Meet Your New Olympic Heroes

Meet Your New Olympic Heroes

By Meg Heery

August 1, 2012

To borrow a line from Tina Turner, we really do need another hero. Smiling, youthful faces from high-profile sports are nice, but it would be nicer to see some faces with a few lines and rich, complex lives behind them. So here are six and only two are from high-profile sports. (And also, McDonald’s.)

Oksana Chusovitina – “Chuso” won a gymnastics gold medal in her first Olympics. That’s not so unusual. What is unusual is that it happened in 1992 and she is still winning medals. Last year she vaulted to a silver medal at the world championships. Now, at age 37, she’s a contender for a medal in the vault at her sixth Olympics. She began her career in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where she trained with men. In a documentary for German television[(below), Chuso discussed the double-edged sword that is Olympic training: great skill and reward on one side, burnout on the other. After 1992, she says, she considered retiring. A year later she returned to the sport on a less demanding regimen. When she isn’t coaching the Uzbekistan national team, Chuso now competes for Germany, where her family moved in 2002 so that her son, Alisher, could receive life-saving leukemia treatment. In London, she’ll draw on a lifetime of experience and the kind of emotional maturity that anchors performance.

Valentina Vezzali – One of the most highly decorated athletes in this Olympiad, Vezzali, 38, made her competitive debut at the world fencing championships in 1993. Specializing in foil fencing, the Italian earned her  first medals the following year. Since then she has collected seven bronze, eight silver, and 38 gold medals in European Championship, World Cup, World Championship and Olympic competition. Three of her Olympic golds came in individual competition in successive Games Sydney, Athens and Beijing.

In London, her teammate Arianna Errigo denied her a fourth, leaving Vezzali with bronze next to her fellow Italians Errigo and Elisa di Francisca. Had she notched gold number four, she would have joined track and field legend Carl Lewis and discus thrower Al Oerter, both of the  U.S., as the only Olympic athletes to have done so. She competes in the women’s team foil on Thursday.

Though hugely popular in Italy, Vezzali hasn’t let the fame ruin her life: According to the Times of Malta, she still works as a police officer.

Marlen Esparza – Born into a family of boxers, Esparza started asking for lessons in 8th grade after the gifted student was labeled a troublemaker at school. No, her father said; boxing is not for girls. She insisted. He relented. Now the first-generation Mexican-American from Houston will fight as one of the first female Olympic boxers. And the media has taken note. She is featured in the CNN documentary “Latino in  America: In Her Corner” and and in a new McDonald’s campaign that hits all the right notes: no flashy smile, no obviously discernible makeup. Her rear end is in shadow, and during the few seconds her face is visible, she’s frowning. Maybe she’ll be one of the faces that helps young women get comfortable with being just tough, not tough and [insert ‘feminine’ stereotype here].

Kim Rhode – With five medals over five consecutive Olympics, Rhode has been dominating the world of skeet (in which markspeople take down flying clay birds) since she was 12 years old. The Whittier, California, native has gone from “good kid” with “unbelievable numbers,” as said the L.A. Times, to one of the most respected leaders, male or female, in the sport. Nearly 20 years in, Rhode has paved the way for shooters like Elaheh Ahmadi, 30, who represented Iran in the 50m air rifle 3 positions and 10m air rifle, where she placed sixth.  

Natalie Coughlin is the kind of woman who makes you think, “I want to be her.” With 11 Olympic medals (maybe 12 after London), Coughlin is one of the winningest athletes in her sport. After the 2008 Olympics, Coughlin went on hiatus for a year and a half, during which time she got married, took a turn on “Dancing with the Stars” and pursued numerous media appearances. But she’s no aspiring starlet. The 29-year-old devotes most of her energy outside the pool to cultivating an organic garden, advocating for doping-free competition and raising money for health and athletics programs for children in developing nations. She’s the kind of athlete who inspires her fans to be not just better swimmers, but better people, too.

Edna Kiplagat – The Kenyan marathoner won this year’s London Marathon (seen at right) and is heavily favored for a gold medal. Although Kiplagat started running when she was in grade school, she didn’t find her niche until much later; in her 20s she won very few races and considered quitting the sport. After falling short of her goals for a decade, she won the 2010 Los Angeles Marathon. The success revived her confidence and fueled her run at the World Championships last year. Never without obstacles, in that race she was accidentally tripped and fell, a mishap that can easily cost the race. But Kiplagat recovered and ultimately won, exemplifying one of the most important lessons of the Olympics, and of life: No matter what happens, keep going.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons