London Games fast approaching for U.S. hopefuls
NEW YORK -- Dozens of American Olympians and hopefuls descended on Times Square on Wednesday to celebrate the 100-days-until-the-London-Games mark. espnW caught up with some of the athletes:
Southern California talent pool runs deep
Some athletes motivate themselves at practice by imagining their opponents working just as hard somewhere on the other side of the world. Rebecca Soni, the reigning world champion in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, requires no such mental imagery; she's got her stiffest competition right where she can see it -- in the lane next to her at the USC pool.
Soni, 25, admits she was starting to get run down trying to race Jessica Hardy, the world-record holder in the 100 breaststroke, and Russia's Yuliya Yefimova, the 2011 world silver medalist in the 200 breast, every day in practice. So to prevent herself from stressing out over what she can't control -- in this case, her practice partners' performances -- she has started talking to a sports psychologist.
"I don't know if I'll follow through with it, but it's good to have a venting session and get a little objective feedback," Soni said. "It's different than just talking to your family and boyfriend."
Soni entered the 2008 Beijing Games with a relatively low profile and wound up scoring a stunning upset of Australia's Leisel Jones to win the 200 breaststroke in world-record time (the record has since been surpassed). This time, the New Jersey native and former USC superstar will enter the Olympic trials and, presumably, the Games bearing the weight of significant expectations on her sculpted shoulders.
"It's a little bit different because I've been training for this the whole four years," Soni said of her outlook on London. And her talented practice partners are there to remind her how stiff the competition will be. "It's good we push each other," she said. "Sometimes there are days when I don't want to know how fast you're going, but there is no animosity there."
Getting the band back together
Though Maya Moore will make her Olympic debut in London, the experience may feel vaguely familiar to her. The hoops superstar will be once again taking direction from U.S. national team head coach Geno Auriemma, who directed Moore's legendary collegiate career at Connecticut.
"Given that it's the Olympics, hopefully he won't have to yell at us as vigorously," Moore said Wednesday. "He takes his job as head coach extremely seriously, but at the same time, there's never a dull moment with Coach. It will be really refreshing now to go back and play for him now that I'm a year out."
Moore led the Huskies to two national titles and then, as 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year, brought the Minnesota Lynx their first league title. She was also part of the U.S. team that won the 2010 world championship. But at 22, she expects the London Games to be a highlight in her already legendary career.
"We're all going to bring our best," she said of the U.S. team, which includes four other former Connecticut players. "You can't compare the Olympics to anything else."
High and mighty
Less than a year removed from the birth of her second daughter, Aurora, high jumper Chaunté (Howard) Lowe claimed her first world title at last month's indoor track and field world championships in Istanbul. Lowe, who is married to retired triple jumper Mario, gained 55 pounds with her second pregnancy, but was power-walking a mile two days after childbirth and returned to serious training three or four weeks post-delivery.
As a result of that rigorous return schedule, Lowe is in the best shape of her life, and ready to jump higher than she ever has in her career. Disappointed in her sixth-place finish at the Beijing Olympics, Lowe said she expects to contend for gold in London. As for the older of her "two princesses," Jasmine? Ranked in the 95th percentile for height among 4-year-olds, she is looking like a good early bet for the high jump team at the 2032 Olympics.
"Olympic champion" is a nifty moniker, but it's not particularly useful when one is trying to complete a course of study at Stanford. "It was fun for the first day," said rower Elle Logan of her triumphant return to campus after she scored gold in Beijing as part of the women's eight. "Then I realized I had about 50 papers to do."
Logan did graduate with a history degree in 2011, and now, as a full-time athlete, enjoys the luxury of getting adequate rest. "I recognized the power of sleep for your training, and the one thing you don't have in college is sleep," said the 24-year-old. The 6-foot-2 Maine native lives with a host family in Princeton, N.J., so she can train with the U.S. national team, and said the pool of candidates for this year's women's eight is stronger, and deeper, than it was four years ago.
Three's a taekwondo crowd
Though she is thrilled to be making a return trip to the Olympics in taekwondo this summer, Diana Lopez rues the fact she will be one of "only" two Lopez siblings competing in London. Diana, 28, and brother Steven, 33, booked return trips to the Games at last month's Olympic trials, while their brother Mark, 29, failed to secure a berth for London. That means La Familia Lopez will not reprise its three-medal performance from the 2008 Beijing Games, where Mark won silver and Diana and Steven (the 2000 and 2004 Olympic champion) each took bronze.
Mark's disappointment was as painful for his siblings as it was for himself -- "I couldn't enjoy the moment at all," Diana said of the Olympic trials -- but it has served only to strengthen the family's competitive resolve. Mark continues to serve as a sparring partner for Steven and Diana, and oldest brother Jean, their coach, ensures Diana's competitions are "easier than any workout," as she puts it. "They don't take it easy on me," she said of training with her older brothers. "I can go at them."
The Lopezes own and operate two taekwondo academies in the Houston area -- a far cry from their early days in the sport, when they practiced in the non-air-conditioned garage of the family's Sugar Land home. The relatively cushy digs, and Diana's full-time commitment to taekwondo (she will return to the University of Houston-Downtown in the fall to complete her degree in childhood education), have the featherweight fighter (57 kg/125.5 pounds) optimistic about her prospects for adding a shinier medal to her collection.
"I'm the most experienced competitor in my division," she said. "I'm more mature and even healthier than I was four years ago. I feel really good, I'm going to have fun in the ring, and I'm very confident I'm going to bring home the gold medal."