Here are five inspiring athletes whose performances you won’t want to miss. The Summer Games are about to begin Beijing, China, and once again the Team USA roster is filled with inspirational stories. Take Mark Warkentin, from Santa Barbara, California, who failed to qualify for the Olympic team in three consecutive U.S. Trials (1996, 2000, and 2004). In a real show of perseverance, he changed his event—and made the team.
Then there’s Laura Wilkinson, who had Olympic success early in her career, winning the gold medal in platform diving at the 2000 Games in Sydney. But four years later, in Athens, in what she thought might be her last Olympiad, she did not medal. Determined to leave on winning terms, Wilkinson returned to training and made this year’s U.S. team with her first perfect 10 dive ever. Heading to Beijing, twenty-one-year-old Amy Rodriguez is one of the youngest players on the U.S. women’s soccer team. But she doesn’t take a backseat to anyone. Only weeks before the Summer Games opened, she scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over rival Brazil. It was Brazil that upset Team USA in last year’s World Cup, and the two favorites are expected to meet again in China—with a gold medal on the line. A lot will be asked of Rodriguez with Abby Wambach, the team’s leading scorer in the last two World Cups and the 2004 Games, sidelined for the duration of the Olympics with a broken leg.
Then there’s Bernard Lagat was born in Kenya and first rose to prominence running for that country. But after attending Washington State University, he decided to stay in America and eventually become a U.S. citizen. Heading to Beijing, he’ll double in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters. Alicia Sacramone began gymnastics at the age of 8. She failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2004, but rebounded to become a crucial member of U.S. national team. Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin are the only American women’s gymnasts to hold more World Championships medals than Sacramone, who’s been called the “spiritual and social leader” of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.
Listen to their inspiring stories—in their own words.
Keep On, Keeping On: Mark Warkentin
It’s hard to describe what it’s like making the team. I’ve been to Olympic Trials (1996, 2000 and 2004) and failed to make the cut. Then I look back at the fifteen years of morning and afternoon swim practices to get to this point, this peak. My mom, Mardi, was instrumental in this. She kept telling me that you don’t quit until you have nothing else left in the tank. She convinced me that there was something left—something still out there for me.
The news that the open-water event, 10 kilometers, was going to be introduced for the Beijing Games came about the same time I was wavering, wondering if I should retire or not. By that point, in the pool events, I wasn’t getting any faster and people were beating me. Without this new event, I wasn’t much of an Olympic hopeful. It was either time to retire or try this new event, open-water swimming. One of my coaches suggested that I try an open-water race in Santa Barbara, where I train. He felt that I could win this race, so I thought, “Why not?”
I swam this race in the ocean, one mile long, against some master swimmers and part-time recreational swimmers, and I won easily. So I thought, Maybe I’m good at this. In looking back on it, that was such a small-time race. It was like a pickup basketball game, but it gave me confidence in a big way.
(A few years later) I went to the U.S. open-water nationals in Florida. This was in early June of 2006 and I came in third in the 5K, third place in the 10K and then I did a 25-kilometer race and I broke the course record and won by fifteen minutes. It was an eye-opening experience. My wife Diana and I looked at each other and said there may be something more to this.
But I sure had some things to learn. In pool swimming, you get accustomed to having your own personal space. You’re in your own lane; it’s yours. When you do open-water, you’re up close and very personal with other swimmers. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to it. I’m now one of the better swimmers in the world swimming in a close pack.
Most of contact isn’t on purpose, but you can get kicked in the face or catch an elbow in the eye. It isn’t unusual to see open-water swimmers with black eyes. There are dirty tricks that happen around the turn buoys. Like I had somebody once grab my leg and pull me back. But much of what happens isn’t dirty, but it can knock off your goggles or worse. It’s a fine line: You have to be careful and also be ready to battle.
This is the first time the open-water event has been in the Olympics so, no matter what happens, I feel a part of history. That said, my goal for Beijing is winning a medal. American swimming is such a dominant force, going back to Mark Spitz and Janet Evans and now Michael Phelps, that a lot is expected of us. The history that US swimmers have produced, I’m a part of that now, the history—and the expectations.
Going for the Gold—and a Perfect 10: Laura Wilkinson
Four years ago, at the Athens Games, I finished fourth, just shy of the medals. I knew I was capable of more than that but I didn’t know if I wanted to be that committed to four more years of training. Then I had to have wrist surgery. When I came back, my passion was reignited. I won my first world championships and I was learning new dives. When you’re ready to be done with something, you don’t learn new stuff. In a lot of ways, I felt that I was beginning again.
When I find myself trying to take control, things often fall apart on me. But I found that when I trust God and what his plans are for my life, he comes up with stuff better than I can ever dream of.
At the U.S. Trials, I made the team again with the first perfect dive of my career. Before the perfect dive, I’d had a really bad dive. So, I tried to focus on God and not myself. I was able to let it go and stay in the moment.
I knew that (Perfect ten) dive was good as soon as I hit the water. You can actually hear your entry—a “crack”—when you reach the water. The sound, like you’re ripping paper, comes from how your hands hit the water. We call it a rip entry. Some are loud like a shotgun; others are quieter. When I’m going good, my rip is pretty loud. I was sure on that dive that I got a perfect ten. Of course, when you come up from under the water, you’re never sure quite how good it was. So, when I heard the crowd and then saw the scores, I almost started laughing …
This is my last Olympics and that makes things bittersweet. In a way, I’m looking forward to moving on and seeing what normal life is like. But at the same time, I feel revitalized in the sport and I love it so much right now that it will be hard to leave.
In a lot of ways, this time around feels like 2000 at the Sydney Olympics (where she won the gold in the platform event). That was my first Olympics and, as far as I knew, could have been my only shot. Now I’m thinking this is my last shot.
Heading into the Olympics, you’d have to say that the Chinese are the favorites in diving events. But that really doesn’t matter to me. I’m happy with my performance at (the U.S.) Trials. That kind of performance and score puts me in the medal hunt for Beijing. I’m there and, whether they count me out or not, I will be battling for a medal. I don’t care if I’m the front-runner or the underdog, I just believe that I’ll be one of the contenders.
Sometimes people ask me what makes the Olympics so special. Why put in the years of training, put up with the injuries? That’s difficult to answer. Sometimes I wonder myself. For me, the Olympics are special because the whole world unites for one time, for one moment. Everybody has a dream, to compete when the whole world is watching.
Trying to Fill Those Soccer Shoes: Amy Rodriquez
Back in my parents’ home in Orange County, California, I have posters and jerseys signed by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly. That’s why sometimes I want to stop and just pinch myself. I cannot believe I made this team, the women’s Olympic squad.
I really took a chance trying out for Team USA. I took off half my junior year at USC [University of Southern California] and I certainly wasn’t a shoo-in to be here. It was always one of my dreams, to play for Team USA, and I made it before I thought I would. I guess that’s why I sometimes come across so young, so wide-eyed.
But to be on a team that you followed so much growing up is really special. I know the stories of those early teams, how much the victories, in the World Cup and the Olympics, meant for women’s sports overall. Now I’m following in their footsteps, trying to fill those shoes.
Sometimes I’m asked if it’s overwhelming to put in that position, the standards have been high since the beginning of U.S. women’s soccer. But I don’t look at it that way. People like Mia and Kristine showed the rest of us the way. I know their stories. What they did in big games. How hard they worked and how they came through. Now it’s our turn to do the same thing.
I know what’s at stake for us in the Summer Games. The last time around, in the World Cup, we didn’t do that well. So our goal is to prove that we are still the best in the world. I can’t think of a better or bigger stage to make that kind of statement than the Olympics.
Running for His Adopted Country: Bernard Lagat
It means a lot to me (wearing the Team USA uniform). I’ve lived in this country a long time and received a lot of support. I’ve wanted to settle in America, I wanted to raise my family here. I wanted the opportunities that Americans get here. Now that I’m a runner, I feel enormous pride running for the United States. I feel like this is where I’m comfortable.
We [myself, Leo Manzano and Lopez Lomong] are now American citizens. We took this journey a long time ago for different reasons and we are here now, as one country. Nobody is going to look at me and say I wasn’t born in this country and shouldn’t run. We carry the flag. We are proud to be Americans. We are looking forward to knowing the entire nation is behind us as we go on to the Games.
For me, nothing is different for somebody who was born outside, like me. I just have a bigger story to tell in some ways. I was brought up on a different continent, I have seen what is going on in other countries, and when I put it together and see what’s on in this country, it’s enormous. There is so much freedom, so much opportunity.
As a runner, I feel like I’m living that dream and at the same time making and using my athletic ability for what’s best for this country, for myself and my family as well.
Being Part of It All: Alicia Sacramone
Not making the team in 2004 was disappointing to be sure, but I certainly learned from it. I’d like to think I’m older and wiser than when I was competing four years ago.
That experience taught me how important it is to be as calm when you’re in world-class competition. That’s where I try to help my teammates out. I’m the oldest on this year’s team and I try to be there for them. I’ve been through a lot of the ups and downs already.
I guess I kind of fell into this role of being team leader. But a leader to me is somebody the others can relate to. It’s somebody who can bring them up when they are down, somebody who is there when they need to vent. Somebody who can help them stay calm when the competition really becomes tough. Somebody who allows them to be calm enough to do in competition what they do every day in the gym.
As a team, we’re going to Beijing with the goal of winning the overall championship. That’s what we talk about as a team and we’re convinced that we can win the team gold and do well in the individual competition. But what makes the Olympics different as an athlete is that all these other great athletes are going to be there, too.
Some people say that the world championships are similar to the Olympics, but I don’t think so. Part of going to the Olympics is getting to meet all these other athletes from other sports like diving and swimming. Besides the competition, that’s what I’m looking forward to. I don’t have anybody specific that I want to meet. I’m just looking forward to the experiences on two fronts: when we’re competing and then afterward, when I can talk with some of the best athletes in the world. That’s a big reason why you work so hard to go to the Olympics: To be a part of it all.
By Tim Wendel, Vienna, Virginia
Photo courtesy of Guideposts