Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Our Olympic 12: Comeback kids

Local crop likely the biggest ever

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

In 23 days, they will converge on Athens, gracing your TV as they grasp for the greatest glory - Olympic gold.

But for the dozen Greater Cincinnati athletes who'll compete, the time and toil of getting there should also be celebrated. In becoming what's believed to be the largest-ever class of local Olympians, they have scaled untold obstacles.

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Our Olympic 12: Comeback kids
Photo gallery: A look at local Olympians

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More than half of Olympic tickets unsold
2004 Summer Olympics schedule
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Synchronized swimmer Becky Jasontek nearly died from a ruptured ovarian cyst. A year ago, boxer Ron Siler Jr. was in jail and gymnast Mohini Bhardwaj was in retirement. Soccer player Heather Mitts came back from a broken leg, and swimmer Dan Ketchum overcame a rotator cuff torn six weeks before the Olympic Trials.

All have made it. As have rowers Bryan Volpenhein, Greg Ruckman, Pat Todd and Kelly Salchow; swimmer Nate Dusing; boxer Rau'Shee Warren; and shooter Jason Parker. A 13th athlete, Jason McKittrick, will serve as the alternate for the archery team.

"I've been doing this 22 years," Jasontek said. "The Olympics are the pinnacle. This is what I wanted."

Said Ketchum: "It's the best feeling I've ever had."

When the U.S. Olympic Committee today officially names its full Olympic lineup, the total of 12 competitors with Tristate ties will exceed by three the number from 2000. Nine competed in the 1996 Summer Games, and five competed in '92.

A search of Enquirer archives back to the 1960s found no other summer Olympic team with this many locals. It's unlikely any prior Games did, when there were far fewer events and competitors.

The Games are Aug. 13-29. Greater Cincinnati will have a gold-medal favorite in Parker, a Xavier grad.

He's the reigning world champion in air rifle. Bhardwaj and Mitts will be on teams that have strong gold-medal chances. Nearly every other local Olympian is expected to at least contend for a medal.

Dusing, Parker, Volpenhein, Ruckman and Salchow all are returning to the Olympics. Jasontek and McKittrick were alternates in 2000. Dusing, 25, is the only owner of an Olympic medal; he took silver as part of the 800-meter freestyle relay in Sydney.

"I'm so happy I stayed in swimming," said Dusing, who considered retiring shortly after Sydney. "This is what I trained for the past four years."

For many, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Jasontek, Ketchum and Salchow say they will retire after the Games. Dusing and Bhardwaj say they won't still be competing when 2008 comes around. Volpenhein is unsure about 2008. The boxers will likely turn professional.

Through NBC telecasts, America could learn some compelling stories about the Tristate athletes.

Jasontek was in line for the 2000 Olympic team until her ruptured cyst required emergency surgery. The Mount Notre Dame grad planned to retire after 2000 but then changed her mind.

"I don't know why I'm in this Olympics and not the last one," she said. "Maybe because that (team) didn't medal and we have a chance to."

Bhardwaj, 25, joins 26-year-old teammate Annia Hatch as the oldest female gymnasts on the Olympic team in 40 years. Struggling to fund her training the past year, Bhardwaj found a fairy godmother in actress Pamela Anderson, who donated $20,000.

Siler was in jail last year, serving an 18-month sentence for two felony convictions. (He claims an assault conviction was a case of mistaken identity; he had been on probation for receiving stolen property.) He was granted an early release in January 2004 to train for the Trials.

Mitts could become one of the Games' breakout stars. The St. Ursula grad's modeling and network TV work have raised her visibility, and ESPN named her the world's Hottest Female Athlete this year.

Ketchum grew up idolizing Dusing, his Cincinnati Marlins teammate, and now joins Dusing on the Olympic team.

Two athletes with looser Cincinnati connections also will compete in Athens:

Swimmer Gary Hall Jr. - born here when his father, Gary Hall Sr., was attending medical school at UC - will be competing in his third consecutive Olympics.

Former UC track standout Laura Valldeperas will represent El Salvador in the 100-meter hurdles and long jump. She grew up in El Salvador before moving to Illinois in high school.



Our Olympic 12: Comeback kids
Olympics special section
Photo gallery: A look at local Olympians

For Iraqi Olympians, security worries just another hurdle
More than half of Olympic tickets unsold
2004 Summer Olympics schedule
Multimedia guide to the Olympics

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