Five athletes share their Olympic journey
On Wednesday, the first Olympic rings went up in front of the airport in Sochi, Russia. Standing roughly 30 feet tall and 50 feet long, the rings are a big, brightly lit reminder that we're one year from the start of the 2014 Winter Games. Not that any Sochi hopefuls need a reminder.
Fans may tune in to events like the skeleton or curling only every four years, but the athletes who dream of competing in the Winter Games work at their craft year-round every year, not just when the Olympics are scheduled.
Here's a look at a few of those athletes one year out from their moment in the spotlight:
At 18 years old, Agnes Zawadzki is your typical teenager. She loves shopping at Forever 21, doing yoga, getting her nails done and watching "The Office" with her dog. She also loves spending hours at the ice rink in Colorado Springs, Colo., working on her triple-triple combos.
Zawadzki made her senior national debut in 2011 and has been working toward her first Olympic bid since, improving her consistency in the long program and working tirelessly to perfect her signature big jumps. Last month she earned the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships and was named the first alternate for the World Championships this March in London, Ontario.
A native of Des Plaines, Ill., Zawadzki, her mother, Jolanta, and her grandparents moved to Colorado Springs in 2008 so she could train with coach Tom Zakrajsek. Despite great success as a junior and a solid fourth place in her first shot at senior nationals, Zawadzki hit a low point during the 2011 season. She felt the pressure of having so many people make sacrifices for her dream and started to lose her passion for the sport.
A few meetings with a sports psychologist and a change of coach -- working with Christy Krall since June 2011 -- got Zawadzki back on track.
"I don't really feel too much pressure now," Zawadzki said last week just before taking the ice for an afternoon practice. "Skating is really fun for me. I love to travel and get to see all the different places and learn about different cultures."
A few days later, she was doing just that, relaxing in Osaka, Japan, in advance of the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. She'll skate her short program Saturday and her free skate Sunday. Her long program music, the old standby "Rhapsody in Blue," is from well before her time, but the music for her short program seems a perfect fit for a teenager: selections from the "Sex and the City 2" soundtrack.
"My choreographer [David Wilson] told me the music would be perfect for the Middle Eastern vibe of my program," Zawadzki said. "I had never seen the movie, so I wasn't sure what to expect at first, but I just fell in love with it."
For many of the skaters in Japan, this weekend will be a last chance to impress before the World Championships in March, but Zawadzki won't participate in Worlds unless one of the top two U.S. skaters, Ashley Wagner or Gracie Gold, has to pull out.
Zawadzki knows she'll have to make great strides to secure a spot in Sochi, but she's willing to put in the work. She says the key will be to improve her consistency and nail those big triples when it counts. Skating will continue to be top of mind as Sochi nears, but perfecting her short program isn't Zawadzki's only responsibility. She began studying at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs last fall, majoring in psychology and taking a special interest in forensics.
So just like your average teenager, she has homework to do -- but maybe just one more episode of "The Office" and a spin around the rink at the Osaka Municipal Central Gym first.
The main image on the home page of U.S. bobsledder Nick Cunningham's website looks like the cover of a country album or an ad for a local rodeo. Cunningham, who recently made the switch from the back of the sled to the driver's seat, stands a few steps in front of his push squad, clad in a plaid shirt and a black cowboy hat, thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans.
He was never a professional cowboy, but he did dabble in the rodeo in college. The toughness he acquired from getting thrown off bulls prepared him to be shaken, but not broken, when he races down an icy course at 90 mph. A standout track athlete at Boise State, Cunningham realized he didn't have what it took to go pro as a sprinter, so he tried bobsled.
"Once I graduated from college, it was kind of like a reward to myself, to kind of go outside the box and do something new," Cunningham said. "What guy from Monterey, Calif., says he got to try out for the bobsled team?"
The 27-year-old didn't just try out, he excelled. He was selected as an alternate for the World Cup team the same year he started, and just two years later, he was competing for the U.S. in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
After helping push his Vancouver teams to 12th in the two-man event and 13th in the four-man event, Cunningham decided to make the switch from brakeman to driver.
"It's kind of a natural progression," he said last week from a hotel room in Switzerland, where he was preparing for the World Championships. "Brakes was a lot of fun, but it was kind of time to accept the responsibility and move up front. You have a longer shelf life as a pilot, you can be in the sport longer, and it's a little bit less abusive on your body."
But the move to the front of the sled can be quite difficult.
"It's really hard to go from the back to the front," Cunningham said. "You really do go to the very bottom of the USA totem pole. You have to work yourself all the way back up to that level that you were at."
Cunningham has moved up the ranks and now pilots the No. 2 sled for the U.S. As the man in front, he's not only the team's driver, but he's also their mechanic, travel agent and finance man.
"You pretty much own your own race team -- all the equipment too," Cunningham said of becoming a driver. "Some teams have to buy their own sleds, but luckily Team USA will supply me with a sled. All the tools are mine. The runners are mine -- and runners will cost up to $5,000-plus a set.
"It's definitely a money game. It's tough unless you have people supporting you and backing you, since it's all out of the pilot's pocket -- all the travel, all the hotels, rental cars, fuel."
Shortly after the 2010 Games, Cunningham decideded he needed some help if he wanted to continue competing. His pilot in the last Olympics, Mike Kohn, informed him about the U.S. Army World Class Athletes Program. Cunningham joined the Army in 2011 and is now a sergeant, stationed out of Lake Placid, N.Y.
"There are soldiers on all three U.S. sleds right now," Cunningham said. "In the offseason we're soldiers. We go to drill. We do military work and stuff. But during the season, they give us some financial backing and allow us to focus on our training."
The WCAP program is a huge help to Cunningham, but he still needs financial assistance from his family, friends and sponsors. He is committed to the Army for another four years and plans to continue bobsledding through the 2018 Games in South Korea.
For now, the focus is on the Sochi Games next February. Last week at the World Championships, Cunningham finished 13th in the two-man and 19th in the four-man. Barring any major injuries, his team is a virtual lock to make the Olympic team, so until then he will be devoted to getting stronger, faster and better.
"Right around March or April I'll take about a month and a half to two months off," Cunningham said. "I'll start training again in May and get after it pretty hard until we get on the ice in October. I'll be focusing a lot on strength and speed. Hitting these tracks and focusing on winning and staying that No. 2 sled."
Patrick Meek is in Germany right now, so someone else must be parking the cars at the Waldorf Astoria in Park City, Utah. Meek, a 27-year-old long track speedskater, is a valet at the hotel as part of the Hilton HHonors Team USA athlete career program.
"The program really helps athletes continue competing," said Meek last week while still on U.S. soil. "They give us really flexible hours so we have time to train but can work to pay the bills."
When he's not doing lap after lap at the ice rink, Meek is taking a lap around the hotel to park guest cars (sometimes an extra lap or two if the car is particularly sweet). Circles are nothing new to him -- he's been skating them all his life.
Meek was on blades as soon as he could walk, pushing a bucket around the rink where his father coached. Both his father and grandfather were speedskaters, so it was only natural that Meek follow in their footsteps.
Growing up in Chicago, Meek became friends with another Windy City skater, Shani Davis, who won gold in Turin and Vancouver.
"He's a great guy," said Meek. "He sometimes gets a bad reputation from the media and stuff, but he's always been so supportive and a really good friend."
While Davis has already achieved his Olympic dream twice, Meek is still working toward his own. He has admitted that he doesn't believe he has the pure talent of most other skaters and that his successes are the result of good, old-fashioned hard work -- the kind of hard work that results in 30-inch thighs and the nickname Mule. Meek explained the moniker on his website.
"I don't always look pretty out there," he wrote. "I am stubborn to a fault. It takes a lot to wear me down. I am not the favorite barn animal. I [can] be cantankerous. And more often than not, I get the job done out there."
Only a guy nicknamed Mule would be stubborn and tough enough to add further sacrifices to an already grueling Olympic journey. Meek hasn't had a sip of alcohol since May 7, and he doesn't plan to have one until the closing ceremony of the Sochi Games. A lot of athletes make dietary sacrifices to improve their play, but it's tough to imagine most skipping a postgame beverage or New Year's Eve tipple at midnight.
It's those kind of sacrifices that have helped Meek improve, recording his best marks of the season in every event he raced at the U.S. Long Track Speedskating Championships in December, including a career-best 13:26.06 in the 10,000 meters, good for a silver medal.
This weekend, Meek will try to set a few more career bests at the speedskating World Cup in Inzell, Germany. With the Olympics a year away, his sole focus is to continue improving with each competition and put himself in position to represent the U.S. in Sochi.
Meek hopes he'll be celebrating in Sochi with a pint or two, his dream finally realized.
Karen Thatcher is perfectly healthy. "Knock on wood," she said, laughing. The 28-year-old hockey forward is enjoying a season on the ice after enduring two years of rehab, physical therapy and long stretches off her skates.
"I was injured in our third game against Finland," said Thatcher, who hurt her back at the 2010 Olympic Games. "Normally that injury would have pulled me out of the competition, but with a lot of help from our training staff, I was able to complete the tournament. Afterward, we tried a lot of different therapy and rehab options so that I could avoid surgery, but none of them worked. So that July I had spinal surgery."
Thatcher was out for about a year recovering, then in her first tournament back with Team USA, she blocked a shot and broke her foot. The injury was to the navicular bone, which doesn't receive a lot of blood flow and therefore doesn't heal quickly. As a result, Thatcher missed the rest of the season.
A year out from Sochi, she's back on track, playing with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. The team practices three days a week, does weight training three days a week and plays two games a week.
When she isn't playing hockey, Thatcher is working. She's a personal trainer four days a week and nannies two days a week. In addition, she gives private hockey lessons.
"It's tough," said Thatcher of her hectic schedule. "It's really expensive to live in Boston, and to be perfectly honest, it's a struggle to make ends meet. I wouldn't be working as much or pushing myself as much if it wasn't."
Unfortunately for Thatcher and her teammates, women's hockey isn't a big draw for potential sponsors. Many of them have to burn the candle at both ends to pay the bills and be in shape for Olympic tryouts this summer.
For the past two years, Thatcher was also coaching at Providence College, but too often the Blades' and Friars' games were scheduled at the same time. Now that she's healthy, she stepped down from her coaching position to focus on Sochi. She also deferred acceptance for a doctoral program in physical therapy at Boston University, a decision that gave her parents pause.
"My family was a little hesitant," she said. "But after I explained to them that this is my passion and I want to live my life with no regrets, everybody got on board."
"This will be my final Olympics, mainly for financial reasons," she continued. "You can't raise a family on the income; you can't pursue any other areas of your life. It would be perfect for us if we could earn a living playing hockey. If I could, I would do it for a few more years, but as it is right now, that isn't feasible."
Even though she made the 2010 team, Thatcher said there's no guarantee she'll make the cut for Sochi.
"No one is a lock," she said. "Some players probably have a better chance than others, but what they're looking for is the people who can fill the roles the best at this point in time. For us, that's dependent upon team chemistry, the coach and the style and philosophy they want to play."
After finishing her season with the Blades, Thatcher will get a week of practice with the rest of Team USA before they head to the World Championships in late March. Then it's time to gear up for Olympic tryouts.
"We don't get much of an offseason this year," Thatcher said. "We'll probably take a week off [after World Championships], and then you gotta be prepared for Olympic tryouts June 16, so we'll be hitting it hard for about two months until then. Usually we wouldn't have camp until August, but they bumped it up two months to prepare for Sochi. We're going after gold this time."
Seun Adebiyi's story deserves to be told in full. But Sochi is just a year away and there's too much telling to do for the tale to be finished by then, so the abridged version will have to do.
Born in Nigeria, Adebiyi moved to Alabama with his mother when he was 6 years old. He took up swimming and went on to attend a high school in Florida that trained Olympic hopefuls. He fractured his back while training for the 2000 Olympic trials. While swimming at the University of Pittsburgh, he missed the cut for the 2004 Nigerian team by one-tenth of a second.
He left swimming behind to pursue a law degree at Yale University, but he never gave up on his dream of one day representing Nigeria in the Olympics. After a little research, Adebiyi decided to pursue the skeleton, hoping to become the first Nigerian Winter Olympic athlete.
A month after graduating from law school, while working at Goldman Sachs, he learned he had two rare blood cancers -- non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and stem cell leukemia. After a desperate search for matching donors, he received an umbilical cord blood donation in 2010 that saved his life.
All of the cancerous blood cells and bone marrow he was born with were wiped out with chemotherapy and radiation, so he is now 100 percent donor blood -- the blood of a 2½-year-old boy, in fact.
"I joke that I'm one of the only people on the planet with two biological mothers," Adebiyi said. "I had to do all my immunizations all over again like I was a newborn. My hair grew in differently, thin and soft, kind of like a baby's hair.
"And my favorite show now is 'SpongeBob SquarePants,' " Adebiyi added with a laugh.
The chemotherapy caused Adebiyi to suffer a brain injury that manifested itself with memory loss and affected his cognitive abilities. He was forced to leave Goldman Sachs in 2011 and go on disability.
"I generally come across pretty normal, but I'm extremely absent-minded. I forget things all the time," Adebiyi said. "Before the chemotherapy, I was the kind of student who never took notes. I was able to remember everything from a lecture, and I could handle a lot of different things at the same time. In fact, I was the first person in Goldman Sachs history to be hired right out of law school. Now I'm not at that level anymore, and I miss that. I feel like a lot of who I was is gone; a lot of doors have closed for me. Some cancer patients have said if they knew the effects the chemo would have on their brain they wouldn't have done it.
"But at the same time, if I had stayed at Goldman Sachs, I wouldn't have had the time to work on the Olympics and help cancer patients the way I have. Sometimes you lose things, but what you have left, you just value that much more. I've had a lot of people tell me my struggle with cancer has inspired them. I never had someone tell me that my work at Goldman Sachs inspired them."
Now Adebiyi's time is split helping start Nigeria's national bone-marrow registry -- the first in Africa outside South Africa -- training for the skeleton in Park City and working to create the infrastructure to compete in the Winter Olympics.
"Nigeria has never been to the Winter Olympics in any event. They don't have any federation, no infrastructure, so I've had to create it from scratch," Adebiyi said. "That's been like a two-year endeavor. I finally got the Olympic committee to create this Winter Olympic federation so I can officially compete, but there's this long bureaucratic process. I have to register it with the International Skeleton Federation, and then I have to apply for a license, and then finally there's a race in March in Lake Placid, so that's what I'm aiming for.
"Most athletes, especially the ones I train with in Park City, they just show up and they have coaches, they have equipment, and they go to races. They don't have to deal with any of this. I'm sort of a one-man army here, so on top of the training, I have to build all of the infrastructure too. I really hope what this will do is encourage other Nigerians, because there are Nigerians all over the world, and a lot of them live in countries that have winter. I'm hoping if I make it to 2014, light bulbs will go off around the world and other athletes will say, 'Hey, I could do this sport for Nigeria.' The first step is always the hardest, but I think it will pay off."
On Wednesday, Adebiyi completed his first skeleton practice run since suffering a concussion over a month ago. The concussion was complicated by his chemo-induced brain injury, so his recovery has been slow. He felt a little dizzy after Wednesday's run, so he'll have to continue to be patient as he returns to full speed.
Olympic qualifying starts in October, so he has time to continue working on his start, his speed and getting in lots of practice runs. Africa gets a quota at the Olympics for each event, and so far South Africa is the only country with a skeleton team, so he just has to beat its athlete to get a spot in Sochi. Adebiyi knows it's a long shot, but he is motivated by obstacles.
"If you look at it objectively, it seems impossible," he said. "A total beginner, he doesn't even have a federation or any sponsors, he's coming off of cancer, and he's trying to make the Olympics. It sounds crazy. But if you look at the bigger picture and my career in swimming, there's potential there. When it comes to athletic talent I have it. I just have to reawaken it.
"I really believe that with enough time I can get back -- maybe not 100 percent but 80 percent of what I had before. That's good enough to make it. And if not in 2014, this is something I'm committed to doing in 2018, 2022. Fighting for most things that most athletes take for granted, that makes it more enjoyable in a sense. They always say it's not about the destination, it's about the journey."