This is supposed to be a breakout Olympics for American speedskater Heather Richardson.
Over 5,700 miles from where she first picked up roller skates, Richardson will have the eyes of the world on her as she goes for gold in the 1,000 and 500 meters. The spotlight will be extra bright now that she's part of speedskating's newest power couple with her fiance, Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands
Luckily, 24-year-old Richardson will have some familiar faces in the crowd to cheer her on in her second Olympics—including one who almost didn't make it.
Heather was born and raised by a blue collar family in High Point, N.C. Her parents, Jeff and Pat Richardson, loved to roller skate, and introduced Heather to the skating rink at a young age.
Though they didn't have much extra money, Jeff and Pat did the best they could to support their daughter in all of her endeavors. When she showed promise in inline speedskating at a young age, they both took on an extra job so they could afford to keep up with the necessary classes, competitions and equipment.
It wasn't always easy, but as her state meets turned national and national meets turned international, Jeff and Pat took turns going to support their daughter so that the other could stay home and work.
Heather is competing on a much bigger stage now, but not much has changed. Nobody liked it, but because of finances, Pat was supposed to go to Sochi, while Jeff was going to stay home and cheer from afar. Very afar.
Jeff and Pat were both able to go to Vancouver in 2010 with the help of family and friends because it was so close, but Sochi was a different story. Even before Heather officially made the 2014 Olympic team, they tried everything to make the trip work. They set up payment plans and even took out a second mortgage on their house.
The Richardsons are an extremely close family. When Heather isn't competing, she talks with her parents multiple times a day. They all wanted to be together as she tried to become an Olympic champion for the first time.
But no matter what they tried, the numbers didn't add up. Jeff, who still works two jobs, was going to have to stay home.
Or, at least that was what he was going to have to do. On February 1, Jeff Mills of the local News & Record wrote a feature about the Richardson family. Since then, things have changed.
Local businessmen in High Point read about the family's struggles and came together to raise the money—around $6,000—to get Jeff to the Games. After fast-tracking a visa and booking last-minute flights, it was confirmed: Jeff was going to be able to go see his daughter try to win Olympic medals in person.
On Monday, thanks to the generosity of others, the whole family was finally together in Sochi. Heather shared her excitement on her Instagram.
It's good that Heather has the extra support this year. Unlike in Vancouver, when she had just recently switched from inlines to ice skates and had barely made the team, there is a lot of pressure on her at this Olympics.
The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated have both predicted two medals for her in Sochi. The AP thinks that Richardson will win a gold in the 1,000 meters and a bronze in the 500, while SI has picked her for the silver in the 1,000 and a bronze in the 500. Either way, she's expected to do very well.
She's not the only one. Her fiance Bergsma has already won a bronze medal in the 5,000 meters on Saturday, and is a medal favorite in the 10,000 meters and team pursuit. Heather has been in the stands cheering him on, and he will surely return the favor if he can.
Heather met the 28-year-old Dutch speedskater during the 2012 World Cup season. Usually shy and reserved, she went up and introduced herself to him after a race. They stayed in touch and eventually began dating.
Last April on a beach vacation with the entire Richardson clan, Bergsma etched a question to Heather in the sand and proposed in front of her parents. She said yes, of course.
So along with cheering on Heather and helping her deal with the Olympic-sized spotlight, Jeff and Pat will get to spend some more time with their future son-in-law in Sochi as well.
"We just love him," Pat told Mills. "He’s sweet as can be, and he’s good to her."
Family is the most important thing to Heather. Eventually, when her career is over, she wants to settle down and have a family of her own with Bergsma.
There will be plenty of time for that in the future, though. For now, the superstar in the making has some medals to win.
With her mother, father and fiance by her side, Heather has all the support she needs to live up to the hype at these Games.
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