Olympic Training Ground

By Steve Rivera –

From George Young and Amanda Beard to Mike Candrea and Gayle Hopkins, Tucson and the University of Arizona have had their share of Olympic favorites.

Who can ever forget the memories Kerri Strug provided with her leap from the vault with a severely injured ankle to secure gold for the team in 1996? Shivers to be sure at the Atlanta Games.

There could be more in store for a host of locals in a variety of sports.

In the pool, on the track, on the field and some other surfaces in between, Tucson has been home to many Olympians through the years. The 2012 London Games won’t be any different. The count could be numerous.

For the 2012 Olympics, there’s even BMX where 20-year-old Corben Sharrah shines. And, yes, of course, basketball.

And, why not? Hoop dreams are synonymous with the Old Pueblo. Former UA star Andre Iguodala hopes to be part of 2012 version of the Dream Team.

Tucsonans and the UA will be well-represented, making Southern Arizona a possible haven for hardware – be it gold, silver or bronze.

“Tucson is a great place to be – and to train,” said former UA track coach Dave Murray. “It’s been a great place for swimming and track and field.”

And volleyball, too. Former UA star Kim Glass is back to try to win gold, after helping Team USA win silver in Beijing in 2008.

Gold isn’t foreign to UA and Tucson. Former Arizona swim coach Frank Busch has helped lead 34 Olympians and 10 medalists. Now he’ll do so as Team USA’s director of Swimming. This summer more than 50 swimmers with ties to UA, Tucson and the Tucson Ford Aquatics team are vying for a spot on Team USA. As UA coach Eric Hansen said, the talent here is “mind-boggling.”

Even renowned swimmer Ed Moses, 31 and a former world record holder, moved to Tucson to be part of the world-class action.

The Olympic Trials are in late June. It’s the official starting line for gold medalists at the London Games – at least for swimmers.

“My job is not to do any sightseeing,” Busch said with a laugh when he took the job last year, leaving Arizona after two decades of excellence. “My job is to make sure everyone has a chance to do the best they can do. Having been a coach on a couple of staffs, I have learned some things that are very important. Most of it will be in the background though.”

Murray attributes Busch’s success – “getting the ball rolling” in recent years to make Tucson a hotspot for future Olympians, or at least in making the Old Pueblo a place to train and stay.

“The (Arizona) program kind of draws people in,” Murray said. “People come here and hope to go onto bigger things and that happens a lot. Bernard Lagat is a good example. He’s been a great ambassador for Tucson.”

Since 2010, Lagat, the Kenyan turned United States citizen, has been all about breaking records. He’s one-upped himself numerous times since then in preparation for the 5000 meter Olympic Games. In his American debut in the indoor 5000m in Boston, he set an American indoor record of 13:11.50. Four months later, he broke the 5000m outdoor record in 12:54.12 in Oslo. Just a month later, he broke it again at 12:53.60. Earlier this year, he also topped himself at the Millrose Games, running an American record in the 5000m at 13:07.15.

Now, if he can just stay injury-free. Injuries were what did him in in 2008, making Beijing his “biggest disappointment of my athletics career.” He’ll do so by trying to win the gold in the 5,000-meter run, the same event where he was among the favorites in at the 2008 Bejing Games only to finish ninth due to an injured Achilles tendon.

“That injury took a lot from me,” he said.

But he’s back. The two-time Olympic medalist – silver in Athens in 2004, bronze in Australia in 2000 – is more prepared than ever as he readies for his fourth Olympic games in London. He’s looking to become the first athlete representing the United States in the 5,000 meters since Bob Schul in 1964.

“It will mean a lot to my career,” he said. “It would say that I’ve stayed on top (for a long time).”

This time he really means business.

“I need to have more focus than ever before,” he said. “In the other Olympics I was just happy to be there. I just wanted to do my best. Now, I want to win. And, how am I going to win it? It’s by going all out. It’s my No. 1 priority. This is the moment.”

In part he wants to win a gold medal as a U.S. citizen. He became a naturalized citizen in 2004. Winning for the USA would be “awesome,” he said.

“When I won a medal for the USA at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan in the 1500m and 5000m it felt so good because it felt like I was giving back. It was the moment I had been waiting for.

“Now, this is the big stage and if I win it, it would mean so much if I were to win the gold medal.”

Ditto for Abdi Abdirahman, the former UA long-distance runner soon-to-be four-time Olympian. Abdirahman will be running the marathon in London after finishing third at the Olympic Trials earlier this year.

“I thought maybe one time I’d be an Olympian – but four times?” he said. “It’s amazing. I’ve had a great career. I’m just enjoying the moment.”

In previous years, he was the U.S. three-time 10000-meter champion. Now, he’ll be going the distance in the 26-mile marathon.

“I’m excited and I think it’s going to be fun,” said Abdirahman. “I ran well in the trials with minimal training – so with more training and fitness I think the sky is the limit.”

At age 35, he’s in prime condition for the distance. The fourth time the charm? He says he feels good.

“I think my chances are as good as anyone else’s,” he said. “That’s why you run the race. I’m training hard. Things are going well.”

And if he and Lagat were to win or medal?

“It would be amazing,” he said. “It’s why we run.”

It’s to win, of course. Or medal. It’s very likely to happen for Arizona volunteer assistant track coach Jill Camarena-Williams, who recently set a meet record at the Tucson Elite Classic in the shot put competition. Her distance was 64-feet 9-inches. Camarena-Williams, an eight-time indoor champion and three-time indoor champion, is currently the No. 3 ranked shot putter in the world. This will be her second Olympics after qualifying in 2008, finishing 12th.

Camarena-Williams is married to UA track and field trainer Dustin Williams.

“How many athletes will be able to have that (their husband or wife as their trainer) at the Olympics?” Camarena-Williams asked. “Maybe one other person, maybe just me. So having him there is going to be a huge advantage.”

Said Murray: “If she stays healthy, she could very well win it.”

But as she said, there are “no locks for the Olympics.” She knows she must first make the team.

Amanda Beard knows the feeling. Then again, she’s been there and done that before. She’ll be attempting to make her fifth Olympic Games. At age 30, anything is possible, especially when it comes to Beard, a former UA star and seven-time Olympic medalist – two gold, four silvers, one bronze. Can she make the team?

When Busch took his job with the U.S. Olympic team last year, he didn’t doubt she could.

“I don’t usually make any statements about those kinds of athletes or anything like this – but I have never coached anyone quite like Amanda Beard,” he said last year. “First of all, I have never met anyone as competitive as she is. I mean, you’d never know that just standing next to her or if you were her neighbor – but if you put that cap and goggles on her and race her, you would know it. She’s going to make her fifth consecutive Olympic team, which just makes you really think. Yet she’s absolutely a positive influence on everyone she comes in contact with. She has been a super human being with my program from day one.”

Matt Grevers wasn’t part of UA’s program but he’s part of the Tucson Ford Aquatics team. The former All-American earned a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and won two gold medals as part of Team USA relays in preliminary rounds in Beijing.

“Hopefully,” he said, “I can repeat what I did in 2008 and swim fast.”

Whatever it takes. And he’ll use every inch of his 6-foot-8 frame, using that sweeping bird-like motion.

“I think it was measured at 7 feet,” he said of his wingspan. “So it helps in swimming. Every stroke grabs a lot of water, so it’s good. I’m a pretty tall swimmer, probably the tallest U.S. swimmer and one of the tallest in the world. My wingspan is bigger than Michael Phelps’ wingspan and my feet are bigger too. But he’s 6-4 and I’m 6-8.”

Georganne Rochelle Moline is 5-9 and a wisp of an athlete. Thin but strong. Petite, yet a powerhouse. She’s gone from virtual unknown – out of Phoenix Thunderbird High – to being one of the best in the United States in the 400m hurdles. She’s a junior at UA and qualified for the Olympic Trials by going a personal best 55.25 seconds, beating her own school record.

Her potential is unlimited.

“My ultimate goal has always been to make it to the Olympics but it wasn’t until this year that I opened my eyes to the reality that I had a chance of not only going to London but actually being a potential threat there,” Moline said. “It amazes me that the athletes I see as icons are now my competitors.”

She’ll be ready and determined. It’s brought her to this point so there will be no looking back, no relenting.

“The knowledge I have now (with regard) to being an elite athlete is what clicked for me,” she said. “I was set in my ways and stubborn to the fact of changing but I knew I wanted different results. This year, I allowed myself to accept the fact that hard work and talent alone wasn’t going to get me to the Olympics. It’s the want and drive for the sport that’s an ingredient I needed to add to the mix.”

UA teammate Brigetta Barrett has the drive and the wherewithal. Perhaps more importantly, Barrett, a world-class high jumper, has belief in herself. It’s resulted in her being the U.S. indoor champion a year ago and a two-time NCAA champion. Literally, the sky is the limit.

“Participating at the international level just solidified in my mind ‘this is where I belong,’” she said. “It was the most competitive environment I had ever experienced in my life, and yet I was not surprised at how I responded to that type of pressure. I feel that I was able to rise to the occasion to the best of my ability and then some. But most importantly, it reminded me why I started to do track and field as an organized sport in the first place. It is the excitement of being pressed to the fire and coming out refined or burnt. I feel that sport truly tests what you are made of as a human being, and being at such a highly competitive environment at times forces you to do things you never thought that you could.”

Iguodala has a chance to do something former UA star Richard Jefferson wasn’t able to do – win a gold medal. Jefferson was part of the 2004 Dream Team. It finished third.

“It would be incredible, not ever really thinking that I could be there as a kid,” Iguodala said when he was first named to roster of possibly making the team. “I remember Penny (Hardaway) had the Olympic shoe out. I bought that. That was my favorite shoe. Just watching the Dream Team, Dream Team II, and then just following the guys every time the Olympics are on. Just being mentioned in that is crazy.”

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