Revisiting 5 Olympic dreamers

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Agnes Zawadzki finished a crushing 11th at the U.S. figure skating championships and missed out on Sochi.

One year ago, I wrote about five athletes hoping to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics. As the Games begin, two of those athletes are in Sochi, preparing to compete, while three others were left behind, forced to watch their dream lived out by another.

The kid

Figure skater Agnes Zawadzki knows better than almost anybody the sacrifices that must be made in the name of a dream. Since she first laced up a pair of skates at the tender age of 5, she's felt the weight of her potential; what it means not just for her, but for her family.

Zawadzki's mother, Jolanta, a Polish immigrant, has worked seven days a week, 10-plus hours a day for most of her daughter's life. An elite figure skater will spend upward of $80,000 a year on everything from skates and costumes to choreographers, and that money has come from Jolanta's tireless work as a house cleaner, nanny and health care aide for the elderly.

Jolanta was in the stands at the U.S. championships last month in Boston, watching her daughter fight for one of three spots on the Olympic team. Mistakes such as doubling a required triple lutz landed Zawadzki in 11th, a crushing disappointment after she'd taken the bronze at nationals the past two years.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm never doing enough because I want to pay my mother back so much," Zawadzki told the New York Times after the competition. "I want to buy her nice things, I want to make things easier for her. I feel like I let my family down."

Zawadzki will be 23 when the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea come around, and she isn't sure if she and her family will be able to give another four years to her dream.

The cowboy

After a successful 2013-14 season, bobsledder Nick Cunningham will compete in his second straight Winter Games.

A California-raised surfer boy, Cunningham played football at Monterey Peninsula College before transferring to run track at Boise State. While in school he dabbled a bit in rodeo, as well. Looking for a competitive outlet after graduating, he found the bobsled in 2008.

AP Photo/Mike Groll

Bobsledder Nick Cunningham will be in his second straight Games, this time as a driver.

As a brakeman he helped his 2010 Olympic teams finish 12th in the two-man event and 13th in the four-man event. Now a driver, he's ranked 12th in combined standings heading into Sochi -- sixth in two-man and 14th in four-man.

"I feel amazing making my second Olympics and first as a pilot," Cunningham said this week from the Olympic Village in Sochi. "This season has had so many ups and downs and I'm really happy with how my crew came together at the end. I really feel like the momentum is in our favor."

Cunningham is a sergeant in the New York National Guard, training and competing while serving in the Army World Class Athlete Program. This time he says he won't be satisfied leaving the games with great memories; he wants to bring home a little hardware.

"We are all excited to be Olympians, but that's not the end goal," he said. "We all want to have that medal draped around our necks, hearing our anthem played loud for everyone to hear. We all have a chip on our shoulder and have a new motto and mindset: 'P2P.' It stands for 'Prepare to Podium.' It means we have done everything in our power to prepare for the race."

The mule

Patrick Meek, nicknamed The Mule for his stubborn, hard-working approach to speedskating, saw that work ethic pay off this year in the form of a ticket to Sochi. The 28-year-old, whose father and grandfather were both speedskaters, has been on skates since the age of 2 and has had the Olympics in his sights for almost as long.

"Making this team has been the culmination of 26 years of hard work," Meek said from Sochi. "Not just hard work from myself, but many around me. I can't wait for the opportunity to represent our country and do everyone back home proud."

After Meek failed to qualify for the Vancouver Games, his father thought it might be time for him to join the "real world," but Meek wasn't ready to give up just yet. Working as a valet and concierge, doing charity work and gathering sponsorships, he was able to continue training and give his dream another shot.

A third-place finish at January's Olympic trials earned him that coveted Olympic berth in the 5,000 meters; he's also an alternate in the 10,000-meter race.

While plenty of journalists have arrived in Russia to find unfinished hotel rooms, Meek is settling right in.

"It's make-believe land here in the athletes village!" he joked. "We expect Peter Pan to show up soon! No complaints here."

The fighter

One year ago, ice hockey player Karen Thatcher was enjoying a healthy season on the ice after losing two years of skating to back and foot injuries. A silver medalist with the U.S. team in Vancouver, the 29-year-old forward was playing for the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League and prepping for a second and final Olympic run.

Unfortunately for Thatcher, shortly after we spoke, the injury bug would strike again. She suffered her third major concussion last February and announced in April that she would retire after a 10-year career with USA Hockey.

Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

Karen Thatcher (5) was forced to retire from hockey by a third concussion.

"It was very emotional to retire before the Olympic tryouts," said Thatcher this week. "It has been such an honor to represent my country over the past 10 years. While I'm sad I didn't have the opportunity to vie for a chance to complete my dream of playing in my second Olympics in Sochi, I am excited to cheer on my friends and former teammates from home and so proud of all they've done."

Thatcher will start at Boston University this May, working to earn her doctorate in physical therapy.

The dreamer

Seun Adebiyi doesn't dream of winning a gold medal. His goal is much humbler: Compete, in some way, as an Olympian for Nigeria.

The former swimmer couldn't compete at the 2000 Olympic trials because of a back injury, and he missed out on making the 2004 team by one-tenth of a second. He decided to learn the skeleton and pursue a spot in the 2010 Winter Olympics, but shortly after graduating from Yale Law School, he learned he had two rare blood cancers.

After being sidelined for the early part of 2013 with a concussion, Adebiyi was back on track in the spring, balancing his training with lots of travel for various medical and health conferences and charity events. Then in May he suffered a major setback, tearing his Achilles tendon while doing sprints with resistance bands. He had to have a follow-up procedure in November after his body rejected the sutures.

While his dream of competing at Sochi didn't come true, Adebiyi continues to celebrate other milestones. Four years after he nearly died while undergoing aggressive cancer treatment, he is now cancer free.

And, after four years of work, he has gotten the Nigerian Skeleton Federation (NSF) approved as an associate member by the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. He's working with the USADA to put together a drug-testing program for the NSF and working with an attorney to help secure sports insurance for the federation. If all goes well, when healthy, he can finally represent Nigeria in competitions as its first-ever winter athlete.

"My Olympic dream isn't something 'out there' that I'm trying to reach, it's a journey within to manifest my hidden potential," Adebiyi said this week from an ashram in France where he's on a yoga retreat. "I am not trying to become an Olympian, but rather removing the obstacles one by one that prevent me from showing the world who I already am inside. As such there is no failure, just another opportunity to grow."

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