Eight Olympic prospects with strong Northern Virginia ties have spent their entire careers prepping for three weeks that will define their status of athleticism at the end of the month.
By Dan Friedell
One is a lifelong athlete who fell just short of winning a field hockey state championship for Centreville High School. Another, a 54-year-old equestrian rider making her fifth, and possible final, showing. A third is an 800-meter runner from Haiti and South Florida who may have recently sold you a pair of shoes at Potomac River Running in Reston. They’re Olympic rookies, gold medalists and veterans, and they make up just a few of the athletes with strong ties to Northern Virginia who may be marching in the Opening Ceremony at the brand-new London Olympic Stadium in Stratford, England, on July 27.*
THE RIDER Karen O’Connor
Sport Three-Day Eventing / Residence The Plains / Watch for her July 28–31
Karen O’Connor, at 54, is the oldest of this Olympic bunch, and by far the most experienced. She qualified in eventing—a three-day equestrian event that includes the sport’s key concentrations (dressage, cross-country and show jumping).
Looking to make the Olympic team for the second-straight time, she’s a two-time medalist (team silver in 1996 and team bronze in 2000), and made her Games debut at Seoul in 1988. London would be her fifth Olympics in seven tries.
“I’m guarded in saying it’s my final,” says the Massachusetts native who moved to Virginia in the 1990s with her husband, David, also a recognized equestrian athlete. “This one would mean more to me than any other. I’ve got the horse of a lifetime, I’m fit as a fiddle … it would just be a really sweet icing on the cake to my career.”
O’Connor is riding the momentum of a terrific performance—finishing third among Americans at the prestigious Rolex Three-Day in Kentucky earlier this year—and she hopes it’s enough to land herself and her horse, Mr. Medicott (whom the 5-6, 120-lbs. rider has bonded with after just a year—the horse previously worked with a 6-2 strong German man), on the short list of 10 rider/horse pairs who will be considered by the U.S. Equestrian Federation for a berth in London.
THE FLICKER Claire Laubach
Sport Field Hockey / High School Centreville / College Wake Forest / Watch for Her July 29–Aug. 10
Claire Laubach, now 28 and a key member of the USA Field Hockey team, did everything right in her athletic career. She used hard work to hone an athleticism that also allowed her to be a top basketball and lacrosse player. She found a mentor and a coach in Starr Karl—currently coaching at Westfield High, and a legend in the women’s sports community—who pushed her to try out for All-Star teams as a teenager. She was pursued by powerful college field hockey teams and accepted a scholarship to Wake Forest.
After helping the Demon Deacons win three national championships, she was picked for the U.S. team. That’s why, when she was cut from the senior squad—made an alternate for the Beijing Games, and later relegated to the development team—she was devastated. Laubach, however, decided not to give up on her dream of making it to the Olympics, and re-dedicated herself to the sport.
Instead of just running and working on stickhandling, Laubach picked up a skill that’s unique in the world of field hockey: the drag flick. At the international level, every team has a specialist that handles the ball when her team is awarded a penalty corner, and for Team USA, that’s Laubach.
“It’s safe to say it saved my career,” says the Centreville grad. Laubach is a regular in the starting lineup and the reason why the U.S. team has a chance to shake up the traditional powers of the Netherlands, Argentina and Germany in London.
THE TRANSPLANT Moise Joseph
Sport Track and Field / High School Miami Central (Fla.) / College University of Florida / Native Country Haiti / Resides Reston / Event 800 meters / Watch for him Aug. 6, 7, 9 (Finals)
Moise Joseph of Haiti, with roots in Miami, chose to move to Reston a few years back to take advantage of the training regimen provided by middle-distance guru Scott Raczko, who trained former U.S. 1,500-meter champion and South Lakes grad Alan Webb. If you’ve shopped at the Potomac River Running store in Reston, you’ve probably met him.
Joseph, 30, is an 800-meter specialist. Just before his 23rd birthday, he raced in the Athens Olympics, and since then, he’s been pursuing another Olympic berth. After leading most of the way in his preliminary heat in Athens, runner after runner swept past him, and his Olympic experience was over in an instant.
“It was a tactical error, and I learned,” he says, “I went from first to sixth in two seconds. I’ve seen the video, and I mentally replay it when I need some motivation.”
Over the last eight years, he’s had some successes, like posting a strong 1:45.87 in the semifinal heats at the 2009 World Championship in Germany. That time would have held up well in the 2008 Olympic finals, but the key is getting there.
Every day Joseph thinks of his relatives and friends affected by the earthquake that rocked Haiti in January 2010, but he doesn’t want that to be all people think of when they think of Haiti. One side effect of the disaster has been financial—checks have been missed, plane tickets have not been purchased. It’s tough for him to balance his national pride with some of his frustrations.
“They do the best they can,” he opines. “But they could do better. It’s not like they’re trying to support a team of soccer players. There’s only three of us who’ve qualified (in any sport). But every few months they’ll send me rent money.” Those are the cards he’s been dealt.
THE BREAKTHROUGH Terrence Jennings
Sport Taekwondo / High School T.C. Williams / Event 68 kg./ 150 lbs. / Watch for him Aug. 9
Every Olympic hopeful has his share of setbacks. For Jennings, there were two. First, when he was on top of his game in 2004, his featherweight class wasn’t included in the Athens Games. Then, in 2008, a knee injury derailed his hopes for Beijing. But Jennings, a 25-year-old Alexandria native—who said in a Washington Post story he was inspired to embark on his career in Taekwondo after seeing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”—persisted, and with an Olympic trials win over 2008 silver medalist Mark Lopez in late March, he earned a trip to London.
That’s not going to be his high point. He feels as if a medal in London is within reach. “I’ve fought a lot of those guys before and beaten them, and they’ve beaten me,” he says. “It’s all going to come down to that day, and who wants it more.”
If Jennings, who now lives in Florida, were to win a medal, he’d want to have a victory parade in Alexandria. “I’m from Alexandria,” he says. “It’s my home. But hopefully I can have a parade in both places.”
He says he couldn’t have gotten to where he is today without his parents and coaches, but he reserved special mention for his maternal grandmother Annie Barlow. “I spent a lot of time with her after school, and she played a really big role in making sure I stayed on the straight and narrow.”
THE COVER BOY Giuseppe Lanzone
Sport Rowing / High School McLean / College University of Washington / Event July 28 – 31 / Watch for him July 28–Aug. 2
Lanzone, who was born in Peru but moved to McLean with his family just before high school, was picked out of football practice by his coach Jim Mitchell because of his strong, long frame over 10 years ago.
Now 29, he’s already an Olympic veteran (2008) and Ralph Lauren model (he was chosen to show off the official Team USA gear), and yes, he knows the Winklevoss twins of Facebook fame.
He’s a key member of the men’s eight, which just qualified for London by defeating New Zealand and France in the final qualification regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Lanzone, the son of Italian parents who moved to this country after a youth spent in a Peruvian beach town called La Punta, says it’s hard to believe everything that’s happened to him because of the sport—including his trip to Beijing in 2008 as a member of the men’s four, and his Ralph Lauren photo shoots.
“They were looking for some athletes to do a photo shoot, and it went great,” he says. “The shoot was one day, and then the next day we were on the “Today Show.” I get a lot of abuse from my teammates, but I would do it again if I had the chance.”
THE SCULLER Sam Stitt
Sport Rowing / High School McLean / College Rutgers University / Event Quadruple Sculls / Watch for him July 28–Aug. 3
It’s It’s quite possible you’ve seen McLean’s Sam Stitt on the Potomac while crossing the Key Bridge into Georgetown—he’s one of the best scullers (a rower who uses two oars instead of one) in the country. Stitt’s quadruple sculls boat made the medal race in Beijing, but came up about three seconds short of bronze.
Through regular 12-mile workouts with Lanzone and guided by Mitchell, Stitt went from being a guy trying to fit in on the basketball and swim teams to a guy who was dominant in his sport. It’s that feeling of excellence that has encouraged him to keep at it even though thoughts of a future career have crept in during the Olympic intercession.
“I’m going to be 31 coming out of this,” says Stitt from the Olympic Training Center near San Diego. “It is kind of tough for a lot of us to start our lives in our early 30s. But I plan to keep training after London. I get up early to work out, and if I didn’t have a good reason to wake up early, I wouldn’t get up at all.”
Stitt, paired with Warren Anderson to win the double sculls Olympic Trials earlier this year, fell short of qualifying the boat for London in a regatta in Switzerland late May. He and Anderson were folded back into the mix of candidates for the quadruple sculls, which clinched a spot based on past performance at international events. By the time you read this, the coaches will have chosen the country’s best four scullers—and Mitchell, for one—thinks Stitt winning a seat is an easy call.
THE PROSPECT Ellyn Baumgardner
Sport Swimming / High School Fairfax / College University of Arizona / Event Breast stroke / Watch for her July 29–30 (if she qualifies)
Ellyn Baumgardner, 21, a product of the D.C.-area’s nationally known Curl-Burke Swim Club, is one of the top qualifiers in the 100-meter breast stroke for the Olympic Trials this week in Omaha, Neb. (Ends July 2.) The University of Arizona junior and Fairfax High School grad posted the country’s sixth-fastest qualifying time (1 min., 8.20 secs.). While only the top two qualify for London, Baumgardner could post a personal record and force her way into an event that’s been dominated internationally by a pair of Americans—Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy.
Getting through to the event’s finals would be the first step in fulfilling the Olympic dream she’s had since the age of eight. “It’s always been a goal,” says Baumgardner, who helped Fairfax High to a state championship and sacrificed plenty along the way. “I didn’t really have as big a social life as the people I went to school with. I was waking up at 4:15 in the morning three times a week.”
She attributes a lot of her success to Curl-Burke, and the training group led by Pete Morgan. The team’s atmosphere prepared her for swimming in college and beyond.
“I’m definitely going to take swimming through next year,” she says referring to her 2013 graduation. “But we’ll see where I’m at at the end of that year. But I’m just going to not worry about it until then.”
THE LIFER Sean O’Neill
Sport Table Tennis / High School George Marshall / College George Mason / Watch for him July 28–Aug. 8
Sean O’Neill, 44, will be returning as the analyst during the NBC Olympics broadcasts and webcasts of table tennis from London. The 1985 Marshall High School graduate, and school athletic hall of famer, is a founding member of the USA Olympic table tennis team and played singles at the 1988 Games (Seoul) and singles and doubles in 1992 (Barcelona).
Growing up in Vienna as the son of a serious table tennis player, O’Neill had access to coaching and training. He even received lessons from a Thai table tennis player who was living at his family’s home.
He attended Oakton Elementary and Kilmer Middle before finding a creative way to do schoolwork and take tests while traveling the world for competitions in the early 1980s.
“My teachers really stepped up to the plate,” he says.
However, O’Neill has the most praise for Ken Plum, the Fairfax County Director of Adult and Community Education, who allowed him to unenroll for months at a time and re-enroll so he could pursue his sport.
While he’s 20 years removed from his last Olympics as a player, and 17 years out from his last national team, O’Neill has remained connected to the sport as a coach, advisor and commentator.
Now based in Portland, Ore., O’Neill runs a web design business and spends 40 hours per week coaching.
(July 2012) *Since this story was printed, Claire Laubach, Terrence Jennings, Giuseppe Lanzone and Sam Stitt have made it through the trials and will be competing in the London Olympic on Team USA.