Come August, we’ll be rooting for all the American athletes, but to cheer on the hometown home team, watch for these Olympians and Paralympians who call Colorado Springs home, some permanently, some for years at the Olympic Training Center (OTC).
Adeline Gray: Gray served as an alternate in London after narrowly missing the team spot in a lower weight class—hers was not included in the London. It is in Rio, and as the current world champion and No. 1 ranked woman in freestyle 75kg/165-pound, Gray is hungry to claim the first ever Olympic gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling.
Andy Bisek: He’s been called the Cowboy, and you won’t find a better ‘stache at the Olympics. Bisek (pronounced BEE-sik) has converted six years at the OTC into podium finishes at the last two world championships in Greco-Roman 75kg/165-pound. “The last two years, I’ve taken third at world championships, but wrestling is a sport where anything can happen any day,” Bisek says. “There’s nothing guaranteed until it’s over, so I’ve still got to go in hungry and ready to fight.”
Elena Pirozhkova: As the Soviet Union crumbled, Pirozhkova’s family left their home in Russia and made their way to America. Elena was 3. Her parents eked out a difficult living, sometimes relying on welfare. Pirozhkova’s brother—she’s one of nine siblings—invited her to join the high school wrestling team. Shortly after graduation, she was invited to the OTC as a member of Team USA, where she has lived and trained for about 10 years. She competed in London, and has recently been able to buy her mother a house. “People are like, ‘Why’d you stay here so long? Why don’t you get your own apartment?’ ” Pirozhkova says. “I’m like, ‘I have a family I take care of.’ So it’s really great. I can save a lot of money, and I’ve been able to do that for my family—because by changing my life through wrestling, I’ve been able to change their life through wrestling.”
The American men finished fifth at both the London Olympics and the 2015 world championships, but they swept the golds at the Pacific Rim Championships in April.
Sam Mikulak: In June, Mikulak joined rare company by winning a fourth consecutive all-around national championships. Only four other American men have accomplished that feat.
Donnell Whittenburg: The 22-year-old emerging star beat Mikulak twice in 2015 and could contend for an individual medal in Rio.
One of the events since the inaugural 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome, swimming has remained one of the most popular. It includes a wide variety of classifications, but no prostheses may be worn in competition.
Rudy Garcia-Tolson: A true ambassador, Garcia-Tolson already owns gold medals, and a bronze, from his three previous Paralympics. The 28-year-old is also the first double above-the-knee amputee to complete an Ironman, and he’s attempting to compete in Track and Field along with swimming in Rio.
Tharon Drake: Drake lost his sight at 14 as a result of complications from routine vaccinations, but he continued to swim for his high school team through graduation in Hobbs, N.M. He was an alternate for London in 2012, and has lived and trained at the OTC since. Depending on the type of pool, Drake either listens for the sound of waves against the wall or has a person on deck tap him with a cane when it’s time to flip-turn.
Sarah Hammer: “We are the kings and queens of suffering,” Hammer says. “To compete in my sport at the top level, you have to like to suffer.” The track cyclist is an eight-time world champion and owner of two silver medals from London. Rio is her third Olympics, and you can be sure she wants to make all that suffering pay in gold.
Just what is it? A combination of fencing, swimming, horse riding (jumping obstacles on an unfamiliar horse), pistol shooting and running. Running and shooting are combined so that athletes must run different lengths to interspersed shooting stations.
Margaux Isaksen: Third time is hopefully a charm for the 24-year-old Isaksen, the first woman to represent the U.S. in modern pentathlon at three Olympics. She was 16 at Beijing in 2008 and finished fourth in London after battling through mononucleosis just weeks earlier. Her favorite disciplines are running and swimming.
Jenny Arthur: About two dozen friends, Olympians and USOC staff surprised Arthur in the OTC weight room in January to break the news that she was the first American weightlifter to qualify for Rio. The 75 kg-class athlete couldn’t hold back the tears. “This is my dream since I was a little girl,” she told Team USA afterward. “Is my dream really coming true?” But she couldn’t celebrate long; Arthur had to get to Children’s Hospital where she volunteers.
Norik Vardanian: Vardanian posted a new American record in snatch at the Olympic Trials in May, and the 29-year-old has elite company fueling him. His girlfriend is Jenny Arthur, and his father, Urik, is arguably Armenia’s greatest athlete who won gold for the Soviet Union in 1980 and claimed 43 world records during his career.
Meet more athletes from all the United States at TeamUSA.org.
—by Jeremy Jones