Behind every Olympian is someone who ignited the spark. Encouraged the dream. Awakened the quest for Olympic glory. After 24 nominations and 33,390 votes, we are excited to congratulate all three winners of the 2012 O.C. Tanner Olympics Inspiration Award: Ryan Whiting, Lolo Jones, and Kayla Harrison (Ryan Whiting and Lolo Jones won by total vote count while Kayla Harrison's story was selected by the USOC). We thank all of the U.S. Olympians who entered the contest for sharing their inspirational stories. We invite you to read and share those nominations, and gear up for voting for the Inspiration Award again on August 29 during the 2012 Paralympics.
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The coach that encouraged the dream
I wouldn't be going to the 2012 Olympics if it weren't for Mook Rhodenbaugh. He was my coach while I was on a competitive swim team, and he recognized I had an Olympic dream. So, he introduced me to the modern pentathlon.
Under my coach's leadership, I learned not to take any practice for granted. I learned to use each practice as a chance to get better, and within seven months of training full time, I won Junior Nationals. I continued to use lessons learned from Mook, now, nine years later, I'm representing Team USA at the 2012 Olympics.
I'm still getting the most out of every practice as I prepare for London, and I have Mook Rhodenbaugh to thank for that. He started me down the path that made my Olympic dreams come true. I hope I can make him proud when I step out to compete.
A father's pledge to fulfill a mother's dying wish
In 1984, the spark of the Los Angeles Olympic Games lit a small flame in my heart after watching the gymnastics competition on TV. As a four-year-old, I was enamored with the flashy USA uniforms and tumbling ability of the American team. I knew that someday, I would wear the USA uniform as an Olympian myself.
My mother passed away that year and my father, Steve, promised her he would raise us with the best opportunities to be successful. One of those promises included a college education and I remember talking about college as young as fourth or fifth grade. My father encouraged me to participate in multiple sports. He paid for dance lessons, music lessons, summer science camp, and volunteering for community groups. He had to work several jobs to pay for this as a widower raising two children. He would attend basketball games and drive me to club volleyball practice 45 minutes away after getting off work.
His sacrifices were all directed towards ensuring that I had the best chance to get a scholarship to university and fulfill his promise to my mother. I succeeded in many of my pursuits because he expected me to finish what I began and finish well. I was never afraid to push the envelope of my abilities because I knew he had so much confidence in me. I graduated with an engineering degree and fulfilled my mother's promise. I was then was able to pursue my dream of becoming an Olympian.
I achieved that goal in 2004 with my selection to the Athens Olympics in the discus, then again in 2008 when I achieved the highest honor in the sport, winning a gold medal in discus at the Beijing Games. Earlier in 2008, my dad challenged me to believe that I could win the gold when no American had one in over 75 years. His statement to me was: "Your sacrifice over the years has been too great to overlook the fact that it is possible for you to win the gold. You first have to believe it is possible and then work to achieve it."
I took those words on as a challenge and began to have faith in the impossible. I relied on my faith and ability to achieve the coveted gold medal.
Steve is my teammate, close friend and inspiration towards making the Olympic team. He trains with me everyday side by side and we push each other to be better. His specialty events are floor and vault - the same events that are my specialty. We were told that is was almost impossible for us to both make the Olympic team because we were both good on the same events. Steve pushed me to be better every day. I looked up to him when I came to college. He was my host on my recruiting trip and now he is my training partner. He helped coach me on floor and vault especially and helped me improve dramatically. Why would he help me when he was my competition in making the Olympic team? That's the kind of person Steve is. He helped coach me while we trained together because he wanted us both to be the best we could be when the time came to select the team.
I was selected to the Olympic team and he was selected to be an alternate. I felt a bitter sweet moment because I wanted him to make it with me. Steve was happy for me and was the first to congratulate me when I made the team. He is still one of my best friends here in Oklahoma and we hang out all the time. This experience trying out for the Olympics brought us closer when media and other people thought it would turn us against each other. I wanted to nominate Steve for this for all he did to help me make the Olympic team because he worked just as hard to get there and he fell a little bit short and did not get to go compete. He deserved to be on the Olympic team but the way it worked he did not make it with only a 5 man team. He was a huge part of me making the Olympic team and there is no better way to thank him other than honoring him with this award.
My wife Loren is the one person who has been there every step of the way my whole career. From before I even started racing a bike all the way to the Olympic Games. Loren has been my supporter, listener, motivator, and helper throughout my journey to the Olympics and I would not be here without her. As I started to climb the amateur ranks in cycling, with no idea where it would lead or how successful I could be, she unconditionally supported me with her time and energy. In the middle of my pro career I suffered a traumatic brain injury in a racing crash. She was immediately on the plane to fly across the country and be by my side in the hospital, unsure if I would be the same person again, let alone return to my elite cycling career. As I embarked on the long road to recovery, she was always there, not caring whether I made it back to the top of the sport or not, only that I was happy. More than anything, Loren keeps me grounded and helps me to realize what else is important outside of sport, and to take pleasure in that as well. Having this balance I think is the key to success in any endeavor.
The lifestyle of an athlete is so intense. You can't be turned on all the time. Every minute I am with her is refreshing because she helps me take a step out cycling and truly enjoy the little things in life, whether its cooking a nice dinner for the two of us or going for a hike in the mountains with our dog. But when it's time to focus on my training or competition, she gives me my space. She makes a lot of sacrifices for me while I am on the road training and competing. Knowing that she has everything taken care of back home, and that she is not worried about me or that our lifestyle is taking a toll on her, makes all the difference in the world to me. I can give my best on the bike knowing that I have everything going for me off the bike with her, and I have nothing to lose, nothing to be afraid of.
A coach's sacrifice
Knee surgery kept me out of competition for five months. I considered quitting and giving up, but Sean Dwight wouldn't let me. He'd just lost his job as the head coach for the USA BMX team, but he called every day to check on me.
During those dark days, I remember him pushing me to keep going and believe in myself. On a night when I was particularly upset, he said: "Connor, listen. You've been through a lot, and so have I. We've been through it together. It has made us better, stronger and closer because of all the adversity we've had to face."
Since then, he's been behind me every step of the way. He even moved to California so he could coach me at the Olympic Training Center. He gave up a lot to help me reach one common goal: Olympic gold.
While Sean isn't a U.S. Olympic team coach anymore, he is still coming to the Games with me. But, he'll watch me from the bleachers this time, so it would be awesome to give him this commemorative ring for all we have been through together.
Loving, supportive sisters
Eight days before my fourth birthday, a drunk driver killed my father in a head-on collision. My sister, Kelly, was six years old and my other sister, Kendall, was six weeks old. Even the greatest tragedy can result in something positive. For my family, it was a closeness and respect for each other that was, in part, brought on by the sorrow of our loss.
I was a shy child, who was quiet and lacking in self-confidence. When I started running, it all began to fall away and I started to believe that I was special. My sisters were a huge part of the reason that I began to believe in myself. They came to my races, cheered me on, and just seemed to know I was destined to be great at this sport.
When I won my first high school cross country title, one I had wanted for years, my sisters were there, cheering so loud they both started crying. Then, they started crying and yelling for me more. I knew they would be there for me forever.
They believed that I could achieve all that I wanted and they were both there, cheering again, crying again, when I qualified for my first Olympic team in 2008. A year ago, it looked like I would not be able to make a second Olympic team, but they encouraged me to continue pursuing my passion. They never wavered, pushing me to make changes in my career and to find a new training group.
My dreams have become their dreams, and I know in my heart, that I would never have had the courage to dream as big as I do without them. They have been there for the best and the worst in my life. My life and dreams have been so much greater because of them.
A motherly motivator
My mother, Creaestia B. Hall, has been a great inspiration to me and all three of my brothers.
All of us shoot, and at one time, three of us were on the national team together. I credit my mother for that achievement, because she's put in countless hours of coaching and volunteering to support us.
She's definitely supported my Olympic dreams in any way she could, donating most her adult life to shooting. She put in countless hours making my shooting suit by hand, and helped put together and repair all of my gear.
She also supports the shooting community. She's donated rifles, suits and coaching time to junior competitors. She's given her time to local 4-H groups and driven two and a half hours to help young shooters at the Fort Benning Juniors Club.
While she's known nationwide in the shooting community for her support of the sport, she's my rock. She's my unwavering foundation when I need support. She's my fire when I need motivation, and my open arms when I need comfort or compassion. She's everything.
The coach that changed everything
My coach, Big Jim, didn't just save my life, he changed it. I moved to Boston when I was 16 under a huge, emotional storm. My old coach had sexually abused me and I was still recovering when Big Jim took me in. He treated me like one of his own. He coached me, encouraging me to become my own person and that was huge. He's always been there for me because with Big Jim, there is no gray. Everything is black and white with him and he ALWAYS does the right thing.
No matter how many times I've lost, given up or felt like my world was over, he's stood by me and pushed me to be the best possible version of myself. Because of him, I can call myself a world champion. I can call myself America's gold medal hopeful in London. He made me a strong, confident woman—on and off the mat. And for that, I am forever grateful, regardless of the outcome in London.
For a mother's persistence and unwavering support
My biggest supporter, best encourager, and biggest fan is my mother. She has always believed in me-never wavering in her unquestionable support of my quest for Olympic glory. She is without a doubt the one who empowered me to reach my Olympic dreams.
It didn't start when I reached the national team level. My mother was there from day one, raising not only me, but my twin brother-all on her own strength. I don't know how she handled two energetic boys, especially ones who passed her up in height in the fourth grade. She somehow persisted, and was able to lead and guide us with exceptional skill through our childhood into adulthood. She put us in the position to acquire skills and knowledge that we would use in our Olympic journey.
Her never-ending dedication shone brightly when my twin brother and I graduated from college, pursuing rowing instead of using our degrees right away to pay back college loans. She knew we could use our skills for something special and was determined to give us every opportunity to succeed. I am no doubt a result of her upbringing. She is always smiling for us and proud of our achievements and encouraging in our endeavors. All her hard work has paid off and she is proud to have her two boys-twins, no less-representing the United States of America in the Olympic Games.
Thanks, Mom! You're the best and I wish for everyone to know it.
For the sister that "stopped at never"
This story is a testament to the strength, courage, love and humility of one sister.
"The older will serve the younger." - Romans 9:12
My sister's name is Angie, the oldest of five children and the rock of our family. We are seven years apart. Growing up, the gap was obvious. But, over the years, we filled it with an inseparable bond. She saw early in life that I was passionate about running. She was just a teenager when she bought my first running gear, so I wouldn't feel ashamed wearing outdated and old clothes in front of the other kids.
She has always been that kind of sister, the kind who knows how to take care of the little things that are really the big things. After graduating from high school, I earned a four-year degree to LSU. Angie lived in Texas at the time and was one of the biggest reasons I decided on LSU. I knew she would visit me often. I remember calling her crying many times my first year because I wasn't adjusting as quickly as I thought I should.
Texas was hard. Life was hard because the ghosts of my childhood were still there. But thankfully, so was she-constantly reminding me there wasn't anything I couldn't overcome and survive with God's help.
When I graduated from LSU, I decided to run professionally and Angie was with me when I didn't make my first Olympic team. She was the one who held my hand and listened to the painful tears. She was there for my pain, but also my joy, as only a sister can be.
In 2008, running professionally, I was on top of my sport, but struggling to manage my new career and personal life. With selflessness, Angie moved her family to Baton Rouge to become my assistant. I knew she was the one person I could trust implicitly, but there were times I was very guarded because of things I had encountered in life. As a result, I didn't always treat her as she deserved to be treated. Yet, Angie stood by my side and propelled me to be my best; she had a vision for me and eventually became my manager.
I am grateful for all she has done to support me on and off the track. Angie knows no boundaries when it comes to taking care of and protecting me. She told Dr. Bray to schedule the spine surgery that could end or save my career. She is the one who said: "It's going to be okay. I have a peace about Dr. Bray and his ability to help you. We are going to pray for God's favor and trust God to take care of you."
Angie is the one who stood by me through months of rehab, when I was so broken words couldn't express the pain and fear I was feeling. She reminded me to not give up on my dream. She stops at never. She was also there in January 2012, for my first race in NYC. I remember all the fears that crept into my mind of not being able to make a comeback. I remember my sister just saying: "God didn't bring you this far to let you down."
I recall warming up before the race, looking over at her as she was praying with her prayer journal she carries with her everywhere. Her presence gave me peace. We won the race that day. With her at my side, I went on to have an undefeated indoor season this year. When I hugged her after that first race, we cried together. It was a moment that words can't express, a bond that together, can overcome anything. My sister has a heart of Gold.
June 2012 was the month we had spent the last four years waiting for. The night of the first round, she was with me in my room after I came in 15th place. I cried and she just stayed with me, because when you love someone like she loves me, no words are needed.
The next morning she came to my room and said: "Lo, you are a fighter. There is no one stronger or more disciplined than you. Now you go out there and remind those girls who you are."
I went from 15th place in round one to fifth place in the semis that day. Then, on her 37th birthday, I landed in the top three in the finals and made the 2012 Olympic Team.
Angie is my reminder from God to stop at never. She is the strength behind me and my dreams. Words can't describe how grateful I am for my big sister. If she is given this ring, it will also serve as a reminder of our bond and all the love and tears she has put into our dream.
For the coach who went the distance
Cindi Bannink and I first met at a coffee shop when she explained a triathlon to me. Eighteen months later, I called her to see if she would be my coach.
A week after that, she started sending me weekly training plans and called me daily. She agreed to coach me for a year, pro-bono.
We hit it off immediately! Cindi understood me. She allowed me to take triathlon in stride, structuring workouts around my accounting job I refused to give up. I called, sent text messages, and emailed multiple times a day, at all hours of the day-even at 4:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning to find out more about my training.
From day one, Cindi believed I could make the Olympic team. She would ask about my goals, telling me I could do whatever I set my mind to because I just needed to decide how far I wanted to go. I slowly cut back on my accounting work at Ernst & Young to focus on a triathlon.
On August 7, 2011, Cindi and I woke up in London at 5 a.m. for the race. She told me I had "just as much of a shot at making the team as any other girl on the pontoon that morning."
Five hours later, I crossed the line in second place, qualifying for the Olympic Games. Cindi was the first one there to hug me, and she's always the first one I go to with any problem. She's the person on my speed dial, and the one who's available anytime, anywhere.
She not only believes in me, but she also gets me to perform to the best of my ability. Without Cindi, I wouldn't be competing in triathlon, and I definitely wouldn't be going to the Olympics.
One person can't make it to the Games. It takes an army. I am blessed to have hundreds supporting me; but, there is one person I know I couldn't do this without: my mentor, my friend-my Cindi Bannink.
The first thing Rick said to me when I went on my Stanford recruiting trip was, "I can put you on an Olympic team." I assumed he was blowing smoke. At the time I'd managed to qualify for exactly one U.S. senior nationals, where I had come nowhere near the semifinals, much less the podium. Clearly, Rick saw something in me that I didn't yet see in myself.
"You could be great, you know." I remember him saying early on. I would nod uncertainly. "No. You could really be great." When I first got to Stanford, great was just a word to me. Over the course of nine years with Rick, greatness has become a way of life. He convinced me to dream, and taught me that fighting towards perfection is more fulfilling than settling for "just good".
He taught me that every practice is an opportunity to be better, and every repetition where I am not working to make improvements is a waste. It's a simple concept, but not an easy one. Especially in my early days, you could hear Rick's Boston accent way past the fence surrounding the pool: "Yoah not even tryyy-ing!" This sounds harsh, but the funny thing is, it worked—it helped me dig deeper and get more out of myself than I otherwise would have. And each person on the team—from Olympic hopefuls to walk-ons—always knew that behind the intensity was a man who cared deeply about us—who was trying his hardest, using every tool at his disposal, to help us reach the goals we set for ourselves. He taught us all to love the sport as much as he himself loved it.
Now that my diving career is nearing its end, he's encouraging me to strive for greatness in other parts of my life. I like to write, so he asks whether I want to be a Hemingway or a Faulkner. He's as excited as I am for my post-diving options, and he's the first one I turn to for advice. I know that in life, and in diving, he wants to help me be the best possible version of myself—to aim for the perfect 10.
A boyfriend's commitment
After my freshman year of college, I wanted to be done with swimming. I missed my boyfriend, Taylor Devereux, who lived in Boise, Idaho. I went through depressions because I could never see him and I wanted to move away to be with him.
He is the biggest reason why I decided to stay one more year at Texas A&M University. He asked me if he were to move down to Texas, would I be willing to give it one more try. I told him yes. So, he dropped out school, quit his job at his father's pharmacy, left all his friends and family, and made the move to College Station, Texas to help me through one more year.
He has been the biggest blessing in my life. Every morning he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to drive me to practice so I won't have to ride my bike. He's never complained about waking up early, he has only been encouraging, reminding me of my goal swim times (that we both want and know I can achieve) and to always work hard in practice.
He has also learned how to cook and makes me a fresh hot dinner every night with all the necessary nutrients so I can have a better recovery. He helps me make and pack my lunch so I can go to bed earlier to get more sleep. He will even read my texts books to me out loud when I'm too tired to read or too frustrated to understand so I can get better grades so I'm eligible to swim.
Taylor is my better half, and the best thing-next to swimming-that has ever happened to me. He is the biggest support and I could not ask for a better boyfriend or best friend to have in my life. He has helped me get me to my Olympic dream. It would mean everything to me for him to get this recognition.
A couple's love and faith
In 2001, my parents, Barbara and Robert Rogers, saw a small black and white photograph of a 16-year-old Sudanese refugee on their church bulletin They decided to take a chance and change that child's life. The little boy in the photograph was me.
I had lived in a refugee camp for more than a decade and left behind all dreams for a promising future. My childhood had been robbed from me and I focused everyday on just surviving. While Barbara and Robert knew nothing about me except my name and age, they agreed to adopt me.
I flew to Syracuse, New York to find my new, adoptive parents holding a big sign, which read "Welcome home, Lopez!" It was the first time in my life that I ever had a country to call home and parents that cared about me. All of a sudden, I was given an identity and was allowed to be a child once again.
I went to school and my dreams of a future returned. I realized even a lost child could matter in this country, and my parents pushed me to dream big. They encouraged me to chase a dream of becoming a college graduate despite never having an education. When I told them about my Olympic dream, their support was unfaltering. Since 2001, they have adopted five other Sudanese boys, touching thousands of lives with their compassion and faith.
Drew Dillon was a stranger to me two years ago. I met him after I was not invited back to the training center and I had just had knee surgery. I met him through Columbus Weightlifting and almost instantly he became my mentor, whether he wanted to or not. He convinced me to stay in Columbus and let me live on his couch and eventually I moved into his laundry room. He helped me get my mind right by having me get serious and quit drinking. He talked me through every weightlifting and personal problem that I have had in my life since I met him. He was with me every step of the way through trials and now the Olympics. The most amazing part is that he did this because he wanted to. Not because he had to but because he chose to. Which makes him amazing. I know his life has become more complicated with me in it but he just keeps sticking with me. He is the reason I am an Olympian. I will be trying to thank him for that the rest of my life.
The mother who became a mentor
Words cannot describe how much my mother has been a part of my Olympic journey and what she means to me. I can remember her putting Band-Aids on me as a toddler when I first crashed on my bike. She told me I was going to be okay, that crashing happens but that it shouldn't stop me from trying. She was at the finish line for my first race, my first win, my first title.
Once I tasted victory, I craved it and hated loosing. I will never forget taking second at a national event when I was 11 and losing my temper at the finish line. Mom looked at me with disappointment in her eyes, and in a quiet voice said she cared more about who I was as a person than what place I finished. It was important to her to teach me to always be a good example, to hold my head high with honor, and be a good sport-whether I was first or last.
I have since strived to live up to that challenge. She encouraged me to push my limits, pushed me to overcome obstacles, and hugged me when I came up short.
My mother drove me endless miles to practice and to races all across the country. She also drove me to the hospital countless times, calmed me when I was hurt and scared, and was always by my bedside when I woke up. She held my hand when doctors told me I could never compete again, and once I made my decision to try, she told me she believed in me.
Now that I am an adult, 26 and married, she's still just as supportive. She stays up all hours of the night to watch the live feeds when I am racing overseas and is always the first to send me a "good luck" or "good job" message.
At my final Olympic qualifier this year, I raced with the word "MOM" written across the knuckles of my glove. I gave the camera a little fist pump in the final as a token of my appreciation to her. She's been there every step of the way to London and I can't wait to cross that finish line and hug her. She believed in me, she encouraged me, she inspired me. I am an Olympian because of my mom.
A mother who believed in beating the odds
Of all the hardships I have been through, my mom has always believed in me. She said, "Do the best you can and that's all you can do." She would also tell me, "Do what you love doing and find a profession doing what you love to do. Life is too short to be miserable."
When I was a child, we moved around a lot to save money. We often had to share rent with other families to get by. We were not always in the best of neighborhoods, and my mother was a single mom going through the struggles of trying to find sustainable employment in a bad economy. But, there was always a lot of love and a strong bond between us.
The bond became stronger when my stepfather kidnapped me when I was five. I was reunited with my mother four months later and her marriage ended in a "painful and bitter divorce."
Despite everything, my mom and I learned to trust each other. I knew that no matter what I wanted my mom to be proud of me and now, I never want her to struggle again. So, I'm going to win a gold medal for her-my inspiration, my heart.
A father who became a family's rock
My dad, Tom Ritzel, is one of those people who works harder than anyone else-silently. He doesn't have to be in the limelight. He doesn't need the accolades. From his perspective, success is doing the right thing, enabling loved ones to shine and being there for family…no matter what.
My mom, Lana Ritzel was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in March 2009. It shocked our family because we are all active. My parents have endured more things as a couple than most ever dream of because they started their own business together, built their dream house together, and they even competed in a triathlon together-and I think that was the most challenging.
After a double mastectomy and the removal of 26 lymph nodes, my mom went through extremely aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. But, the cancer continued to spread and in early 2010, we discovered it had spread to her pelvis and lower back. She underwent more chemotherapy, but it moved in on her spinal cord and eventually, her brain.
On November 16, 2010, just a week after I returned victorious from the World Rowing Championships, my mom died.
While there are many things I could say about my mom, it is my dad who was the unspoken hero. Over the year and a half that the cancer took hold of my mom, my dad was by her side the entire time. He spent hours researching different oncologists, different forms of treatment, and the best way to be a partner to someone with cancer. He kept track of all of her pills, administering them to her daily. He attended every single doctor's visit, chemo session and hospitalization. He cooked, cleaned, and doted on my mom when she was too sick to stand. But, most importantly he was our family's rock when the world was falling. There is no stronger, more loving person I have ever known.
For the mother that defied the odds
My mom is a hugger. She just loves everyone, and loves to hug with her full body. I always look forward to her hugs on the rare occasions that I get to go home. And, I know that she looks forward to mine, too. My mom and I have always had a very close relationship. She used to tell me my hugs had healing powers. I feel the same about hers.
Two summers ago, my mom was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and the only thing I wished I could do was fly home and hug her. Five years prior to being diagnosed, she quit smoking cold turkey. We hounded her for years to do it, but it wasn't until she made the decision to quit, that she never once went back. Then, her worst fears were confirmed by a pain in her side that just wouldn't go away. Cancer.
But now, two years later, my mom is defying the odds. The nurses call her the "miracle patient" because she continues to kick cancer's butt. Whenever she tells me about chemo, she doesn't say how horrible it is, or how awful the side effects are. She talks about the wonderful and loving nurses and doctors, and takes inspiration from the stories of the people around her who are also battling cancer. My mom sees the love in every situation, even chemo, even cancer.
My mom is an inspiration because she never gives up. She rarely complains. She works through the tough times, and sets goals to attain. One of her goals was to come to England to watch me race in my second Olympics. She was there in Beijing, and I am so excited and proud that she will be in the stands once again.
My mom doesn't inspire me because I feel bad for her. She inspires me because she doesn't give up. She doesn't focus on the negative. She focuses on what she can do in the present moment to make her life better. And she fights. And she loves. I believe it's because of all the love inside of her that she will be in England to watch me race, and also the reason she has been able to defy the odds of lung cancer thus far. She always asks me: "Where did you get your fight from, Margot?" The answer seems pretty clear.
The moment I began to participate in sports my mom has risen above and beyond even the maternal call of duty. From 6 am hockey practices and 45-minute commutes to a t-ball league because I wanted to play at 5 instead of 6 to selling her house so I could afford to fence, she supports me in everything I do.
Most importantly, she was there for what I can only describe as the turning point of my life. I was 15 and 6'1", in a few months dropping from 145 to 110 pounds. Despite tortuous days trudging through medical facilities, no one knew what was wrong. But they recognized I was in trouble. I was digesting organ tissue, including brain tissue, to stay alive, and tests showed damage to my cardiac and respiratory systems, liver, and bones, along with a host of problems associated with malnutrition. My mom was told I had sustained permanent mental and physical damage that, if I survived, would prevent me from leading a routinely normal life let alone competing in fencing. But she believed in me. Instead of admitting me to the hospital, she took me home to find salvation chasing my dreams in fencing.
Despite being a single, working mom, she was my side through months of fighting an unknown illness. I spent most of my time in bed, getting up to make myself sick with food 6 times a day and keep myself sufficiently strong that I could attend a handful of tournaments. She encouraged me to fence as long as I could stay above absolutely critical weight. She nursed my passion for fencing along with my health, keeping me strong enough to fight and to dream. She knew I needed this sense of purpose and that my dreams would keep me on course. In those dark days she believed in them as much, if not more, than me.
A year later I was diagnosed with then poorly-understood celiac disease. Treatment is simple if perennial. Over several years I shocked my doctors by overcoming my 'permanent' disabilities, catching dreams in and out of sport - NCAA championship, Columbia College salutatorian, and now, the Olympics. I owe it all to my mom. For her love, for her eternal support, and for that one fateful decision to believe in me, to stake my life on that belief, and take me home to dream.
I met Olena in 2005 in Greece, we were both playing pro volleyball for the same team. In few months I decided to transfer to Italy, and asked her to quit her team and come with me. She said yes—pretty big decision for a young woman to come and support me.
I was also playing for the USA team. I was the captain leading our team to the most successful season in 2005. Everything was going great with the USA team, pro-volleyball and my life. But eight months before the China Olympics, I ruptured my achilles. The Italian team cut me, the USA team rehabed me but I got cut before the Olympics and they go on to win Gold. Talk about tough times. The only person and very positive person was my girlfriend at that time, Olena. She stood by me, helped me out to recover physically and mentally. I went on to play in Dubai, one of the worst volleyball leagues in the world and Olena was still very positive, pushing me to train hard and enjoy the sport. She believed in me, my skills, my character and always kept telling me that I was lucky to be playing volleyball and making a living from it. That mentality kept me going, in 2009 USA team asked me to come back and play again.
Things were going well, we got engaged, signed a good contract in Italy and played great volleyball with USA team. Until in the summer of 2010 when I hurt my knee and had to have 2 surgeries. Once again, I felt that pressure of 2007. I could not believe that it was happening to me again. I lost contracts, money, almost lost my house but the only person standing right behind me was my wife. She kept pushing me, and kept telling me to be positive, work harder than before and the most important thing, smile. We are lucky, she would tell me, to travel, play, lose and cry because it makes us stronger people and athletes. I really don't know what I would have done without her, without her smiles and positive attitude on days that I wanted to break the wall from being angry, cut from teams etc.
Here we are in London, looking back with my wife to the past 6 years, standing together and going through high and very low points.
A tenacious trainer
My nominee, Jeff Cooper, ignited a fire within me. When I was 12, Jeff took over as the head coach for my local swim team. I was the type of young athlete who didn't have much confidence in myself and never had the self-image as a person who could win. I always counted myself out before the race even started.
One day at practice during his first year as head coach, the team was doing repeats on an interval and I had stopped to take a break because I lacked the motivation to push myself. While everyone else was swimming, Jeff came over to me and said, "What are you doing?"
I made up an excuse, and he said something that changed my life: "What are you really doing? You are the best swimmer in this pool; you just need to believe in yourself. You could go all the way to the top if you want it bad enough."
Anyone can say those words, but when I looked into his eyes, I knew he meant it. I realized at that moment, that Jeff believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. He saw my talent and it was bothering him that I couldn't see it.
Jeff, the eternal optimist and mentor to many young athletes, said the words that struck a chord deep within me.
From that day forward, my self-image began to evolve as I started to challenge myself with Jeff motivating me from the pool deck. He preached dedication, commitment, and hard work with no short-cuts.
I slowly improved and the positive results came, just like he had promised. If it weren't for Jeff Cooper, I never would have made the Olympic team, yet alone three consecutive teams. He's been there for me at every step of my journey, including the Olympic Trials this past summer. Jeff has been a tremendous inspiration and certainly deserves an award of this nature. It's the least I can do for him.
A pivotal turning point
It may be hard for some people to pin down the foundation of their success to one person, for me it is simple; it all goes back to Glenn Thompson. I was relatively new to track and field in 2001 as a high school sophomore when I met Glenn. We began working together immediately about three times a week on a weekend or after school.
Not many people know a lot about throwing the shot put and the discus, but those who do know that when you start out you fall down a lot. Glenn was patient and helpful in the beginning, and I learned he was much more than a coach. He worked full time as a magazine editor, raised his daughter Caitlyn, and fostered anywhere from one to five young children at a time with his wife Denise.
My mom tried to pay Glenn when I started training with him, but about three months into coaching, he started turning the money away. When I asked him why, he said, "You have real potential here. I just want to be here to help you get to the next level."
As a foster parent, Glenn would sometimes bring kids to training with him and I got to know them. Many of those kids had a parent or parents that didn't want to take care of them and Glenn never understood that. He just took those foster kids in and loved them.
Even though Glenn was dedicated to his family, his dedication to my training never wavered. He coached me to be the best throwing recruit in the country during my senior. He taught me how to win, how to lose with grace, and how to take setbacks in stride. In short, Glenn Thompson laid a firm foundation for my Olympic dreams and my life.
For a committed coach
It's hard to adequately express in words how much Coach Joe Boutin has inspired me and how much he means to me. He's like a second father, a man who I'll always look up to for advice, forever seeking his approval and respect.
I met Coach Boutin when I first went out for the track team as a sophomore in high school. I bounced around from one event to another waiting for something to stick. When I landed at the javelin runway it wasn't necessarily the javelin that reeled me in, it was Coach Boutin. He immediately saw the potential in me and became invested. That is what makes him so special and inspiring. He makes a commitment to his athletes like I have never seen any other coach do. It isn't just a commitment to make you a better javelin thrower, it's the commitment to make you a better person, to push you to believe in yourself and find your path in life.
During the summer, he would drive us to competitions all over the U.S. because he wanted us to experience more than just the casual high school track meet. He wanted us to get noticed and be great. His hard work paid off. Cyrus Hostetler and I (same graduating class at Newberg High School) are his second and third Olympians and Lynda Hughes is his first two-time Olympian. Coach Boutin has also sent several athletes onto major colleges to compete in the javelin. He takes small town kids and turns them into big time athletes and more importantly successful people.
As I go into my fourth season as a professional, my tenth year as a javelin thrower and make my first Olympic team, I still call and meet with Coach Boutin on a regular basis. Whether I am calling to just catch up, acquire some advice, or just have a good gossip session he is always there for me. There is just something special about him. When you leave a conversation or practice you just feel good about yourself. He makes you want to stand a little straighter, hold your head higher and it isn't a particular thing he said, it's because of the way he cares. He makes me want to be someone else's Coach Boutin.
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