Locals in London: Area athletes go for gold

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WTOP spotlighted local athletes headed to London for the 2012 Olympic Games. Read their stories below, and be sure to visit the photo gallery to get to know more Olympians from D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

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WTOP connection to the 1952 games

WASHINGTON – WTOP has a connection to the Olympics — only it’s not a connection to this year’s games. It’s a connection to the games 60 years ago.

In 1952, Jack Taylor, the uncle of WTOP Traffic Reporter Jack Taylor, took the bronze in Helsinki for the 100-meter backstroke, with a finish time of 1:06.4. The gold would go to Yoshi Oyakawa of the U.S. (1:05.4) and the silver to Gilbert Bozon of France (1:06.2).

The Olympian who became a pilot would die three years later at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, 11 years before the birth of WTOP’s Jack Taylor (Yes, Jack was named for his uncle).

WTOP’s Jack Taylor, who inherited his uncle’s Olympic medal as well as other Olympic items, has been following the Olympic swimming competitions. He says in the 60 years since his uncle medaled in the event, swimmers have shaved a good bit of time off the 1952 records.

Matt Grevers of the U.S. on Monday set an Olympic record and picked up the gold with his 52.16 finish in the 100-meter men’s backstroke. This year’s silver went to Nick Thoman of the U.S. with a time of 52.97. Japan’s Ryosuke Irie picked up the bronze.

WTOP’s Colleen Kelleher contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Katie Ledecky

WASHINGTON – Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky always planned on making it to the Olympics, but not until 2016. When the 15-year-old swimming prodigy qualified in July, she was stunned.

“It’s unreal,” Ledecky told The Washington Post after the meet. “It’s unbelievable.”

Yuri Suguiyama, her coach at the Curl-Burke Swim Club, is not surprised she made it all the way.

“I think Katie possesses a lot qualities that make her a successful swimmer, but it’s really the qualities … you can’t see,” he says.

“She’s got a tremendous drive about her. She’s incredibly self-motivated. She’s a very hard worker and she’s very competitive, as well.”

The high school sophomore is the youngest Olympian heading to London in August, which could work to her advantage, according to Suguiyama.

“Being 15 years old, she kind of has a little bit of a purer sense about the sport,” he says. “For Katie, everything is still new and still very pure.”

Suguiyama says their training has helped Ledecky mature athletically. She never skipped a competitive level, rising from local meets to state, regional and national competitions. Each time, she adapted to the situation and focused on the task at hand.

“By focusing on the process, it has always allowed the destination to take care of itself,” Suguiyama says.

When it comes to swimming against older competitors, Ledecky might be at a disadvantage at first.

“She’s going to be swimming against some girls who are a little bit older, a little bit savvier and have a little bit more experienced at international racing,” Suguiyama says.

But if the Olympics is anything like past competitions for the freestyle swimmer, she should have a place on the stand.

Get to know Ledecky a bit better in the interview below.

WTOP’s Alicia Lozano and Rob Woodfork contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Tony Skinn

WASHINGTON – For basketball point guard Tony Skinn — a familiar name in the D.C. area — the road to the 2012 Olympics started in Maryland at Takoma Academy, where he graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer.

The 29-year-old credits his high school years with giving him the drive necessary to make it to London this summer.

“TA is, for me, where I kind of fell in love with ball,” he says. “It was a huge thing for me in high school.”

But his passion didn’t end there. Skinn took his skills to George Mason University and helped lead the Patriots to the Final Four in 2006, where he scored the game- winning three-point shot with just 10 seconds left against Wichita State.

Skinn’s college years were not without controversy, however. He punched opposing guard Loren Stokes in the groin with 55 seconds left in GMU’s game against Hofstra in the semifinals of the 2006 Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament. He was suspended for one game.

After graduating, Skinn headed overseas and has since played in Israel, Croatia, Italy, Germany and France.

He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, and will represent the country in this summer’s Olympics.

“My mom is Nigerian,” he says. “It’s just something I wanted to do, but never had time to do as far as playing with the national team.”

Despite having dreams of being in the NBA, Skinn is proud of his opportunity to play for Nigeria.

“I’m blessed and thank God for the fact that I play professionally,” he says. “It would have been nice to [play in the NBA], but at the same time I think I’m where God wants me to be.”

Watch Skinn’s game-winning shot against Haifa in Israel last year:

WTOP’s Alicia Lozano and Rob Woodfork contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Terrence Jennings

WASHINGTON – Without the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one local martial arts champion may not have made it to the Olympics.

Terrence Jennings cites the oversized characters in the three 1990s action movies as his inspiration for first pursuing taekwondo.

Recently, an upset launched the 25-year-old Alexandria native into a position to overcome injuries that have plagued his past Olympic attempts.

The self-proclaimed “big ninja turtles fan” watched the movies every day after school, which made him stop and pay attention to a kiosk in a local mall one day that advertised a regional martial arts school. An instructor brought him to the taekwondo studio.

“I tried it out, and just started sticking around,” the athlete says. After shifting around in different weight classes, Jennings decided on Bantamweight, bringing his weight up to 136 pounds for the class usually lmited to just under 139 pounds in taekwondo.

His opponents are usually taller in this class. He cites his long legs for making up the “spacing and distance.”

Jennings has also had to overcome two knee injuries he sustained just prior to the Olympic trials in early 2008, but a recent performance proves he is up to the challenge. He beat Mark Lopez, the reigning silver medallist from the 2008 games in this year’s Olympic trials, and whom Jennings describes as “the top competitor in his division.”

“Being able to beat him and having some good fights with him only puts me in the right direction,” Jennings says. “You can’t bank on who you beat and when you beat them. Every time you fight is a different situation.”

“Beating him in my own country gave me that little bit of extra confidence going up against the rest of the world.”

Check out some of Jennings’ knock-out skills:

WTOP’s Rob Woodfork and Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Farrah Hall

WASHINGTON – For one local sailor, the road to the Olympics has been long and literal.

Farrah Hall grew up in the Annapolis area – a sailing mecca – and attends St. Mary’s College of Maryland – a sailing powerhouse – but says her extensive experience on the water isn’t necessarily what motivated her to get to a world-class level.

The marathon runner who will compete in London as a windsurfer says training for 26.2 miles has contributed a great deal to her athletic education.

“I learned the biggest lessons working hard on my high school track team,” the Cape St. Claire native says. Running helped Hall transition into windsurfing “because I already had an endurance athlete mentality.”

She first turned to sailing at 13 after joining a community sailing program in the Annapolis suburb. She took up windsurfing in college where she helped found the windsurfing club, and has trained extensively, mostly in Europe.

“The Chesapeake in general has very light wind, and smaller areas to sail,” she says of her home surf. “But there are a lot of areas to sail because there are so many rivers and the bay is so long.”

“It’s a lot more mellow, it’s a lot … lighter wind and shiftier wind, as any sailor will tell you.”

These games are particularly important to Hall. She didn’t have enough experience to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she says, and it’s possible windsurfing won’t be a category at the games in 2016.

In London, Hall expects she could finish in the top 10.

“I don’t have quite as much experience as a lot of the sailors I’m competing against, and my funding isn’t as good,” she says. “But I really feel I could do really well, so I’m looking forward to having the performance of a lifetime.”

Check out this footage of Farrah Hall in her natural environment:

WTOP’s Rob Woodfork and Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Giuseppe Lanzone

WASHINGTON – One local athlete competing in a sport that combines beauty with intense athleticism plans to harness his unusual worldview to bring a gold medal home to the D.C. area.

Giuseppe Lanzone was born in La Punta, Peru and was raised in suburban Annandale where he began rowing for McLean High School. He attended the University of Washington where he honed his rowing skills, and trained for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the National Team training facility in Princeton, N.J.

He hopes he has set a foundation to apply his physical skills to a sport that is supposed to look easy.

“The easier it looks, the better you’re rowing,” Lanzone tells WTOP. “You want to make it look as easy as possible, but in reality it’s very hard.”

Lanzone’s father rowed at the club level for 8 years in Peru, and first put Lanzone in a boat when he was 12. While in high school, where he played football, the crew coach first recognized Lanzone’s extraordinary abilities and pushed him to become a competitive rower.

He started rowing at Thompson Boathouse on the Potomac for his high school, and for the Washington Area Rowing Club, and credits the area for developing his passion for the sport.

“Washington, D.C. is a great place to row and a great place to start rowing,” he says. “You can row forever and just turn around and row back to the boathouse. There isn’t a lot of turning. It’s a really wide river.”

The 29-year-old now hopes his training will help him through the intensity of world-class competition.

“When I get to the starting line, if I row like every day we practice, it will be nothing different,” he says. “If we execute the way we’ve been practicing, we’ll have a great shot.”

But all could have been different for the naturalized American citizen. While in university in 2004, he learned that some friends in his home country were considering training for the upcoming Olympics. If he were to return to Peru, however, he would have had to give up the support — mainly financially — his American teams afforded him.

“Everything worked out for me to train in the U.S.,” Lanzone says, who eventually became a U.S. citizen two days before competing in the 2006 World Championships.

The rower hopes to improve upon his performance at the 2008 games in Beijing, where his four-seat boat took ninth place overall. Two of his teammates remain on the National Team, including David Banks, with whom he has been training.

“He is a great guy, a great example of hardworking,” Lanzone says. “He’s one of the guys you want to have in the boat. He’s a boat mover and he’ll ‘red line’ it the whole time.”

But in some ways, the tall, lean Annandale native has already won. He studied communications in university and hopes to pursue a career in cross-cultural communication, “learning how cultures around the world are different from one another.” He also would like to coach.

If that weren’t enough, Lanzone could fall back on a modeling career. Those who have been following the promotional facets of the 2012 games may recognize Lanzone’s face from the Ralph Lauren commercials modeling the U.S. uniform.

Check out this footage of one of the U.S. Rowing Team’s final practices in the U.S. before heading to London:

WTOP’s Rob Woodfork and Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report.

Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Caroline Queen

WASHINGTON – Dynamism defines one local athlete, who hopes to lead a very young kayaking team to victory in London this summer.

Caroline Queen of Darnestown, Md. earned the nickname “Bam Bam” for her childhood readiness to collide with rocks and walls while negotiating technical slalom kayak courses. This hardiness, combined with her affection for “moving, dynamic water,” will prepare her well as she takes on more experienced teams at the 2012 Olympic Games.

“The challenge of always improving oneself — because the sport is largely oneself versus the clock — really intrigued me versus all the other sports I’d played,” she tells WTOP.

Queen, a rising junior at Davidson College in North Carolina, plays club level field hockey in addition to the varied training her team employs in preparation. They have been in their boats six to seven days a week, and use methods of cross-training like running and lifting.

The D.C. area is one of the best in the country for this kind of training, says Queen, based out of the Potomac Whitewater Racing Club. It provides easy access to the types of water — flat, slightly moving and white — necessary to hone the technical skills of a kayaker, and one of the national team coaches is based in Bethesda.

As a result, many strong kayakers come out of the region, including teammate Scott Parsons, with whom Queen trains, and childhood friend and competitor Ashley Nee, who narrowly missed a spot on the national team.

“It’s hard, we’ve trained together since I’ve started,” Queen says of Nee. “We’re both pretty much at the same level, playing hard.”

For now, the 22-year-old Queen must focus on being a leader among her teammates, the oldest of which is only 23.

“The U.S. program, particularly in the women’s category, is in need of some building,” she says. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“I guarantee I will put forward my best.”

The result of these games may determine if Queen tries to pursue another Olympic dream. She is looking forward to finishing school and maintaining a “normal life” after the rigors of world-level training.

“We’ll see after I graduate,” she says.

Check out this footage of Queen on her journey to become the “Kayak Queen of England.”

WTOP’s Rob Woodfork and Paul D. Shinkman contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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Julie Zetlin

WASHINGTON – For at least one Olympic athlete, the end of the Cold War was only the beginning of a furious competition between the U.S. and the Russians.

Rhythmic gymnast Julie Zetlin, born in 1990, is not just the only member of the U.S. team competing in the sport. She also will represent the entire Western Hemisphere as she faces off against her Russian competitors, who traditionally dominate the medal stand.

“I’m crossing the barrier of my sport by making it,” the Bethesda, Md. native says. “That’s already a statement as it is.”

Canadian Lori Fung’s gold medal in 1984 is the only time an athlete from North, Central or South America has ever taken a medal in the category, which combines gymnastics with dance ballet, and “tossing things up in the air,” Zetlin says.

The two knee surgeries she has recently had to overcome are a familiar part of the struggle that is Zetlin’s story.

“Growing up doing this sport, I did not have any of the natural talent,” she says, “but I just loved it so tremendously and I just wanted to show I could surpass the barrier and work harder.”

Her mother, Zsuzsi, is a former Hungarian national champion in the same category.

“I have to ask myself, ‘What do I have to do to make the Olympics?’ I can’t get weak and let this get me down,” Zetlin says.

Following her Olympic showing, Zetlin plans to move to the West Coast to finish school, and to follow up on a short-lived childhood profession. As a baby, she starred in Welch’s Grape Juice commercials.

But for now, she is focused on London 2012.

“I just want to go out there and look confident, and show no fear and hit all of my routines,” she says. “If I do that, that’s already a huge accomplishment, not just for me or the country, but for our side of the world.”

Check out her performance at the 2010 World Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships:

WTOP’s Paul D. Shinkman and Rob Woodfork contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)