics. But the son of former BYU gymnastics coach (and 1976 Olympian) Wayne Young persevered and has improved steadily since ending his college career with a second-place finish in the NCAA all-around. Known as a team player and consistent gymnast, Young isn't considered an individual threat to medal but is an integral part of a deep men's team projected to get a team medal for the United States for the first time since 1984.
A number of athletes with Utah ties, while far from being favored in their specialties, at least have "shock the world" potential. Leading this group is hammer thrower Parker, a nine-time all-American at Utah State who, as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, is on permanent assignment to the World Class Elite Athlete Program, which means he's spent the last few years throwing the hammer for his country. Ranked No. 1 in the United States and 15th in the world, Parker's personal best throw is some 12 feet behind the world leaders a hefty distance, but, as Bob Beamon might say, not out of reach.
Onetime Utah resident Leipheimer is a last-minute replacement for Lance Armstrong, who declined to compete for the U.S. cycling team. Leipheimer is destined to go through the Olympics with that moniker, but he has impressive credentials of his own, including a ninth-place finish in the just-completed 2004 Tour de France the best American other than you-know-who and an eighth-place Tour de France finish in 2002. Utah bicycling purists will remember Leipheimer's Salt Lake days for, among other things, the 43 minutes and six seconds it took him to complete the 1996 Snowbird Hill Climb, a record that still stands eight years later and might never be broken.
BYU's best sprinters of all-time, Africans Fredericks and Myles-Mills, may be past their respective primes, but no one will count them out on the track in Athens. At 36, Fredericks will be, if nothing else, a sentimental favorite after his second-place finishes behind Linford Christie and Michael Marsh in the 100 and 200 at Barcelona in 1992, respectively, and Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey over the same distances at Atlanta in 1996. Johnson and Bailey both set world records to outlast Fredericks, who didn't compete in 2000 because of injury.
As for Lott-Hogan, the 29-year-old assistant women's track coach at BYU has the 20th-best individual heptathlon mark in the world this year, about 600 points behind world leader Carolina Kluft of Sweden. But on a good day with a great hurdles race her specialty among the heptathlon's seven events the determined Utahn could scare the field. (The best score recorded by Lott-Hogan's onetime BYU running mate, Trinidad & Tobago's Mark-Baird, ranks 60th this year).
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