Olympic Dream and Spirit

Volume III

Table of Contents

1. Andre Agassi, tennis 7

2. Rio Ramirez, diving 11

3. Ashley Tappin, swimming 19

4. Anna Kozlova, synchronized swimming 25

5. Michael Matz, equestrian 35

6. Tara Nott, weightlifting 40

7. Kevin Hall, sailing 48

8. Angel Myers Martino, swimming 54

9. Greg Barton, canoe/kayak 60

10. Arlene Limas, taekwondo 65

11. Matt Ghaffari, wrestling 71

12. Brooke Bennett, swimming 78

13. Joe Jacobi, canoe/kayak 83

14. Amy Peterson, speedskating 89

15. Ron Brant, gymnastics 96

16. Travis Niemeyer, diving 102

17. Felicia Zimmermann, fencing 109

18. Jonty Skinner, swimming 118

19. Makare Desilets, volleyball 125

20. Jason Gatson, gymnastics 131

21. Carla McGhee, basketball 136

22. Cory Salmela, biathlon 141

23. Wes Barnett, weightlifting 148

24. Dana Chladek, canoe/kayak 154

25. Lyle Nelson, biathlon 160

26. Tom Malchow, swimming 167

27. Kathy Pesek, diving 173

28. Bart Conner, gymnastics 180

29. Chris Witty, speedskating/cycling 186

30. Byron Davis, swimming 190

31. J.J. Isler, sailing 199

32. Jarrod Marrs, swimming 205

33. Doug Beal, volleyball 210

34. Dragomir Cioroslan, weightlifting 216

35. Erinn Smart, fencing 222

 

 

Name: Rio Ramirez

Sport: Diving

Born: August 10, 1974, Camaguey, Cuba

Family: Parents, Jesus and Lilia Ramirez; American

family, Herman and Eleonor Graulich

Resides: Miami, Florida

Trains: University of Miami

Coach: Randy Ableman

Accomplishments: 1990 10-meter champion of the Cuban Cup; 1991-93 national champion on 10-meter and in 1993 3-meter champion first time; 1991 member of the Cuban national team; 1991, Pan-American Games 10M champion (the first time a Cuban athlete won a gold in a Pan Am Game in diving); 1997-99 1-meter NCAA national champion; 1999 10-meter NCAA National Champion. 1997-99; Big East Conference 1-meter and 3-meter champion; 1999 summer national champion on 3-meter (synchronized diving) and second place on 1-meter, third place on 3-meter

Hobbies: Singing, dancing, outdoor activities

Post-Olympic goals and plans: Finish my degree in business administration at the University of Miami and go into acting or show business

 

By Rio Ramirez

The lack of freedom in Cuba was a major issue for me. I couldn't confide in anyone for fear I'd get him or myself in trouble, and that's just not how it should be.

I couldn't trust my diving coach to know my true feelings because that could have put me at risk. Had I told my coach, I would have put my diving career in jeopardy, as well as my future, and, most likely, the future of my family.

When I was 16 years old in 1991, I went to Canada with the Cuban team for a meet. My eyes were opened on that trip, and I learned there were organizations that could help me start the process of defecting. I also heard about a side of the United States that I had not heard before.

Eventually, I learned that America is a country based on freedom and the respect for human rights.

In Cuba, we are taught that Americans have no life and all talk of America was negative. We had no truth of what life in America was about, so the Canadian trip provided that first glimpse for me.

A couple of my teammates and I were talking in the hotel when a maid said, "Why don't you guys defect? You could do very well and help your families."

None of us could say anything. We didn't know whom we could trust, and for all we knew, the maid could have been prompted to say that to test us. I could not ask for more information at that time because it would have raised suspicion.

I came to Florida for a competition in 1991, and I loved it immediately. The climate was the same as Cuba's, but everything else was different-the houses, the people, the streets, and even the signs. The colors were vibrant. America was like a dream.

Cubans always refer to America as the big "monster," but while in Florida my friends and I thought, "I can't believe we're in the 'monster' and having such a good time!" It was one thing like that after another, although we obviously couldn't say it too loudly. I never even knew if my best friend was a spy. The mentality in Cuba is to trust no one.

I was overwhelmed with America and thought, "Oh my God, this is such a beautiful place!"

But I still wasn't serious about defecting. Plus, I still had at least two things to be excited about in Cuba-my family and diving. In 1992, we were supposed to represent Cuba in the Olympics. I had won the gold medal for the first time for Cuba at the Pan Am Games and two other divers had qualified as well.

I was assured, "You will go to the Olympics. Don't worry."

So I forgot about everything else and concentrated on the sport. The Cuban officials demanded I be a role model for my country and that I speak and act properly. All eyes were on me. I thought, "I don't like being this way, but I want to achieve this goal of being in the Olympics. And if this is what it takes, I can do it." I was told not to joke around in practice. "Remember," a coach told me, "you are now a big figure in Cuba. Be serious."

I did what I had to do. We went to a pre-Olympic meet in early 1992, but we didn't finish in the top six places. Cuba demanded we show we could be in the top six or they wouldn't send us to the Olympics. We were a young team and didn't do as well as we could have. As a result, we didn't get to go to the Olympics and I was devastated. My good feelings toward Cuba ended.

The older guys on our team said, "Well, at least you younger guys have another chance. That's the end of our careers."

We were let down but we couldn't say it or stand up for ourselves. If we did, our lives would be made miserable.

But I thought to myself, "Sure I can try for 1996. But what if what happened to the older guys on the team this year happens to me in 1996?"

The goal of every elite athlete is to reach the Olympics. I didn't see a future in Cuba for me and I didn't see prosperity or a change in Cuba's future. I said, "I don't want this future for me. I want to do something different for myself, and not have everyone else decide everything for me. I have to get out of here."

In November 1993, we went to the Central American Games in Puerto Rico, and I decided this was my only chance to defect. We were close to the United States., but there wouldn't be as much suspicion as if we had been on the continent.

I couldn't sleep for several days leading up to the trip. I kept thinking, "How am I going to do this?" Many athletes had defected so the concern was "who is next?" Some athletes joked about it, and the coaches paid attention to every word. If someone was caught even joking about it, he was sent home right away.

I needed to be calm and act normally. I had some packages and letters to deliver from friends of a Cuban family that had defected to Puerto Rico.

One of the most difficult parts was saying goodbye to my parents in the Havana airport. I couldn't tell them that I was planning to defect because I was afraid they might start crying, which would have tipped off the Cuban officials. My parents said, "Have fun and do well."

I just hugged them and said, "I love you."

That was tough and I get goose bumps just thinking about it. It was a horrible moment in time, and to this day I don't know how I had the strength to hold myself together. I tricked myself into believing, "You'll be back, Rio, you won't really defect. You'll see your family again."

From Puerto Rico I called a family we knew in Miami who had defected in a raft. One of my diving teammates was next to me so I couldn't say much.

"How's everything?" I asked the wife.

"It's wonderful," she said. "It's not like people think. You don't find the money under a rock, but if you work hard, it's great."

"That's nice," I said, noticing my teammate was still watching me. "How's the house?"

That was the code that tipped her off.

"We have this house," she said, "and it has an empty bed."

So I knew I had a place to stay, at least for a while, if I could get to America.

Three days after arriving in Puerto Rico, I was getting ready for practice on November 13, 1993. I had questions and fears-What am I doing? I am 19. I prayed to God.

My coach kept saying, "It's time to start your workout. Come on, you've been standing here a long time."

I said, "God, you have to help me now." I couldn't get away from my coach. I didn't know if he was suspicious or what, but he was right beside me for a long time. Suddenly, someone came up to him.

"We need to take you below the pool to see the chlorination system," the man said. "It is phenomenal."

"Oh, all right," my coach said. "Rio, get changed and get in the pool. I'll be right back."

Another guy from my team approached me.

"Someone is looking for you. Do you have some gifts or letters for him from home?" he asked.

"Yes, I do," I said. I grabbed my bag and ran back to the village to retrieve them.

"Here are the things your family sent," I said.

The guy didn't say anything about Cuba. I was trembling and sweating. I thought, "What if he's related to the government in some way and I ask him to help me defect?"

"Here's some money," the man said. "Shop a bit when you get home to Cuba."

"Listen, there's one problem," I said. "I..."

He cut me off.

"Oh, you can't take the money? I'm sorry," he said.

"No, it's not that," I said. "Can I trust you?"

"Yes," he said, looking me in the eye, "One hundred percent."

"The thing is," I said, "I'm not going back to Cuba.

I need to get out of here," I said. "Just take me out of the village and leave me in the street. I'll get to the embassy or something."

"Get in the car," he said.

For some reason-and this was not a smart move-I thought I should go back and get some clothes. One of the Cuban security officials caught me off guard.

"Hey, you!" he yelled. "Where are you going?

I was sweating heavily, walking slowly and trying to appear as relaxed as possible.

"I am, uh, well, I forgot my swim suit and brought the wrong warm-up that I have to wear, so my coach sent me back to pick it up," I said.

"Well, hurry up," he said.

"I will," I said. "My coach is waiting for me."

I picked up a few things, realizing it would be foolish to take too much.

"Hey," the security official yelled.

"Yes?" I answered.

"Good luck, get a gold medal," he said. "Just go for it."

I smiled and thought to myself, "I am about to go for it like you wouldn't believe!"

I jumped in the car and said, "Let's go." I didn't want to stay for another second.

The man driving the car turned and looked at me.

"You can trust me," he said. "I did the same thing. I'm a Cuban. I hate Castro and communism in general."

The air conditioner in the car was on full blast but I was still sweating profusely. The husband and wife were so nice and tried to do everything to make me comfortable.

The Puerto Rican elections to decide on statehood were underway, so it wasn't a good time to go to the embassy.

"You can stay with us," the man said. "We'll wait a week, until the elections are over and your team is gone."

They were so nice and wonderful. The first night at their home was the first time in three months I slept through the night. It was the best week of my life. The only drawback was I couldn't call my parents. Plus, I was afraid to go out until the team left.

After a week had passed, I went to the U.S. Embassy.

"I want asylum," I said. "My name is Rio Ramirez and I am from Cuba. I have no freedom of any kind. I can't even go to church. I want to go to America."

The people at the embassy started clapping. I was a young man between countries. Yet I was home, in my heart; I had finally found home.

I arrived at the home of the family with the "empty bed" and was finally able to call my father.

"Are you OK?" he asked.

"I'm fine," I answered. "I'm really sorry I couldn't tell you. It's just that I didn't want to put you in a position where you could be in trouble."

"I'm happy for you," he said. "You know I really support you. Don't worry about us. Just take care of yourself."

I was crying, and so was my father. It was such a mixture of feelings, being in the great country of the United States, yet not knowing if I'd see my family again.

"Well, you probably have to go now," Dad said.

"Yes," I said. "You hang up first."

"No, you hang up first," he said.

"I can't, Dad," I said. "You hang up first."

"We're all thinking about you," he said.

"I love you, Dad, tell Mom I love her, too," I said.

"You will do fine," he said. "I love you. Stay in touch."

At that point I knew I was a grown man. But neither of us wanted to hang up.

In April 1999, I became a citizen of the greatest country in the world, the United States of America. It was emotional, and I had to be strong and hold back the tears. With family and friends, it is all right to cry, but not around six hundred strangers in Miami at the citizenship swearing-in ceremony.

I took the oath and thought, "Everything is going to be all right now. I am an American."

I've been blessed to have great people around me. My diving coach at the University of Miami is Randy Ableman. He's a great man who has also been like a father and friend. He's there for me every time I need guidance or direction, or just someone to talk to because he understands my situation. I get down sometimes and he says, "It's OK to be like that sometimes, Rio, you've been through a lot."

Another key is the families who have helped me. Through Venezuelan divers Dario DiFazio and Jose Rubio I met the Hagen family. Dario was living with the Hagens and they introduced me to the other part of the family, who took me in. They are a wonderful Jewish family in Florida. They had taken in Dario and they accepted me and helped me learn to speak English. "You can't be here for twenty years and never learn English like some people," they told me. "You need to learn the language to survive and go to school." What a blessing, to have those kinds of incredible people surrounding me.

The University of Miami is like a paradise. There are wild birds flying around, the climate is just perfect, and it's like being on an island. The school is wonderful. There are other foreign students in most of my classes and we can really relate to each other.

I didn't know if I could continue diving when I left Cuba. I thought I'd just work, go to school, and get a job. At first I was with a club team, and I ended up at the University of Miami. Little by little, I started to realize that I could dive for the United States team.

It is like a dream. I always admired the U.S. divers, and so does the rest of the world. To be a part of that team is amazing, far more than just a dream come true. When I first came here, my Olympic dream had just been dashed and my diving career was certainly in limbo.

Now, the dream is alive, and I love diving more than ever. I don't know how my diving career will unfold, but now I have my future.

Because of this country, one I once heard called the "monster," I can reach for the stars. There is nothing holding me down. And now legally, as well as deep down in my heart, I am an American, a very, very proud American.

 

Name: Ashley Tappin

Sport: Swimming

Born: December 18, 1974, Marietta, Georgia

Family: Parents, Gwen and Fred Tappin; sister, Amber

Resides: Colorado Springs, Colorado

Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana

Trains at: Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado

College: University of Arizona

Coach: Jonty Skinner

Accomplishments: 1998 Goodwill Games silver and bronze medalist; two-time NCAA champion; 1992 Olympic gold medalist; member of 1991 and 1994 world championship team; three-time gold medalist at 1991 Pan American Games; youngest Olympic Trials qualifier in 1988; four-time national champion

Hobbies: My dogs, gardening, "having style"

Post-Olympic goals and plans: Be an actress, or get into designing

 

By Ashley Tappin

My career has had lots of ups and downs, so I've been down the comeback path several times. Adversity has been my biggest challenge, and, luckily, it doesn't cause me apprehension.

I constantly think about where I've been and my accomplishments. Re-creating those successes, and even exceeding them, is my wish before leaving the sport.

In 1996, I was in a position to make the U.S. Olympic team and I expected to make it. But adversity came in the form of an injured rotator cuff in my shoulder. When the muscles aren't strong enough to move bones in the right direction, the bones rub together and, over a period of time, create a buildup of scar tissue. My whole rotator cuff and ball socket were shredded, so laser surgery was necessary to clean it up.

I had to miss the Olympic Trials in April 1996, although I was favored to make the U.S. team.

I was angry and went through all the stages of denial, saying to myself, "Why me? I don't want to go through this." During one of those stages I said, "Fine, I'm glad this happened. I don't really care about swimming."

I took off practically the entire summer of 1996 and wanted nothing to do with swimming. There was no way I was going to watch the Olympics on TV, so I was on the Mexican beach during that time-away from all televisions and newspapers.

Sometimes I am labeled aloof and uncaring because people see I can just walk away and forget everything. The alternative, though, is to remain upset and be eaten up inside. That takes a huge amount of energy, mentally and physically, so it's easier to forget about it.

My coaches weren't sure if I could come back for my senior year of college (1996-97) because my shoulder was healing slowly. The summer was difficult-I hadn't been able to train enough to make my senior year worthwhile.

It turned out to be a turning point in my life. I realized things about myself, and I learned lessons I carry with me to this day, and will for the rest of my life.

It's difficult to be a winner for a long time, always first or second, then slipping to barely making finals or struggling to make the top eight. It brought me to the realization that I love the sport and the competition. A good athlete wants to do his/her best.

Sometimes doing our best doesn't mean winning or finishing in the top three. The NCAA championships my senior year (1997) were a perfect example of that. Based on my past accomplishments, I should have won an event or two. But I knew going into NCAAs that that would not be the case. I trained all season long just to get there and planned to retire, regardless of how I did.

So, as I was heading into my final championships, my coaches and I were unsure of my ability. I was nowhere near being in top condition, so the coaches put me in the 200 freestyle. I had gone 1:43 two years earlier, but I knew I couldn't repeat that. The goal was to do my best and let things fall where they may.

Martina Moravcova was winning the race and, Lindsay Benko and I were battling for second. Lindsay was way ahead of me at first, and then I caught up. She pulled ahead again, and I caught up again. We battled for 200 yards and Lindsay barely out-touched me at the wall for second place. I was happy with third and a time of 1:45.

I was full of pride that day because I did not give up. I remembered what I had endured just to be able to race for second place. I realized it wasn't about winning-it was about swimming my race.

That experience gave me a new perspective. I have to live my life and my attitude is no longer "first place or nothing." I retired after the 1997 NCAA championships.

It sounds like a cliche, but I really mean this with all my heart: It's not about who makes the front of the cereal box, or who has millions of dollars in the bank. It's about who we are and the effort we give every day.

I was not able to swim much or lift weights, yet I had given everything I could. My training consisted of running many miles, kick boxing, and biking. I was the underdog in 1997, and didn't mind it. I had endured much pain and people said, "Look what you did! You'll be back."

I said, "No, I really am done," and I was happy about it. That year took a whole lot out of me and gave me memories to last the rest of my life. I gladly walked away from the sport.

It felt great to be retired, to be a "normal" person and do whatever I wanted. I could sleep in, run instead of swim, train at my own pace-there was no pressure.

I was at peace.

I got into triathlon a little bit, and enjoyed the variation of running and biking. I stayed out of swimming from March to October 1997.

Like most college students, I had some bills that needed to be addressed. I heard about a swimming meet, a "Dash for Cash" on December 18, my birthday. I got back in the water in late October to train.

All of the fastest swimmers were there-Jenny Thompson, Amy Van Dyken, Melanie Valerio, and B.J. Bedford. I beat everyone, won $6,000, and paid all the bills that had been so worrisome.

I was the underdog, but came back and shocked everyone. I love doing that. It's sort of like, "See I told you so. Just when you think I'm not good for anything else, I'll come and shock you." It was phenomenal.

And to make money swimming-"Wow, this is great," I thought.

I was excited about swimming again and decided to continue training for the spring nationals in 1998. I signed a contract with Tyr, which would pay me $3,000 for each national title and any national award I won.

I went to spring nationals in 1998 and won four events, plus the Comeback Award. I came away with $15,000 and was floored. My mom was there to share that great experience with me.

I kept going, went to the Goodwill Games, and won a relay, splitting a $60,000 prize among four girls. It sounds like I was driven by money, and I admit to slipping into that mode for a while. But I was also regaining my passion for swimming.

Injuries brought back my perspective. The pain in my shoulders, elbows, and ankles caused me to refocus on the fact that it wasn't about the prize money, but about the person I am. So that played a role in my mind again.

I think about people like John Elway, the retired Denver Broncos quarterback. Sure, it's exciting for him to have millions of dollars and two NFL championships. People don't realize the toll the knee, shoulder, and elbow surgeries took on his body. He worked hard to come back, and even more to stay in the kind of mental shape it takes to be an elite athlete.

Reality hit again before spring nationals in 1999. I tore my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee. I hyperextended my knee while pushing off the wall during a swim.

I went through the same stages of denial this time, but on a smaller scale than before. It was easy to ask, "Why me?"

I want to make a clean run and be healthy for a couple of years. Who doesn't want that?

A lot of people don't realize that the harder we train, the more susceptible we are to injuries. We can't go full strength constantly. For me, there has to be a fine balance between hard training and rest and recovery.

Because of an eighty percent tear in my anterior cruciate ligament I underwent extensive physical therapy, in lieu of surgery. Rehab was two to three hours a day for three months. I was adamant about getting the knee back to where it needed to be. The trainers said, "OK, go grab a four-pound weight." I came back with nine or ten pounds. I did everything they asked and two to three times harder. Even if I couldn't swim again, I wanted to be able to jog when I am forty and not be arthritic. It was important for the knee to be better for many reasons.

My mindset now is light, airy, and sweet-I'm like a marshmallow. I take things with a grain of salt. My attitude is, "If things go well, great; if not, that's OK, too." I've been in the sport long enough to know that's how things go. I've had a successful career and given everything possible.

So everything that happens from here on is a bonus. I'm still in it to see if I can pull something else out, if there's something else there. I might never be someone who wins four Olympic gold medals, but that's all right as long as I give my all and learn in the process.

I get to talk to kids often and really enjoy it. I tell them to remember that everyone is different, to respect those differences, and to know their heart and to use it as a motivating force.

I am different from all of my competitors in that I don't think or act the same as most. But the beauty of it is we can be different and be successful, and a lot of the times, it is those differences that give us the pride in what we accomplish, whether it's winning first place or doing our best time and finishing tenth.

As long as we've done our best, it doesn't matter what anyone else has done or what place we get. We will have learned about ourselves and gone through the struggle and pain to try to reach the top.

Not everyone wins first place, but you are no less a person, or a winner, for getting the place you earned.