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Hometown Heroes

olympic flag

Watch these Olympic athletes from the Southeast this summer.

The Olympic Torch has completed its tour around the U.K. to settle in London, and athletes are flooding in from over 200 countries to vie for their chance at the three coveted medals that represent the apex of performance in their respective sports.

The Olympics is a global celebration of sport. For a few weeks, we watch athletes reach deep inside themselves to give their best. It inspires each of us to do the same.

Our region boasts several athletes who will compete for the U.S in the Games. All have devoted their lives to reach this highest stage of competition. They compete for glory, for pride, for success, for sponsorships, and for their country. Most of all, however, they compete simply for the pure love of their sport.

Here are seven Olympic-bound athletes from the Southeast to follow in the coming weeks, and a few of the regional facilities that help aspiring Olympians to achieve their goals.

Scott Parsons
Scott Parsons returns to the Olympics in 2012.

the redemption chaser

Scott Parsons Bethesda, Md.
Whitewater Slalom K-1

Scott Parsons represents the old guard in the sport of whitewater slalom kayaking.  The 33-year-old athlete from Bethesda, M.D., has already announced his retirement twice from the sport, but can’t seem to part ways without achieving his ultimate goal: an Olympic medal.

After a respectable 6th place finish in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Scott was poised to achieve his goal on a very challenging course in the 2008 Games in Beijing. Known as a powerful and smooth technician on the water, he was America’s hope in K-1 Slalom, and he was physically and mentally capable of medalling.  However, his second Olympic quest ended in devastating disappointment due to a controversial gate touch.

Scott stepped out of his boat after that run, and announced his retirement from the sport for the second time. In spite of his talent and lifetime devotion, he had come up short. It wasn’t until his wife, who has been the financial backbone for Parsons’ training, gave him her blessing that he decided to try one last time for what he knows he is capable of.

This is it for Parsons – his third and final Olympics is here, and the fire that has been smoldering since Beijing has flared into a full-blown inferno.

Shalane Flanagan
A UNC graduate, Shalane Flanagan now trains in Chapel Hill.

the finisher

Shalane Flanagan Chapel Hill, N.C.

Shalane Flanagan was the 2008 bronze medalist in the 10,000 meter event, and she could be one of the country’s brightest hopes for a track and field medal in the London Games. Flanagan stormed past the frontrunners in the recent marathon Olympic Trials to notch both an American Trials best and her own personal best marathon time at 2:25:38. That is a sub-6:00 mile average for 26.2 miles straight.

Flanagan is a graduate of UNC in Chapel Hill, NC, and won two national cross country titles in 2002 and 2003 before going pro in 2004. After a successful middle distance career, she has stepped up to the marathon.

Flanagan truly sets herself apart with her finishing strength. She is capable of hitting another gear and leaving her competitors powerless to match her final mile blitz.

This Tarheel is on a mission to break the American women’s marathon record and attain another piece of Olympic hardware.

Terrence Jennings
Terrence Jennings is the underdog who could surprise everyone in London.

the upsetter

Terrence Jennings Alexandria, Va.

Terrence Jennings is a young Taekwondo athlete with some serious momentum as he goes into his first Olympics.  This featherweight martial artist was able to pull off an incredible upset against superstar and 2008 Silver Medalist Mark Lopez in this year’s trials in March. Not only did Terrence beat Lopez, but he did so in true Cinderella-story fashion: he prevailed in a sudden-death elimination round at the end of a lengthy qualification match.

He will actually join two of Lopez’s siblings in representing his country, but Jennings is fine with breaking up what has been referred to as the “royal family” of the sport. Jennings is a perfect example of the amateur spirit of the Olympics. His mother is a retired supermarket clerk, and his father is a retired Metro bus driver.  Their steadfast support and sacrifices have been unwavering since young Terrence first started in the sport when he was 11.

Under Master Patrice Remarck, Jennings tirelessly tackled the intricacies of the sport. He endured brutal workouts around his studies during the week, and eight-hour marathon sessions on the weekends to hone his skills and stamina. He overcame dual knee surgeries over the past four years, one of which kept him from the 2008 Games.

Northern Virginia and D.C. is rallying behind their hometown hero, and the Jennings family is saving travel money to support their son in person.

Jeremiah Bishop
Jeremiah Bishop is aiming for a podium finish in London.

the technician

Jeremiah Bishop Harrisonburg, Va.
Mountain Bike

There is no more respected figure in the world of American cross country mountain biking than Jeremiah Bishop, and it’s no surprise that he calls the mountains of Virginia home.

This 31-year-old athlete truly separates himself through his versatility. His resume includes victories in cross country, marathon, short track, and stage race events alike, but he is most dominant in the endurance and ultra categories. He has won the Firecracker 50, the American Mountain Classic Stage Race, the Fools Gold 100, and the Offroad Assault on Mount Mitchell. He has lived and trained in Southern Appalachia for over a decade, but he is perfectly happy hurting feelings wherever he shows up. His consistent performances have gained him a spot on the USA Cycling National Team an unprecedented 12 times.

As a member of the elite Cannondale Factory Racing Team, Bishop is often called upon to fill the role of leader in the sport. He has been a leader in partnering with the US Anti-Doping Agency to take a stand for a clean sport and discourage the use of performance-enhancing drugs of any kind. Using the tagline, “My Health. My Sport. My Victory,” Jeremiah is actively giving back to the sport that has been his passion for so many years.

Manuel Huerta
Huerta will fulfill his American dream this summer.

the dreamer

Manuel Huerta Miami, Fla. 

Born in Cuba, Manuel and his family were driven from the country as political refugees when he was 13. Leaving behind his young life and starting anew, Manuel held onto his perpetual dream of competing in the Olympics.

This spring, Huerta realized that dream for the first time. He needed a 9th place finish to qualify to represent the United States as a triathlete.  He poured his heart and soul into the race, and came away with exactly what he had hoped for – 9th place, and a spot on the 2012 Olympic Triathlon Team. At the end of the race, Manny scanned the other finishers to determine his fate, and was flooded with emotion when he counted only eight heads.

Despite being slight of stature at 5’7” and 126 pounds, this athlete has a huge heart and a deep appreciation for what has gotten him to this point.

“The U.S. opened its doors for me and millions of other immigrants who come here for better lives.  To represent the U.S. at the greatest sporting event is my way of saying thank you. I will make you proud.”

Olympic Training in the South

U.S. Whitewater Center
Charlotte, NC

The U.S. Whitewater Center is the premiere training facility for aspiring whitewater slalom athletes.  The Charlotte, N.C., course was designed by Scott Shipley, the same person responsible for the London course. This has been a powerful enabler for athletes who are trying to dial in their games in preparation for the big show in July.

Pablo McCandless, former slalom Olympian and kayak instruction manager at the Center, says that the facility is a hub of Olympic development for one primary reason: “There is a great training group here, and that leads to success for all.” In spite of the fact that the U.S. has fallen behind European powerhouses such as Slovakia and Germany in the sport, Pablo believes that we could be on our way back to the days of Davey and Cathy Hearn, when our country was a dominant force on the international scene.

“New courses, when coupled with excellent coaching and the next generation of young paddlers, are going to be the catalyst for excellence in the sport.”

ZAP Fitness
Blowing Rock, N.C.

The ZAP Fitness Foundation is one of five Team USA training centers focusing on the training and support of young, post-collegiate American distance runners. Located in Blowing Rock, N.C., this facility provides for all the needs of aspiring distance athletes who have their sights set on the World Championships and the Olympics.

Husband and wife team Pete and Zika Rea have set up the organization as a non-profit, and recruit athletes out of college. “Our goal,” says Pete, “is to put them in an environment of excellence.  They live, eat, and breathe running 24-7, and their peers push them to new heights.”

The Foundation also offers private coaching for all skill levels of runners, and works with Reebok as their title sponsor to keep everything running smoothly.  With a growing Olympic hopeful list including 8th ranked U.S. marathon athlete Alissa McKaig, the proof is in the pudding. ZAP runners continue to make their presence felt in races worldwide.

Lakeshore Foundation Paralympics Facility
Birmingham, Alabama

This nonprofit specializes in creating independence and happiness for people from around the country with physically disabling conditions.  The United States Olympic Committee licensed the 45-acre campus as its first-ever official training site for both Olympic and Paralympic Sports, and its heritage of helping disabled athletes is only growing.

Within the facility are state-of-the-art resources for wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, swimming, marksmanship, wheelchair tennis, and track & field. These training opportunities are augmented by the best athletic staff in the industry, as well as on-site lodging options for athletes.

They also forged a partnership with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to develop a world-class research program in rehabilitative science.  This confluence of extraordinary programs and research expertise has already enabled and empowered athletes and everyday citizens to reach their goals.

Cullen Jones

Other Athletes to Watch

Cullen Jones • Charlotte, N.C. Swimming

An N.C. State Alumni, Jones made a big splash in the 2008 Games as the third leg of Michael Phelps’ 400m Freestyle Relay team.  That gold medal gave him the honor of being the second African American to earn a gold medal in the sport, and he will be back in 2012 to chase his dreams.

Tyson Gay • Lexington, Ky. Track & Field

This American sprint athlete is one of the fastest people on the planet. His personal bests place him 2nd in the history of 100m and 5th in 200m. A hamstring injury prevented him from securing any medals in the 2008 Games. He will be headed to London this month with his eyes firmly set on the podium.

Check out one last Hometown Hero, we’ll give you a hint he’s 80 years old and has biked 165,000 miles…

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