She was 11 when she walked into Rudy Silva's gym in the Houston suburb of Pasadena and asked him to be her trainer. In a scene out of Million Dollar Baby, Silva told her he didn't train girls. It took Marlen days to persuade him to let her work out at his gym and several days more to get his permission to spar with his young male fighters. "I wanted her to quit," Silva says, "but after a while, some of my boys started quitting." Marlen stayed, and at 16 she won the first of her six national titles in the 106-pound light flyweight division. She was the first female U.S. fighter to qualify for London. "To be the first woman to earn an Olympic [boxing] spot is everything to me," Esparza says. "It feels like everything in my life has been building toward this."
Stories like Esparza's are what make Team USA a real team. The athletes' goals in London may not be the same, but the goal of getting to London was. Hundreds of paths led them to this point, and while the relentless television segments on their backstories may start to overwhelm you, each one of them is compelling in its own way.
Gymnast Danell Leyva's road to London, for instance, began in Cuba. His mother, María González, a former gymnast on the Cuban national team, defected in 1993, spiriting Danell out of the country when he was just a year old. In Miami, González reunited with Yin Alvarez, a former teammate. They eventually married and opened a gym, where Leyva, the reigning world champion on the parallel bars, began his road to the Olympics. "I am who I am because of my parents," he says. "They believed they could do crazy things, so I never thought I couldn't."
That's the kind of story that makes an Olympic squad different from the teams we usually follow. We want Team USA to win for us, so we can wave the flag, but we want it to succeed for the athletes as well because we understand what they have invested to make it this far. When most teams fail, their fans feel bad mostly for themselves. When Olympians fall short, we are not disappointed in them, we are disappointed for them.
Maybe the only exception to this is in men's basketball, where we expect a group of wealthy NBA stars to be dominant. If they bring home anything less than gold, they will have to answer for it. That's why the celebrity athletes, not just NBA players such as James and Kobe Bryant but also tennis players such as Serena Williams and Andy Roddick, always seem a bit out of place at the Games. Team USA isn't about the stars who compete in the Olympics, it's about the athletes who become stars as a result of competing in the Olympics.
INSTEAD OF global celebrities, most of Team USA's athletes are people we can imagine seeing at the mall or the grocery store, and some of their stories make us care even more about them. They have committed not just their bodies and minds to the Olympic effort, but also their hearts.
Open-water swimmer Alex Meyer is competing in memory of his friend Fran Crippen, who might have been on Team USA if not for his death in 2010 while swimming in a 10-kilometer World Cup race in the United Arab Emirates. The race was held in near-90º water, and an autopsy showed that Crippen succumbed to heat exhaustion. He had slipped beneath the surface without officials noticing, and Meyer was the first to realize his friend was nowhere in sight. "I felt the best way to honor him was to achieve the goal we both shared," says Meyer, who hopes to carry one of Crippen's swim caps with him onto the medal podium in London (and whose story will be featured on a new SI television show, which debuts on NBC Sports Network on July 24 at 9 p.m. ET).
Five years ago Kayla Harrison, a world champion in judo, was in an Ohio courtroom testifying that her former coach Daniel Doyle had abused her for three years when she was a teenager. Before Doyle was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Harrison's parents, sensing that their daughter needed a change of scenery, encouraged her to move to Boston, where she continued her judo training under Jimmy Pedro and his father, Jimmy Sr. The training center became her safe haven; the two Pedros offered emotional support as well as coaching, helping Harrison through her dark periods. "I thought about quitting every day for the first year and a half I was there," she says, "but they never gave up on me." Thanks in great measure to the Pedros (the younger of whom is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist), Harrison now has a chance to become the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in judo.
It is easy to root for athletes such as these, both because of their individual stories and because of the larger unit of which they are a part. Team USA doesn't hold a monopoly on sacrifice and commitment, of course. Athletes from all over the world have traveled equally arduous roads to get to London, and the challenge for U.S. fans, as always, is to avoid jingoism. But you don't have to apologize if you feel a connection to the U.S. team. They are trying to make you proud even as you cheer for them to fulfill their own dreams. A group of athletes and their fans all want success, as much for each other as for themselves. You know what that's called? A team.