We are midway through the photo shoot – and it’s going OK, but not great – when the six U.S. Olympic swimmers from Charlotte come up with something on their own to make it rise to a different level.
And I mean “rise” in a very literal sense, as a couple of the women suggest: “Let’s build a pyramid!”
Suddenly, the three men on the U.S. team are getting down on their knees to form the bottom row and a pyramid is quickly taking shape, with everyone giddy and laughing and saying “Get your knee out of my back!” all at once.
The picture that resulted illustrates this story about the Carolinas’ Olympians who are going to Rio in 2016. It also became one of my favorite moments in the lead-up to these Games. For the Olympics at their best are about things like that – spontaneity, fun, athleticism and building something unique.
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David Marsh is the coach of all six swimmers for Charlotte-based SwimMAC Team Elite and also the head coach of the U.S. women’s swim team. He looked on with a bit of concern as his 19-year-old backstroker, Kathleen Baker, gingerly tried to climb up her teammates’ backs to the third story of the pyramid.
But the coach didn’t stop this construction, either. Marsh knows that the Olympic Games are ultimately about the athletes, and that with any luck the rest of the noise fades away and allows some of the world’s best to showcase what they have been working the past four years to do.
Baker made it up and then back down without incident. We can only hope the Summer Olympics in troubled Brazil will go off as smoothly. There are several dozen athletes from the Carolinas who truly deserve a chance to have their big moment. Here are a few storylines I will be following from Rio – and yes, I’m packing bug spray – once the Olympics kick off in earnest Friday with the opening ceremonies.
Charlotte’s SwimMAC has long been one of the best swim clubs in America, and its Team Elite is one of the best training grounds in the world for athletes trying to make it to the Olympics. Team Elite has a club record of six Olympians in these Games – three men and three women.
Ryan Lochte, who moved to Charlotte in 2013, will be by far the most well-known. Lochte, already an 11-time Olympic medalist, fought through a groin injury at Olympic Trials, that nearly short-circuited his bid for a fourth Olympic team.
“At times, it hurt so bad that I thought, ‘I don’t believe I can do this,’” Lochte said. “Every time I went on the blocks, I was just in throbbing pain.”
Lochte has had a month to rehab the injury. He will swim in one relay event and one individual event in these Olympics. The renewal of his friendly rivalry with Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley should provide one of the best moments in the pool.
SwimMAC also sends the oldest swimmer on the U.S. team to Rio (35-year-old Anthony Ervin) and the second-youngest (Baker, who is just a couple of weeks older than Katie Ledecky).
In 2012, Charlotte’s SwimMAC had five U.S. Olympians. In 2016, the club beat that record with six. In a testament to how deep USA swimming is, none of the five from 2012 made the U.S. team in 2016.
Each of them has overcome major obstacles to get to Brazil. Ervin finally overcame a serious self-destructive streak that pushed him away from the sport throughout most of his 20s. Baker has for years fought Crohn’s disease – a chronic gastrointestinal disorder – and managed a commute from Winston-Salem to Charlotte.
Cammile Adams, Katie Meili and Jimmy Feigen are all native Texans who came to Charlotte to hone their skills and made the Olympic squad. And current N.C. State star Ryan Held became a surprise Olympian who may make a couple of more Olympic teams before he’s done.
More ways to get wet
It’s not just the swimmers among the Carolinas’ Olympians on Team USA who will be getting wet. Diver Abby Johnston is someone to root for – this is her final competition. She starts her third year of medical school at Duke the day after she returns from Rio.
And two men on the U.S. Canoe/Kayak team moved to Charlotte about eight years ago to train at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. This will be Casey Eichfeld’s third Olympics and Michael Smolen’s first. They are both coached by Smolen’s father – who in general, they both agree, yells a lot less at Eichfeld than he does his own son.
One of the highest-profile sports at every Olympics is women’s gymnastics. This year North Carolina could have a gymnast competing for the USA – but only if someone else gets hurt
Ashton Locklear – who lives in Hamlet and trains in Huntersville – did not make the five-woman U.S. team but was named one of the three alternates. She is one of the best in the world on the uneven bars, but has suffered through so many injuries at age 18 that she only competes regularly in two of the four women’s events. Locklear is traveling to Rio with the team but she is in alternate limbo right now. She will have to train in a separate gym in Brazil and won’t get a medal if the U.S. wins one as a team if she doesn’t compete.
“Ashton is known as a bar specialist,” said Marta Karolyi, who runs the U.S. women’s team, of Locklear. “The other bar specialist on the team is Madison Kocian. If anything ever would prevent Madison from being at her best ... then a change would happen.”
Ashton Locklear will get to perform with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team when it goes on its post-Olympics exhibition tour, including a stop in Charlotte.
Karolyi praises Locklear’s readiness, and we will know soon whether she is needed. Once the gymnasts begin team competition on Aug. 7, the lineup cannot be changed for any reason.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski returns for his third and final time at the helm of Team USA, although this time he won’t have quite as many NBA stars at his beck and call. LeBron James and Steph Curry are among those who decided not to play in Rio. Coach K still has Kevin Durant and a host of other NBA standouts, however, including former Blue Devil Kyrie Irving and former Tar Heel Harrison Barnes. It will be an upset if the U.S. returns with anything less than a gold medal.
And it’s not just basketballs that will be shot in Rio. N.C. State rising senior Lucas Kozeniesky made his first Olympics and will compete in the men’s 10-meter air rifle event.
And much, much more
With more than 10,000 athletes scheduled to compete from around the world in Rio, it’s no wonder that the list from the Carolinas is a long one. There are a couple of U.S. women’s teams with multiple Olympians – the women’s soccer team has five former UNC athletes, and the women’s field hockey team has seven players who played for one of the four ACC schools in North Carolina. Watch for Crystal Dunn, who can be a prolific scorer at times, to possibly become one of the breakout stars on the soccer team.
The athletes come in all shapes and sizes, from sturdy types such as discus thrower Tavis Bailey (Kannapolis A.L. Brown) and women’s shot putter Raven Saunders (Charleston, S.C.) to willowy types such as Charlotte Hornets star Nic Batum (competing for France) and women’s pole vaulter Sandi Morris (Greenville, S.C.)
What all of them have in common – as well as the other 10,000 or so athletes from around the world who will join them in Rio – is a passion for their sport and a burning desire for a medal.
They have all waited years, building to this moment. It’s time to see who can climb the pyramid.