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U.S. Olympians with the Toughest Journeys to Sochi

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2014

U.S. Olympians with the Toughest Journeys to Sochi

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    U.S. speedskater J.R. Celski
    U.S. speedskater J.R. CelskiRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The journey to compete in any Olympics—winter or summer—is always an arduous one.

    An athlete has to prove himself and demonstrate that high-level talent on a consistent basis. That takes long hours of practice and regular refinement of the technique.

    But sometimes, that's not enough. An athlete who has been injured may have to spend weeks or months in rehab before she can get back to her sport.

    There are other issues besides injuries, as well. In this piece, we look at 10 American athletes who have endured difficult obstacles on their way to Sochi.

Speedskater Shani Davis

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    Shani Davis is a trail-blazing Olympian speedskater. Davis, 31, who started roller skating at the age of two, traded in his wheels for blades when he turned eight.

    The Chicago native found a speedskating club in suburban Evanston and quickly fell in love with his sport. As he advanced up the ladder, he quickly found out he was nearly the lone African-American competing almost everywhere he skated.

    While he often felt the sting of isolation, Davis continued to improve and become a world-class skater. When he competed in Turin in 2006, he became the first African-American to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics when he was victorious in the 1,000-meter race. He also won gold in the same event at Vancouver in 2010, and he took silver in the 1,500-meter race in 2006 and 2010.

    He has encountered racism and criticisms that he is not a team player, but he has not let any of it get him down. "I’m thankful now for all those hardships,” Davis told Bryan Smith of Chicago Magazine. “It didn’t make me quit. It made me stronger.”

Hockey Player Zach Parise

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    Zach Parise has unfinished Olympic business.

    Nearly everyone remembers the epic hockey final in the 2010 Olympics between the United States and Canada played in Vancouver. The gold medal game went to overtime and Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby ended matters when he wristed the puck through the legs of United States goaltender Ryan Miller for the gold-medal winning goal.

    Joy for Canada; tears for the United States.

    The Americans had played sensational hockey, and nobody was better than Parise. He had tied the score late in the third period and sent the game to overtime with a sensational individual effort. However, it all came to a painful end when Crosby ended matters.

    Parise, the captain of the 2014 U.S. team, has been waiting for four years to get his opportunity at redemption. In the interim, he played for the Stanley Cup and signed a huge free-agent contract with the Minnesota Wild.

    But this is what he wanted, and his Olympic memories have haunted him. It's time for Parise to rewrite that ending.

Slopestyle Skier Nick Goepper

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Nick Goepper is the Cincinnati kid. Growing up in the greater Cincinnati area (actually, Southeastern Indiana), you'd figure that Goepper would be inside a gym playing basketball all winter and baseball in the spring and summer.

    But Goepper, 19, is not the average Midwesterner. He developed an affinity for skiing at an early age and he happened to live 10 minutes away from a ski slope that allowed him to take up freestyle skiing at a very early age.

    But when you are skiing in the Midwest, it's tough to have hopes of competing with the best in the world. After all, you are skiing on hills with 400-foot drops. Out west, they are skiing on mountains with drops of 3,000- or 4,000 feet.

    But that's all Goepper knew from an early age, and he never let it bother him. It was not unusual for him to spend eight or 10 hours on the slopes without even taking a break for lunch. He was in love with a sport that most around him were not even aware of.

    He didn't have anything close to ideal conditions during his formative years, but he is in Sochi as the gold medal favorite in slopestyle skiing, and he's ready to introduce himself to the world.

Speedskater Heather Richardson

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    Koji Sasahara/Associated Press

    Heather Richardson is one of the favorites to win speedskating medals in Sochi.

    It is not the first time she finds herself in that position. Richardson competed in the 500-meter sprint as well as the 1,000- and 1,500-meter race in Vancouver in 2010. However, Richardson did not come home with any medals. She finished sixth in the 500, ninth in the 1,000 and 16th in the 1,500.

    While Richardson was obviously disappointed with her showing, she has been one of the dominant figures in women's speedskating. She has 15 World Cup medals, including eight gold medals, six silvers and one bronze.

    She won the world overall champion in the 1,000-meter in 2013, as well as the world sprint champion.

    Few athletes will be under more pressure to win than Richardson. If she can't handle the pressure, the Salt Lake City native will feel crushed. She is arguably the best speedskater in the world, but she must prove it with the whole world watching.

Ski Jumper Sarah Hendrickson

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    Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    Sarah Hendrickson is made of tough stock.

    The 19-year-old from Salt Lake City is a year-round ski jumper, and she was practicing her craft last August in Germany. However, as she took off on her practice jump, she had overwhelming height and distance. It turned out that she had gone too high and too far, and when she came down she had torn her anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.

    "I laid at the bottom of the hill and thought everything was over and that sponsors were going to drop me and that my dreams of becoming an Olympian for this year were over,"  Hendrickson told Yahoo Sports.

    This was a devastating injury that should have kept her out of action for a year—and that's under the best of circumstances. But Hendrickson would have none of it. After surgery, she went on a demanding rehab protocol that often left her in tears.

    But instead of quitting, she kept with it and made a full recovery. Hendrickson has an excellent chance of bringing home a medal in the first Olympic ski jumping competition for women.

    While she has tough competition in Japan's Sara Takanashi, that medal may even be gold.

     

Hockey Player Amanda Kessel

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    Carlo Allegri/Associated Press

    Amanda Kessel has been in a battle for recognition her entire hockey-playing life. Despite having one of the hardest and most effective wrist shots in the history of women's hockey, she has a tough time getting out of the shadows.

    That's what happens when you are from a hockey-playing family. Her older brother is Phil Kessel, who will be manning one of the forward spots on the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team. When Phil is not playing for the red, white and blue, he's a high-scoring winger for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    As a youngster, Amanda saw Phil and brother Blake playing hockey all the time. She decided to play as well, and she became a dynamic skater with a potent shot.

    As she prepares to play in the Olympics, Amanda is trying to overcome a "lower-body injury." That's how it's often done in hockey. Specific injuries are rarely revealed so opponents don't know what areas to target.

    But as Kessel gets her chance to compete in the Olympics, she has to do it knowing she is not at full strength.

Skier Bode Miller

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Bode Miller has seen it all and done it all in the Winter Olympics. The trip to Sochi is Miller's sixth venture in the Winter Olympics and almost certainly his last.

    Few athletes have had more ups and downs than the 36-year-old, who resides in Coto de Caza, Calif. He has won a gold, three silvers and a bronze at previous Olympics, but he has also had substantial challenges and injuries.

    In the latter category, Miller suffered a severe knee injury in 2012 that required 20 months of rehab following microfracture surgery. When the injury first happened, it seemed likely that his competitive career was over.

    Off the mountain, he lost his younger brother to brain seizures, and he endured a painful custody fight for his child. Through it all, Miller endured, recovered and regained his career as he attempts to go for another medal in downhill skiing.

    "Dealing with those kind of tough situations, it's obviously part of growing and being a grown-up," Miller told Frank Fitzpatrick of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bobsledder Lauryn Williams

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Lauryn Williams had come to the end of the line when it came to Olympic competition.

    At the age of 30, she knew her days as a sprinter in the Summer Olympics were over. You don't get faster at that age, and the two-time Olympic medalist had decided to hang up her spikes.

    But that didn't mean the choice was easy and that it came without any melancholy moments. However, as she was getting used to the idea of putting her competitive days behind her and becoming a financial planner who specialized in helping athletes, a conversation with Lolo Jones gave her athletic career a jolt.

    Jones, a well-known Olympic hurdler, was also pushing a bobsled as a winter sports athlete. She convinced Williams to give it a try as well.

    Williams, despite never having pushed a bobsled in her life a year ago, will be competing for a medal as a pusher/brakeman in the bobsled.

    Her athletic career was over and it had ground to a halt. Now Williams is resurgent again and has a chance to compete in the spotlight once again.

    That's a big emotional hurdle, but it's one that Williams is ready to fly over.

Speedskater J.R. Celski

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The sport of short-track speedskating is a rough and tumble world with danger lurking around every turn.

    Few speedskaters know this better than J.R. Celski. Prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Celski got slashed by a razor-sharp skate blade and the deep and sickening cut required 60 stitches. Celski recovered to the point where he could compete in Vancouver, but he was not close to top form. Nevertheless, he earned a bronze medal.

    This time it's different.

    Celski is healthy and a medal favorite in the 500-, 1,000-, and 1,500-meter races. He is under pressure to take the baton from retired short-track legend Apolo Ohno and help the United States retain its position of prominence in the sport.

    He has done the hard part and came back from a brutal injury. Now he must show he can perform to the gold standard under the brightest lights.

Hockey Player Paul Martin

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Defenseman Paul Martin of the Pittsburgh Penguins is getting set to compete in the Olympics for the first time.

    However, the 32-year-old Martin figures he is just cashing an old check. Martin had been named to the 2010 U.S. team and was thrilled with the idea of going to Vancouver and putting on a Team USA jersey. However, Martin could not play when his arm was shattered after he was hit with a slap shot that exploded off the stick of then-teammate Bill Guerin.

    Martin would recover, but he endured a couple of difficult years before returning to form last year with the Penguins. He is not a high-scoring impact player, but if the USA is going to have a chance to bring home a medal, it needs a tough, stay-at-home defenseman to be on top of his game. Martin needs to play the shutdown role and keep stars from Canada, Russia, Sweden and Slovakia from mounting assaults on the Team USA net. 

    The prospect thrills Miller, a Minneapolis native. "I’m really excited about this opportunity and the chance to play," he told ESPN.com's Scott Burnside. "Wherever it might be, right side, left side, I just want to play. I just want to go.” 

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