Dreaming Gold

July 16, 2012 by  
Filed under Features

Several Olympic hopefuls call Houston home. H Texas talked to three of them about their life-long journey and the road to London. by Sue-Ella Mueller

Every four years, we are hit with the summer Olympic fever that unites the world. Our television sets glow long into the night while we watch, fascinated by sports we never even knew existed. We cheer on our favorite athletes as they take the podium and together, we sing the anthem of our homeland. But as the last flag is lowered, the final firework extinguished, and regularly scheduled TV shows resume, our thoughts of the Summer Games retreat. With the exception of seeing a star Olympian on a Wheaties box and another make an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, for most of us, the summer festivities will remain an event of 2012 that we will barely be able to recall in 2013 and one that will be replaced by a new event and venue in 2016.

But for the athletes that train year after year to compete in the summer games, thoughts of the Olympics are never far from their minds. It is what drives them to wake up at 4 a.m. day after day to train in an outdoor pool even in the cold winter months; it is what forces them to get up off the mat and grab a hold of the high bar to try again the body contorting trick they’ve failed to hit forty times before; it is the need to spend just a half hour more after a five-hour day at the gym pounding a bag they will never beat. For these athletes, it’s not just an event—it’s their dream, their goal, their life.

Many an Olympic medalist from both winter and summer sports alike has called Houston home: Carl Lewis and Eric Thomas (track and field), Tara Lipinski (ice skating), Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics), Laura Wilkinson (diving), siblings Steven, Mark and Diana Lopez (taekwondo), and Zina Garrison (tennis), to name just a few. For the 2012 London Olympic Games, Houston will once again be well represented. To date, there are five area athletes who have already qualified for the Games, offering Houstonians an opportunity to root for more than one hometown hero. There could be even more if all goes right for other H Town athletes who will compete in their sports’ Olympic trials in the next few weeks.

H Texas magazine had an opportunity to speak with three Olympic hopefuls from Houston. Each has a different story, but their dream is the same (get the gold!). However, what we discovered is that whether these athletes make the Games or not—or are actually able to achieve their wildest dreams of gold—their spirit, drive and determination is well worth our admiration.

Marlen Esparza

SPORT Boxing

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS First ever USA qualifier for Olympic women’s boxing; Six-time U.S. National Champion (from 2006-2011); 2008 Pan American Games Gold Medalist; 2006 World Championship Bronze Medalist

AGE 23

HOMETOWN Pasadena

SURPRISING FACT Marlen also plays volleyball and basketball as well as runs and swims. During her down time, her favorite television shows are The Simpsons and House.

When the 2012 Olympic Games are over, with or without a medal, Houstonian Marlen Esparza will have made history going down as one of the first women to ever compete in the newly added Olympic sport of women’s boxing and the first-ever Olympic qualifier for the sport from the United States.

While women’s boxing is not new to the ring, it has been an uphill battle to get the nod of the International Olympic Committee and even now, there will only be three weight classes as opposed to men’s boxing which has 10 weight classes. “The best [female] fighters from each country have been competing against each other internationally for years, just never at the Olympics,” says Esparza. “This is huge for the sport. We have fought to overcome so many challenges and obstacles to get to this point.”

The 23-year old is used to working hard and overcoming obstacles. She started boxing at the age of 11 after years of watching the sport on television with her dad and later watching her brothers train at a nearby gym. Although her family wasn’t sure about having their little girl compete in the ring, after she won her first national tournament and they realized how much she loved the sport, they were quickly in her corner. She boxed throughout high school and managed to maintain a 4.6 GPA. Despite a vigorous training schedule, not only was she class president at Pasadena High School, she also graduated among the top 3 percent of her class in 2007.

While education is clearly important to Esparza, she has put college on hold for now as she gets ready for the games. “My training is really tough. I workout two to three times a day. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I do weight lifting in the morning and then go to the boxing gym [Elite Boxing Gym] from 5-8 pm and do a run before or after my gym workout. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I do swimming in the morning instead and I usually only take one day off a week [Sundays],” she says.

With so much going on, one might think Esparza would be a little stressed about the upcoming games. However, Esparza is known for her cool demeanor when approaching the ring. “I am actually more calm and mellow before I fight. Some days, I take naps before I fight at night and usually listen to Christian music before I go into the ring,” she says.

Don’t let that fool you, though. When the London games roll around, Esparza plans to come out swinging. “This means everything to me. I’ve been working so hard and for so long; my whole life has been about boxing.” She also hopes the addition of women’s boxing will drive home the point that, “It’s not just a male sport anymore. It’s for everyone.”

Jonathan Horton

SPORT Gymnastics

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Silver Medal 2008 Beijing Olympics (High Bar), Bronze Medal 2008 Beijing Olympics (Team), Bronze Medal 2010 World Championships (All-Around), Gold Medal at the Visa National Championships 2009 and 2010 (All-Around)

AGE
26

HOMETOWN Houston

MARRIED to Haley DeProspero
Horton (former collegian gymnast)

SURPRISING FACT Obsessed with personal hygiene; a clean shave, smelling good and fresh breathe are part of the daily routine; loves fast cars and motorcycles

Olympic veteran and Houstonian Jonathan Horton is poised to assume a place on the medal podium once again. Having earned an individual silver medal in high bar and a team bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Horton has high hopes of adding gold to his collection.

“I remember watching the women’s team win gold [1996 Atlanta Olympics] and from then on, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” says Horton. “My entire life, I’ve always wanted to be able to say that at one point in time, I was the best in the world.”
Horton, captain of the U.S. National Men’s Gymnastics Team, stands a good chance of doing just that. But first he has to get through the Olympic trials set for June 28 and June 30.

“In 2008, I was blind and didn’t really understand the Olympic hype. So, my mental approach to this year’s games is different; I know what to expect,” says the 26 year old Horton. “I think you’re more stressed at trials than at the games. Everyone wants that dream to come true, but if you don’t make the team, you don’t go. The trials are where you see gymnasts fall apart or have their greatest moments ever.”

Horton has been involved in gymnastics since he was four years old. He was a phenom at the University of Oklahoma where he earned a Sooner record of six NCAA National Championship titles. Today, he works out six days a week anywhere from four to six hours a day.

“It’s a lot of conditioning and strength training. There’s a lot of repetition of skills obviously too. You’ll do it a million times until you get it right,” he says. “It’s the mental and physical side that makes you successful. I mean, you have to have talent, but talent is worthless without the desire to persist and push.”

A little older and a little wiser, Horton says his training is still just as intense as ever, but now he trains more efficiently. He also trains often with other Houston gymnasts such as Chris Brook who have the potential to make the Olympic team as well. “It [training] definitely takes a toll on your body. It’s a little harder to recover than when you were 18. But we take better care of ourselves. It’s quality work that matters rather than quantity,” says Horton, who trains at the Cypress Academy under Coach Tom Meadows.

Horton has long been known as one of the hardest working men in gymnastics. He has set his goal on getting gold and believes that this year’s team should be a strong one for the United States and has a legitimate shot of standing together and singing the Star Spangled Banner, not only as individuals, but as a team. It’s a sure bet that he’ll do whatever it takes to increase the team’s odds.

“My goal is gold,” Horton says. “On the days when I’m tired, that’s what gets me through training.”

Christina Loukas

SPORT Diving

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS Nine-time national champion (1-meter 2007, 2008, 2009 x2; 3-meter 2010, 2011; synchronized 3-meter 2009, 2010; synchronized 10-meter 2006); Won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials on 3-meter and placed ninth at the 2008 Olympics; Silver medalist on 3-meter synchro at 2012 FINA Diving World Series (Dubai, Tijuana), bronze medalist on 3-meter (Tijuana); Fourth on 3-meter at 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai (first top-four finish by a U.S. woman on 3-meter at Worlds since 1994)

AGE 27

HOMETOWN Riverwoods, Illinois; Houston transplant now living in The Woodlands

SURPRISING FACT Her family owns a number of rooftop buildings around the Wrigleyville area as well as the Cubby Bear lounge. As a result, Christina is a huge Chicago Cubs fan.

While Christina Loukas is not a native Houstonian, she has lived and trained here for the past two years and, by virtue, has become an adopted daughter of the city. Born in Chicago, Loukas grew up having to shovel snow and de-ice the car windows in order to get to diving practice. But it wasn’t the snow that drove her to look for a new residence; it was the burning desire to do everything she could to become not just a better diver, but the best diver.

And, if you are a diver looking for the best coach, what better place to look than Houston? It is after all the home of the famed Woodlands Diving Academy’s Coach Ken Armstrong, who helped propel diver Laura Wilkinson, competing with a broken foot at the time, to a gold medal in platform diving at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I’d been training for six years at Indiana University. Indiana has a team of great divers, but I’d kind of hit the top there and I needed a new set of eyes to watch my diving,” says the 26-year old Loukas. Loukas’ first place finish at the 2008 Olympic trials had earned her a spot on the team, but her ninth place finish had her wanting to do more to succeed in international competitions.
With the support of her family, Loukas made the move to Houston in 2010. She says it was the right decision for her and has helped her regain her focus. “I was taking diving too seriously. Kenny makes it fun; he is always joking around. It’s just a better learning environment for me.” She also had the opportunity to train with Wilkinson through this December. “I’ve always looked up to Laura. She has such a passion for the sport and such a great work ethic. She is a good source for me, someone I can talk to,” says Loukas.

Wilkinson is now devoting much of her time to taking care of her one year old, but Loukas is not alone in the pool. In fact, another bright, native Houston hopeful, 16-year old Kassidy Cook, trains with and is Loukas’ synchro partner. “We train together all the time. She is so mature, probably because she is one of six kids, that I forget how old she is,” Loukas says.
With or without Cook, Loukas spends about five hours every weekday training including dryland work, trampoline work, Pilates, and, of course, board work. Olympic trials will take place June 17 through June 24. However, making the team is not the only thing on Loukas’ mind.

“Going into the trials, I have the experience and I have more confidence now,” she says. “For me, this time around, just making the Olympics isn’t the goal. The goal is to make the Olympics and get the gold.”

 

COACH’S TAKE

Swim Coach Allison Beebe shares what it is like to coach an Olympic hopeful.

It is 60-hour work weeks with very few days off. There for every dawn and twilight practice and present for every Saturday meet, game or event. On hand to act as a surrogate parent, physical therapist and career counselor. The pay can be small and the glory little. Yet, these amazing individuals clock in each day to support, to train, to motivate and to coach some of the best athletes of our time.

In the world of swimming, there are literally hundreds of thousands of athletes training in the water every day. To even qualify for trials, regardless of where one finishes, puts a swimmer in an elite crowd. For non-college, age–group swim coaches, having one swimmer go to trials is an accomplishment, having two swimmers make it is a quite a feat and coaching three or more swimmers to trials, well, that would be considered by some a triumph.

For one club coach in Sugar Land, however, it seems like the Olympic trials, set to take place June 25 through July 2 in Omaha, is just another day at the office. “The mindset of our program is about not putting limits on what you can do,” says First Colony Swim Team (FCST) Head Coach Allison Beebe, named the 2010-2011 Gulf Coach of the Year. “So for us, it wasn’t will we get someone to trials, it was who is going.”

Who indeed as Coach Allison and FCST, are sending not one, not two, but eight swimmers to the 2012 US Olympic swim trials. Of the swimmers heading to Omaha, Coach Allison says they all have one common denominator: They are consistent and never miss practice unless they are sick. That’s practicing eight times a week during the school year and nine times during the summer. And it’s not just the kids who are making the practices. Coach Allison and her team of coaches are there too.

“It’s important that we emulate what we expect from them. We have to show up. We expect them to work hard and we work harder,” Coach Allison says.

Perhaps one of the most trying parts of her work comes when she has to say good-bye to her age–group swimmers and, hopefully, send them off to college to be trained by another coach. However, when asked if it is disheartening to be somewhat of a stepping stone in the sport, she says, “It’s my job to get them ready for college swimming and I expect them to continue to compete. I’d be angry if I was a stopping point.”

As far as this year’s trials go, Coach Allison says she is treating it like any other meet. “They are as prepared as they can be,” she says. “My hope is that they get up on the blocks knowing they did the best they could to train for this moment. And I hope they leave hungry, wanting to come back and do even better in 2016.”

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