OLYMPIC HOPEFULS FROM THE SOUTHEAST

Whether you’re a track and field superstar or just a casual ping pong player, you’ve probably dreamed of going to the Olympics. Who hasn’t? Wearing the U.S.A. jumpsuit during the opening ceremonies is the American collective dream. For the vast majority of us, the Olympics will remain nothing more than a dream. However, for a dedicated few from the Southeast, that dream could become a reality. These athletes have trained on Southern rivers, roads, and trails to become some of the best in their chosen sports. They’ve all made the short list for the Olympic Team, and in the months that lead to the Beijing Games, they will be fighting with every ounce of spirit to earn the few spots available.
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BRETT HEYL – Whitewater Slalom Kayaker – Charlotte, N.C.

“I was scared of the water. I had to wear a [snorkel] mask when I was first learning,” says 26-year-old Brett Heyl of his first experiences in a kayak. Now the number-one ranked male kayaker in the nation and a member of the 2004 Olympic team, Heyl has a long list of achievements in whitewater slalom kayak racing.

Pushed to excel in academics and sport from an early age, Heyl is the sort of person that applies himself fully to anything he does, whether it’s winning kayak races or his budding photography career.

Often finding himself in the public eye, Heyl is fast becoming one of his sport’s best ambassadors. Despite a soft-spoken personality and a healthy dose of modesty, Heyl welcomes the attention. To him it’s just an opportunity to grow and promote the sport he loves. “Nobody is going to remember that it was me,” Heyl says of recent publicity, “But it got exposure for kayaking—that’s what we need to do.”

Heyl first developed his competitive drive in skiing, which would earn him a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school, but it wasn’t to be his destiny. At age nine Heyl gave kayaking a try as something to do during the summer. “I kind of eased into it,” Heyl says, but by age 16 he was the number one ranked U.S. boater under the age of 18.

Heyl moved to D.C. and delayed his entrance into George Washington University for a year in order to train full time with renowned coach Silvan Poberaj—and alongside paddling legend and close friend Scott Parsons. Heyl quickly improved, finishing eighth at the 2004 Olympic Games.

In 2006 Heyl found the lure of the new state-of-the-art U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte irresistible. “As soon as the course was ready to go I was out there,” he says, and he couldn’t be more at home in Charlotte today. Despite going south for the winter to train in Australia, Heyl is putting down roots for the first time in his busy life.

Does having one Olympics under his belt give him an edge? “I think so,” he says. “There’s a certain confidence that comes with knowing what you need to do.” And he is doing it—winning the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in dominant fashion.

But making the team was only the first step. The rules have changed, and now only one U.S. kayaker can go to the Olympics. The results of a World Cup race in Germany will decide who that will be.

Heyl relates to author Sam Parker’s philosophy: “At 211 degrees, water is hot. At 212 degrees, it boils…One extra degree equals exponential results.” Heyl’s greatest challenge right now is finding motivation and keeping the intensity up as he strives for that extra degree, and Olympic gold. “A lot of people are content to be hot water,” he says. “I’m not. I want to get to that boiling point.” —B.G.
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AUSTIN CRANE &; SCOTT MCCLESKEY – Whitewater Tandem Canoeists – Charlotte, N.C. and Sylva, N.C.

“CLUUUCK! Cluck! Cluck!”

The cheers came across the waters of the U.S. National Whitewater Center as the C2 (tandem canoe) team of Austin Crane and Scott “Cluck” McCleskey paddled through the churning rapids during the Olympic Team Trials.

Crane and McCleskey secured their place as the number one tandem boat in the country. The duo executed coordinated paddle strokes, crisply executed turns, and perfect timing—all without a spoken word. Indeed, teamwork is everything in C2. It isn’t enough for both paddlers to be elite athletes—it requires a synergy that takes years to develop.

McCleskey and his previous partner David Hepp had worked hard to develop that synergy over eight years, and the two had been ranked as high as fifth in the world. When Hepp retired in 2004, it left McCleskey with an uncertain future.

After a brief hiatus, McCleskey began training with Crane in the fall of 2005. Crane was on the national team as a C1 boater, but going to school full time was making it difficult to train. It was time for a change, and as it happens, McCleskey paddled on the opposite side of the boat and was in need of a partner.

Crane, originally from Atlanta and now living in Charlotte, earned a degree in graphic design from Georgia State. He quit work this year to focus on the Olympic dream.

McCleskey, who lives in Sylva, N.C., with his wife Aleta—an elite paddler herself—has worked as a carpenter his whole life: “I like building things,” he says. “I find it really rewarding.”

A creek boater at heart, McCleskey likes to catch some hang time off local waterfalls or ride his mountain bike every chance he gets. “ I have everything I want in life,” McCleskey says. But it’s easy that both he and Austin Crane want one thing more: Olympic gold. —B.G.
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ZUZANA VANHA – Whitewater Slalom Kayaker – Charlotte, N.C.

Winning this year’s Olympic Team Trials, whitewater slalom kayak racer Zuzana Vanha stands well positioned to be the lone female paddler who will represent the U.S. in Beijing.

Born in the Czech Republic, Vanha’s family fled the communist government when she was only five. Leaving on the pretext of taking a beach vacation, they fled to an Austrian refugee camp with only a few suitcases and some American dollars hidden inside paddle shafts.

Vanha, whose father was a competitive paddler in “the old country,” took kayaking vacations as a child. “We had a big aluminum canoe with lots of patches on it that we used to take down rivers.”

It was a small high school slalom series that gave Vanha her first taste of competitive paddling. Though she greatly enjoyed kayaking, she admits it took her a while to get serious about it. “

Now living within walking distance of the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, Vanha has all the training opportunity she could ever want. Initially, she had a hard time adjusting to being so far away from her family who now lives in Colorado, but the whitewater center has provided a new center for her life.

Vanha is a thoughtful and compassionate woman. “I feel like athletics, especially at this level, are shockingly self-centered,” she says, “There’s so many more important things…I’d like to focus on some of those for a while.”

Vanha talks about one day starting a paddling club for kids or traveling to Tibet or Nepal to teach.

While it’s hard not to see the competitive spirit that drives Vanha, she remains a woman who finds peace every day in the simple things.

Having experienced the horrors of a totalitarian government first hand, Vanha isn’t shy about speaking out against the Chinese government. She feels the Olympics shouldn’t be held in China. While the Olympics may well draw the world’s attention to the civil rights violations of China, Vanha can’t help but wonder if it will change anything. “If you stay in bed after the alarm goes off, you might as well have not set the alarm,” she says. —B.G.
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JOSH SIMPSON – 10k Runner – Morgantown, W.Va.

On April 15, 2006, the USATF Men’s Ten Mile National Championships was held on the roads of Louisville, Ky. The top ten was a virtual who’s who of American distance running—with one exception, sixth place finisher Josh Simpson. The 24-year-old from Morgantown, W.Va., followed up his performance with an eleventh-place finish at the 25K National Championships.

His rise to the top now takes him to the Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., where he will compete in the 10,000 meters on Friday, July 4th.

The 24-year-old resident of Morgantown, West Virginia, hasn’t followed the typical path to the ranks of the elite. Simpson certainly wasn’t a star runner throughout high school. In fact, for quite a while he wasn’t even a runner at all. Baseball was his sport of choice, but while he was on the ballfield not getting much attention, his twin brother, Justin, was racking up awards in cross-country and track. It didn’t take long for typical sibling rivalry to lead him to running.

At first Simpson wasn’t extremely successful. Running was his old sport’s form of punishment and he still viewed it that way. The desire to improve led him to work harder and harder though, bumping his weekly mileage from 15-20 per week as a sophomore to around 70 as a senior. As his training got more serious, his 5K times went from 18 minutes down to 15:15 and he was offered a scholarship to run for West Virginia University. Just when it appeared he was on his way, however, WVU decided to cut the men’s cross-country and track-and-field programs, leaving Simpson and his fellow teammates devastated.

After fighting the university’s decision to no avail, Simpson headed for Northern Arizona University, where he achieved some moderate success but found it difficult to focus on really training hard. It didn’t take him long to realize that if he was going to maximize his potential as a runner, he was going to have to return home and go to work. He did so, joining several other standout runners in Morgantown training under WVU Women’s Cross-Country/Track coach, Sean Cleary. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thus far in 2008, Simpson has run 1:03:52 for the half marathon, good for 8th place at the USATF National Championships in Houston, TX. He followed that up with a 14th place finish at the USATF Cross-Country Nationals where he also earned the right to represent the United States at the North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletic Association (NACAC) cross-country meet in Orlando, FL. In that race, he ran under 23 minutes for 8K and finished a close second to teammate Thomas Morgan, helping secure the team title for the U.S. A few weeks later he ran 28:22 for 10K on the track at Stanford University and met the qualifying standard for the Olympic Trials.

Having overcome many obstacles, Simpson now looks forward to taking on the best runners in the country—and the world. Not bad for a former baseball player who once considered running punishment. —S.C.
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JEFF LARIMER – Whitewater Canoeist – Atlanta, Ga.

With a father who was on the national whitewater slalom team, and later the coach of the national team, it’s no surprise that Marietta, Georgia native Jeff Larimer is a world-class canoeist. What is a surprise is that he didn’t start paddling until the age of 15—old compared to when most of his competition got their start.

Today, 26-year-old Larimer is the country’s top solo canoeist, but he began in a kayak, eventually moving to tandem canoe. When Larimer’s partner retired after the 2004 Olympiad, Larimer decided to go solo. Now entering his tenth year on the National team as either a C2 or C1 paddler, Larimer doesn’t make much of his achievements. Instead he just keeps going, quietly posting fast times and taking home medals.

On race day Larimer is as cool a customer as you are likely to find. Instead of the aggressive attack-on-the-river style of paddling that characterizes many other top-level canoeists, Larimer describes his style as “a little more laid back and smooth,” with more emphasis on technique. Even amid chundering whitewater, Larimer wears a calm, relaxed face that reveals the skill and focus of this champion.

It was his smooth moves and surgical precision that earned him the win in the Olympic Team Trials. While his closest competitors came out of the starting gate with full afterburners blazing—only to make costly mistakes later in the event—Larimer cruised at a steady pace that kept him consistently fast.

Despite his consistency, Larimer has seen a pattern emerging: after two solid years in a given category (K1, C2, C1), he experiences a third-year-slump, with the fourth year being the best performance of all. Following a slump last year, Larimer is now in his fourth year of solo canoe, and he expects the rest of 2008 to be as good as the first part has been.

For Larimer the busy life of an elite competitor has ups and downs. After eight years at Georgia State, Larimer is still a junior. Traveling and racing around the world for months on end each spring make it nearly impossible to go to school, but Larimer brings the same steady consistency to his studies and plans to finish that race as well.

What’s his strategy for getting to Beijing? You guessed it: just keep ticking along at the same steady pace. —B.G.
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KYLE KING – 5,000-meter runner – Blowing Rock, N.C.

King has been training with ZAP Fitness in Blowing Rock, N.C. since 2004. He qualified for the Olympic Trials with the “A” Standard in the 5K, but his PR time of 13:33.74 is only the 23rd fastest qualifying time this year.

BRO: Tell us about your qualifying performance.

King: I didn’t feel extremely sharp before the race. I felt strong, but not sharp. Toward the latter stages of the race, my legs came out from under me and I wasn’t running as economical as I could have. I don’t think that race will be the fastest I run this year.

BRO: What is it you like about the 5K distance?

King: It’s intensity. You’re constantly running on the barrier, wondering, “Can I keep this pace up for three more minutes?” In the last three to five minutes, you’re running so hard you’re at the point where you wonder if you can even make it to the finish line. You can only gut it out so far before your body shuts down.

BRO: Does a lot of your performance come down to how well you feel on race day?

King: Absolutely. If your body is missing 5%, maybe you can gut it out and have a decent race, but you won’t have a fantastic race. When you’re competing against the best in the nation, you want to be rolling with 100% on race day. But on any given day, outside forces can play a significant role in performance. You could be fighting a cold, low in iron, groggy. You set up your training to give yourself the best shot to be 100% on race day, but honestly, anything can happen.

BRO: What’s your favorite training run in the area?

King: The Tanawha Trail outside Boone. It’s not extremely runnable, but I always really enjoyed getting on that trail and not worrying about pace, just focusing on myself and the joy of running for the sake of running.

BRO: The Trials are back in Oregon. Does that add to the excitement?

King: Oregon has a great history of track and field fans. I’m looking forward to the carnival atmosphere, but at the same time I have to try to manage my emotions. This is my first Olympic Trials. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

BRO: This is your first Olympic Trials, but it might be your last year as a professional runner?

King: If I could afford to keep running, I would. But there’s simply no money in distance running. The bar has been set so high in this country, it’s impossible to work a real job and train at this level. So this will most likely be my last year. I’m going to grad school for finance and finally will enter the real world. I’d love to keep running, but I’m also looking forward to the next step in my life. —G.A.
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SUE HAYWOOD – Mountain Biker – Davis, W.Va.

Sue Haywood was robbed of her Olympic spot in 2004 by a technicality brought on by a flawed point system. The ruling caused an outrage in the mountain biking community and took Haywood’s Olympic dreams away from her. Now, the veteran mountain biker has another shot at the Olympic team. A top-three finish at ethe 2008 World Championships or a 2008 World Cup event before June 23 will earn her a ticket to Beijing.

BRO: How do you feel going into the World Cups?

Haywood: I haven’t been on a World Cup podium since 2003, and the best that I’ve done at World Championships has been sixth place. So, in many ways the chances of me meeting that criteria are very small. But I certainly know that on my best day I can do it. I am training hard and feel great. The other girls have better recent results, but honestly the pressure is on them. I’m so content either way that I can’t be disappointed.

This is my last year at the elite level racing bikes. My career has been an awesome trip, and honestly, whether I make the team or not has no bearing on that feeling of contentment.

BRO: It sounds like you’ve moved beyond the 2004 debacle?

Haywood: I’ve never been motivated by anger or revenge. I look back at myself in 2004 and see how stressed out I was by the whole Olympics spot chase and then the subsequent debacle of having the spot taken away from me. I realized that I was using my race results and making the Olympic team as an excuse for my happiness or unhappiness. That’s really hard for racers to do, but after ten years of bike racing, I finally have stopped compulsively thinking about my last and next race results.

BRO: What’s your favorite place to ride in the Blue Ridge?

Haywood: Massanutten Ridge, from Harrisonburg to Front Royal.

BRO: What’s next for you after mountain biking?

Haywood: Mountain biking is a lifestyle career for me. There have been many times when I have called it my job in a negative way maybe because I tried to take it too seriously, or didn’t get the results that I wanted. But in the end, I’m doing it because I love it. I haven’t made a lot of money, but I’ve been getting paid to race my bike around the world for ten years now. I’ve bought a house in Canaan Valley from my biking and that’s not too shabby. But I don’t have much of a future …who knows? I haven’t really ever had a real job and don’t know that I ever will. I don’t have any grand plans for what I’ll do after racing. —G.A.
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WILLOW KOERBER – Mountain Biker – Asheville, N.C.

Olympic visions have danced in this Koerber’s eyes since she was 8, but back then she envisioned herself going as a gymnast. Now at age 30, Koerber is closer than ever to the Olympic Team. A podium finish in one of three World Cup mountain bike races this spring will determine whether Koerber will race in the Olympics.

She already has proven the she can ride with the world’s best. In 2004, she finished third in a Canadian NORBA race behind Olympic gold and silver medalists Gunn-Rita Dahle and Marie-Helen Premont.

“I had angel wings that day,” she said. “You’re always wishing for those days, and they’re very far and few between. I was going through a lot of spiritual changes and it was all coming out for me on the bike that year.”

Those changes marked a new era of riding for her. “It became clear to me that physical, spiritual, and emotional things are not separate. I had always been so broken up about it before.”

Suddenly it was no longer about training rides to keep in top shape. It was about riding hard and enjoying it: “Especially living near Pisgah National Forest, I am thankful every day.”

She says that it’s important for her not to set into a box what training is. “I don’t even think about how many hours and miles I work in a week,” she says. “You need to be wanting to be on your bike every time. If I’m not having fun, it’s not going to happen. What you learn in life is the same as what you learn on the bike. You don’t have to bang your head against the wall as much.”

Growing up under the tutelage of very young parents who raised their four children in the woods certainly helped. Her favorite riding partner and coach continues to be her father, and a close second is her younger brother, Sam. As a kid, she made her brothers and sister play Olympic Training Practice. They would jump their bikes over the sandbox or sawhorses. “Every one in my family has participated in this path,” Koerber says. “It’s our form of communication. We feel the vibe off of each other.”

However, there are definitely days to whine, she says. She found it rather difficult to join her family and boyfriend recently for a ride up 276 and the Blue Ridge Parkway when all she wanted was to nurse her aching belly bug after an enormously fun girl trip to the beaches in Telune. Her brother brought her back in check, advising her to “get out there and suffer.”

Plus, it’s hard to wimp out when your boyfriend is freeriding legend Ritchie Schley. “We bring different things to each other,” she says. “Neither of us wants ‘easy.’ It doesn’t make you grow.” —B.F.
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TINA MAYOLO-PIC – Road Cyclist – Buford, Ga.

Mayolo-Pic is a five-time national criterium champion, and in the past year she has won two major international road races. She is ranked 34th in the world on the roads and is competing against six other women for three Olympic spots.

BRO: How did you get into cycling?

Mayolo-Pic: I was racing duathlons and triathlons and going to school at UGA. I ended up joining the cycling team there, and that was pretty much the start of my cycling career. I love the challenge of road racing. It’s a really unpredictable sport—the mad dash to the finish, the feeling of being completely on the edge. Either you’ll crash or win.

BRO: Do you ever ride trails?

Mayolo-Pic: During my off seasons I definitely hit the mountain bike trails. To me it’s a completely different sport. So much fun, I absolutely love the mountain bike.

BRO: How does road racing in the U.S. compare to racing in Europe?

Mayolo-Pic: Culturally, cycling in Europe is a part of the lifestyle. If you go to Holland you’ll see the school yards filled with bikes. Literally every child rides their bike to school. I feel that the U.S. in this respect has a long way to go, probably because everything is bigger and farther away. It’s just not ingrained in our culture to ride our bikes everywhere.

BRO: What’s your favorite road ride in our neck of the woods?

Mayolo-Pic: Dahlonega to Blairsville in North Georgia. It’s rolling and scenic along a beautiful stretch of river. —G.A.
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JEREMIAH BISHOP – Mountain Biker – Harrisonburg, Va.

Bishop has been one of the top American mountain bikers for the last several years. He’s one of six men eligible to represent the U.S. in cross-country mountain biking in the ‘08 Olympics. He’s vying for one of three spots.

BRO: How do you feel about your chances of making the Olympic Team?

Bishop: As good as I could hope for. I’ve done well in the pre-season training, broken some personal records. I feel healthy, motivated. I’m a lot more relaxed than last time.

BRO: What’s the schedule of a pro mountain biker like?

Bishop: I’m off to Team Camp for a week, then to South Africa, then to Europe for the first of the World Cup series. Belgium, Germany, Spain. Andora. Scotland. Italy for the World Championships. I love the travel. What I don’t like is being away from home. If I could come home after every race, I’d love it. With my schedule, I won’t even be able to see spring in Virginia.

BRO: Is everyone stepping it up this year for the Olympics?

Bishop: Riders from all over the world coming out of the woodwork to race this year. And with these World Cup races, everyone’s in the same pool. We don’t have a U.S. Open selection process, so we’re competing on the international level for slots on the American team. It’s a free for all—250 riders jockeying for position on a course that bottles down to a foot-wide trail. People are hitting each other, grabbing each other. You have to start out super fast or you’ll be stuck in the pack.

BRO: You spend a lot of time training on the road—why is that?

Bishop: Roads are a great base building activity. I spend time on technical trails too, but you have to build that base level of fitness. It’s important to be on the mountain bike though, so I do my road rides on a mountain bike.

BRO: Do you have a particular ride that you’ve been using to train for this Olympic season?

Bishop: There’s a major ride I do from Harrisonburg. I call it the Alpine Loop. I ride over to Franklin West Virginia, then come back across the mountains into Virginia again. It’s a super-tough road ride with 10,000 vertical feet of climbing in 85 miles.

BRO: Do you think our readers could do this ride?

Bishop: You’d get some letters if you asked your readers to do this ride. They’ll be hating life. Actually, I dare them to do this ride. —G.A.
<a href=”http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/content/June-2008/Bishops-Challenge/”>Take the Bishop Challenge</a>

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LAUREN FRANGES – Track Cyclist – Asheville, N.C

Franges has been one of the nation’s top cyclists in both track and road racing since she was a junior. USA Cycling has pushed Franges toward track cycling in order to contend for a higher medal count in the 2008 Olympic Games, but she continues to dominate on the roads as well. She’s one of eight women competing for the final spot on the Olympic Track Cycling Team. Franges was bronze medal winner at the World Track Cup earlier this year.

BRO: How did you get started in cycling?

Franges: To be honest, I was not a fan of cycling when I first started. I was into basketball and was not too sure about the whole “wearing Spandex” thing. But I had a natural talent, so when it came to racing, the results came pretty easily.

BRO: What is it you love about cycling?

Franges: Really I do not like riding my bike. What I mean is, it can become quite a chore. The idea of sitting on my saddle for three to four hours a day gets really old fast—especially when you have done it for 12 years. I love going to new places and exploring, because you see so much more when you are on your bike versus a car, but it is really rare that I will have the general love of riding my bike.

BRO: So why do it?

Franges: I love to race. I love the speeds, the teamwork, and the tactical aspects. I have met so many great people and ridden with so many tremendous athletes who are all capable of so much. That’s why I love the sport. It just happens to be bike racing that I am talented at. Tactics and teamwork come naturally to me. I have a great ability to read races, and I thrive off that.

BRO: Any favorite rides around here?

Franges: Asheville’s Town Mountain Road, “the twisty way.”

BRO: You’ve had a successful road career. Is it tough to transition between the road and track?

Franges: No, I started on the track, so it’s like home to me.

BRO: Is it true that there are no brakes on track bikes?

Franges: No brakes on the track bike. They are [fixed gear] single speeds, so you actually put back pressure on the pedals to slow down. If you stop pedaling, though, you will be thrown over the handlebars.

BRO: Track cycling seems like a cool sport, but a lot of Americans aren’t familiar with it. What do you like about it?

Franges: Track cycling is very spectator friendly. All the racing is done on a 250-meter track so the fans can see every move the cyclist makes. Track cycling gets up to very high speeds, but it’s a thinking game, so it’s one of those races where the fastest or strongest person doesn’t always win. You can never underestimate anyone who lines up. There are a lot of dangerous and chaotic moments. Sometimes, it’s the cyclists who are willing to risk the most who come out on top. It really gets the heart-rate going. —G.A.