Olympic Dream and Spirit
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
Born: August 10, 1974,
Family: Parents, Jesus and Lilia Ramirez; American
family, Herman and Eleonor Graulich
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
The lack of freedom in
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
Eventually, I learned that
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
Cubans always refer to
I was overwhelmed with
But I still wasn't serious about
defecting. Plus, I still had at least two things to be excited about in
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
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.
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
In November 1993, we went to the
Central American Games in
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
One of the most difficult parts was
saying goodbye to my parents in the
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,
From Puerto Rico I called a family
we knew in
"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
Three days after arriving in
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
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
"Here's some money," the
man said. "Shop a bit when you get home to
"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
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
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
"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
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
Another key is the families who have
helped me. Through Venezuelan divers Dario DiFazio
and Jose Rubio I met the
I didn't know if I could continue
diving when I left
It is like a dream. I always admired
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
Born: December 18, 1974,
Family: Parents, Gwen and Fred Tappin; sister, Amber
Trains at: Olympic
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
I had to miss the Olympic Trials in
April 1996, although I was favored to make the
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.