Meet Team USA, Part 2
Whitney Ping, table tennis. The Beaverton, Ore., high schooler has heard Ping-Pong jokes all her life.
Dain Blanton, beach volleyball. The 2000 gold medalist was a finalist last year to star in The Bachelor.
Jennie Finch, softball. The pitcher was named one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful in May.
Amanda Beard, swimming. The breaststroker has posed for Maxim and FHM.
Thirty team members were born in other countries, and they, along with those with strong ties to their heritage -- like diver Kimiko Soldati, whose Japanese-American grandparents were held in an internment camp in Idaho after Pearl Harbor -- give the delegation a strong multicultural character. A few of the foreign-born standouts:
Colleen De Reuck, track and field. The three-time South African Olympian, who moved to Boulder, Colo., in 1993 and became a U.S. citizen in December 2000, was the surprise winner of this year's U.S. marathon trials at age 39.
Meb Keflezighi, track and field. His family left the African nation of Eritrea in search of a better life and, after a year in Italy, settled in San Diego in 1987. "I'm always thankful," says Keflezighi, a 29-year-old UCLA grad who'll run the marathon in Athens.
Mary Sanders, rhythmic gymnastics. The 18-year-old Toronto native, a dual citizen, chose the U.S. over Canada to honor her late American-born dad, Fred, the 1963 Big Ten trampoline champion for Michigan. "Since my father was an American gymnast, it's always been in my mind to compete for the USA," she says. "He taught me to fight for my goals, so I want to make him proud."
Jasna Reed, table tennis. The 33-year-old Chicago resident was born in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina and won an Olympic bronze for Yugoslavia in 1988. She gave the medal to her grandmother, but it was lost 12 years ago when Serb troops stormed her hometown.
He's Greek to Me
Then there's Tom Pappas, the decathlon world champ from Glendale, Ore. His great-grandfather was born in Greece, and Pappas plans to meet up with distant relatives at the Games. He often receives e-mail from Greeks asking him to change his citizenship and win gold for their country this summer.
Two straight Olympic gold medals, a No. 1 world ranking for 18 consecutive years, only five losses in international play since 1986 -- it might seem as if the U.S. women's softball team has run out of challenges. But coach Mike Candrea found one last October, when he put his 18 players through the Navy SEAL training course in San Diego. First baseman Leah O'Brien-Amico says of the experience, which included doing hundreds of push-ups and holding boats overhead, "We were all dying, but finding some way, somehow, to push through." The training has paid off so far: In 53 pre-Olympic games, the team was undefeated and outscored opponents 476-14 (top hitters: third baseman Crystl Bustos, with a .500 average and 94 RBIs, and outfielder Kelly Kretschman, with a .481 average). The pitching aces are Lisa Fernandez, 33, who was 13-0 with a 0.21 ERA in pre-Olympic play, and 23-year-old Jennie Finch, who had a 0.27 ERA. Says Fernandez, "Other countries are getting better and coming after us, but you always want to be the best. The SEALs reminded us of that."
Still the Best
Despite the BALCO drug scandal, the U.S. track and field team remains the strongest in the world. Its stars include shot-putter Adam Nelson, a 2000 silver medalist and Dartmouth grad who's pumped that his event will be held in Olympia, site of the ancient Games (look for him to strut and scream before he throws); Breaux Greer, Nelson's Athens, Ga., training partner (and singer for the rock band I Felt a Red Letter), who could win the first U.S. men's javelin medal since 1972; and 1996 110-meter hurdles gold medalist Allen Johnson of Irmo, S.C., who, at age 33 and despite being legally blind in his left eye, could become a two-time Olympic champ.
Six-time national champion Andre Dirrell, a 165-pounder, will try to win a boxing medal for his grandfather and coach, Leon Lawson. It was Lawson who introduced Dirrell to the sport, at age 10, to keep him off the streets of Flint, Mich., and who later tried to inspire him by arranging a chat with an old acquaintance, Andre's idol, Muhammad Ali. (As a 10th-grader in 1957, Lawson trained with Ali, then 15 and known as Cassius Clay, at a Louisville gym.) What words of wisdom did Ali give to the young fighter? "Listen to your granddaddy."
New York Born And Raised
The best U.S. fencing team in history has a strong New York flavor. Of the 17 members and alternates, five are from the Big Apple, including Erinn Smart, alternate Tim Morehouse, Keeth Smart (Erinn's brother) and Ivan Lee. Lee and the Smarts, all from Brooklyn, are products of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, an inner-city sports program launched by the 1984 sabre bronze medalist. Last year Keeth became the first U.S. fencer to earn a No. 1 world ranking, in sabre.
When Kerri Walsh, then a shy 15-year-old, first played volleyball against Misty May, Walsh was so impressed by her idol, 16 and a high school superstar, that she asked May for an autograph. Seven years later the two Californians met on the pro beach circuit, became friends and decided to team up. They're now ranked No. 1 in the world, having run off a recent 90-match winning streak. Their coach, Dane Selznick, describes the no-longer-starstruck Walsh (above, left) as a "caged cat" who "pounces on you" and May as "the opposite -- calm, cool and collected." Says Walsh, "We complement each other very well."
The Martial Artist
"I'm aggressive and competitive," says Steven Lopez, the Sugar Land, Texas, native who kicked his way to the U.S.'s first taekwondo gold medal in 2000. "It was never a question of if [I'd win], but when." Inspired by his dad, a fan of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, Lopez began competing in taekwondo at age six. His three siblings have also starred in the sport. In June, Lopez, 25, was named one of PEOPLE's 50 Hottest Bachelors.
Two-time trapshootinG medalist (one gold) Kim Rhode, a Cal Poly Pomona veterinary student, has a 16-inch bearded dragon named Fred who changes color from dark brown to light brown. Rhode isn't the only Olympian with a fondness for pets. Hurdler Gail Devers practices starts against her Pomeranian, Kaleb. And 17-year-old judoka Ronda Rousey has a cat whose Games-inspired name needs updating: Thinking she wouldn't make the U.S. team until 2008, Rousey dubbed her cat Beijing.
A typical married couple they are not. Rather than go to a movie or watch TV, Vaho and Mary Beth Iagorashvili spend their free time practicing pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and cross-country running -- the five disciplines of their sport, modern pentathlon. Vaho, 40, is originally from the Republic of Georgia and won a gold medal in 1988 for the Soviet Union. Mary Beth, 30, from Munkwonago, Wis., was the first American woman to compete in the modern pentathlon, at the 2000 Olympics. The two met in 1998 at an Olympics training center in San Antonio and married nine months later. "Training with Mary Beth helps me to see how motivated and dedicated she is," says Vaho. "She gives me inspiration." Other married couples on the U.S. team include Alan and Shayne Culpepper, a marathoner and a 5,000-meter runner, respectively, and Ben and Danika Holbrook, who will row in quadruple sculls.
The U.S. Armed Forces are represented by 17 athletes, in shooting, fencing, modern pentathlon, rowing, track and field, and wrestling. The boxing coach is Army Staff Sgt. Basheer Abdullah.
Marathon and 10,000-meter runner Dan Browne is a 1997 West Point grad and a captain in the Oregon Army National Guard. At the marathon trials he wore a white ribbon to honor two classmates who died in Iraq. "I thought of them and I knew I wouldn't quit," he said.
Fencer Seth Kelsey graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2003 with a degree in behavioral science. A second lieutenant and épée specialist, he plans to become a services officer, running support systems at everything from day care centers to mess halls.
Shooter Todd Graves has been assigned to the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga., since 1984. The 41-year-old sergeant first class, who'll compete in skeet, is the most experienced U.S. Olympic shooter, having taken part in the 1992, '96 and 2000 Games.
Hook 'em, Horns
Divers Troy Dumais and Laura Wilkinson are Texas standouts who train together near Houston, but they're an unlikely pair. The high-octane Dumais, from Ventura, Calif., is a car racing buff; the quiet Wilkinson, a Houstonian, loves growing roses. "A few years back I started getting bored, and seeing her win the Olympics set off a spark in me," says Dumais, who'll compete in three-meter springboard and synchronized springboard. Wilkinson will defend her 10-meter platform title.
The Other Dream Team
The U.S. has won two straight women's basketball golds and heads to Athens with a roster that includes not only veteran standouts like guard Dawn Staley, center Lisa Leslie and forward Sheryl Swoopes but also hot-shot newcomers like guards Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird and forward Tamika Catchings. Catchings, the 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year, is especially tough on defense. "She's so unassuming, she doesn't need to be a star," says assistant coach Gail Goestenkors. But even on this stellar team, Catchings will be one.
Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin aren't the U.S.'s only gifted swimmers. Among the others on a team that could win 30 medals (photo right; from left): 100-meter butterfly favorite Ian Crocker, 21, who loves restoring his 1971 Buick Riviera and listening to Bob Dylan music; three-time Olympic butterflier Tom Malchow, 27, who, aptly, is taking flying lessons and has an Akita named Fly; 200 freestyler Lindsay Benko, 27, a two-time Olympian who'll marry Canadian swimmer Mike Mintenko next spring; Kaitlin Sandeno, 21, of USC, who'll swim three individual events; three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr., who at age 29 has the year's fastest 50-free time; Katie Hoff, 15, surprise winner of the 200 and 400 individual medleys at the U.S. trials; Brendan Hansen, 22, who set world records in both breaststrokes at the trials; Rachel Komisarz, 27, a 100-fly swimmer from the Louisville club that produced alltime great butterflier Mary T. Meagher; and Aaron Peirsol, 21, world-record holder in the 200 backstroke, who -- like Crocker and Hansen -- swam for Texas, under men's Olympic coach Eddie Reese.
Athens will likely be the swan song for five stars who helped bring women's soccer into America's consciousness. Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain (pictured right; from left) led the U.S. to two World Cup championships, a gold medal in 1996 and a silver in 2000. Now they want to return to the top of Mount Olympus before retiring. "We've grown up together since we were 15," says Lilly, who's now 33. "We're like sisters."
Asian-born doubles partners Kevin Han and Howard Bach want to win their adopted homeland's first badminton medal. Han, 31, left Shanghai when he was 17 -- he was already a badminton whiz -- and moved to Brooklyn, where he learned English as a delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant. Bach, 25, was just three when he and his family left Ho Chi Minh City for San Francisco, where he took up the sport at the local YMCA. "That's my American dream, going to the Olympics," says Han. "What bigger dream could you have?"
Aquil Abdullah, 31, is the first black man to make the U.S. Olympic rowing team. The son of a Catholic mother and a Muslim father, he grew up in Washington, D.C., and is a George Washington alum. He now lives in Princeton, N.J., and is a freelance computer programmer.
Maritza Correia, 22, is the first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. The Georgia student was born in Puerto Rico to Guyanese parents; she now lives and trains in Athens, Ga.
Issue date: August 2, 2004