Summer Olympics 2016: 10 Inspiring Athletes Everyone Should Root for

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2016

Summer Olympics 2016: 10 Inspiring Athletes Everyone Should Root for

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    The Olympics typically provide viewers with a sense of national pride—one of the few times fans are given the opportunity to root for their country on an athletic stage.

    But every Olympics, a few athletes transcend that idea. By merely rising to prominence in their sports, many of these athletes, whose pasts necessitated they overcome tremendous odds, have accomplished far more than anyone could have predicted.

    The following 10 athletes, not all of whom have qualified yet, fit that mold. Their stories are so inspirational that you should cheer for them to reach the 2016 Summer Olympics and in Rio, regardless of your national affiliation.

Guor Mading Maker, South Sudan, Men’s Marathon

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    AFP/Getty Images

    Guor Mading Maker was born into war-torn Sudan. As a child, he knew nothing other than violence.

    During Sudan's 22-year civil war, Maker lost eight if his siblings and 28 members of his family, according to Matthew Knight and Olivia Yasukawa of CNN. The war separated Maker from his parents for nearly 20 years.

    He was part of the “Lost Boys,” according to Knight and Yasukawa, a group of young Sudanese vagabonds who bounced between neighboring countries and refugee camps but ultimately became enmeshed in the conflict. Maker was forced to work for Sudanese soldiers for extremely low wages and was kidnapped by herdsmen.

    Along with another boy, Maker escaped his captors by literally running away, seeking refuge in Egypt. He ultimately found his uncle. Both immigrated to the U.S. where they were given asylum.

    After a gym teacher pointed Maker toward running, he quickly became regarded as one of the nation’s elite prep distance runners. As a senior, he won the national indoor two-mile championship and earned a scholarship at Iowa State.

    In 2011, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan; that same year, Maker ran the Olympic qualifying time in the marathon. But he wasn't a U.S. citizen and South Sudan wasn't recognized by the IOC. No country's Olympic trial was available to him.

    He had not gained U.S. citizenship and would not betray his countrymen by running for Sudan. Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee allowed him to compete in the London Games as an independent athlete, a first in Olympic history, according to Knight and Yasukawa. (The IOC is debuting a refugee team this Olympiad.)

    After finishing 47th in the marathon at the 2012 Games, Maker returned to South Sudan the following summer and was reunited with his parents. Now part of the inaugural South Sudanese Olympic delegation, Maker is eyeing a medal for his young country.

Jillion Potter, United States, Women’s Rugby Sevens

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    Jason Getz/Associated Press

    After she broke her C5 vertebra, tore ligaments and destroyed a disk in a gruesome rugby injury, Jillion Potter ignored doctors' orders in hopes of returning to the sport she loves.

    Told she would never play rugby again, Potter rode a bike to remain in condition during recovery from a surgery that saved her mobility. Doing so was ill-advised but helped her return to represent the United States in two World Cups, according to John Meyer of the Denver Post.

    Then she was diagnosed with stage 3 synovial sarcoma.

    It seemed unfair for someone who had already overcome so much, but Potter’s dream again fueled her. After undergoing chemotherapy, she spent two months in Houston for radiation treatments, which she finished in March 2015, according to Meyer. She began tackling again last May.

    Now Potter, who was selected to the Women’s Junior All-Americans after only six months in the sport as a student at the University of New Mexico, is hoping for a spot on the Olympic team. According to the USA Rugby website, Potter is one of the team’s captains on the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series circuit.

    She made her Women’s Eagles debut in 2007 and plays prop in the sevens format. She was part of the team that won bronze in the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow in 2013.

Kayla Harrison, United States, Women’s Judo

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Kayla Harrison could have understandably walked away from judo. Her introduction to the sport came under the most heinous of circumstances.

    As a 13-year-old prodigy in the sport, Harrison was taken to international tournaments by a coach who sexually abused her. According to Campbell Robertson of the New York Timesthat coach pleaded guilty to illicit sexual conduct in November 2007.

    “It’s no secret that I was sexually abused by my former coach,” Harrison told reporters, via Robertson. “And that was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome.”

    She didn’t allow the abuse to deter her from the sport.

    At the 2012 London Games, Harrison, who competes in the 78-kilogram division, became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in judo.

    According to Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports' Olympic Talk, Harrison has trained with Ronda Rousey and is eyeing a career in mixed martial arts. Rousey also has a background in judo, winning bronze at the 2008 Olympics.

    Harrison has already received MMA offers, per Zaccardi.

Daryl Homer, United States, Men’s Fencing

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    Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

    At 5'9", Daryl Homer is shorter than the typical fencing stalwart. Most are over six feet tall. His quickness and athleticism are things most fencers do not carry into a tournament.

    He competes with a swagger typically bereft in a sport in which an athlete’s face is covered. Homer, whose event is the saber, uses a blue or rainbow blade. Most competitors use the standard silver, according to Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    Born in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, he is also an African-American, which is rare in fencing. He became interested in the sport when he was five after reading about it in a dictionary.

    But this Olympiad, he is attempting to become one-of-a-kind: the first American male to win an Olympic gold medal in fencing.

    Homer, who took sixth in his event at the London Games, became the first U.S. man to win a medal at the Senior World Championships in 2015, where he took silver, according to

Queen Underwood, United States, Women’s Boxing

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    In a chilling interview with Barry Bearak of the New York Times, women’s boxing sensation Quanitta "Queen" Underwood revealed that she and her sister, Hazzauna, were sexually abused by their father.

    Underwood told Bearak, in order to protect her sister from the abuse, Underwood would pretend to be on the verge of awakening so he would leave her sister alone.

    Eventually, their father, Azzad, was arrested and pleaded guilty to “criminal sexual conduct with a minor.” He was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years probation.

    Both girls underwent counseling thereafter and moved to Seattle to live with their mother, who had divorced their father some years prior. At the time of the divorce, she was not aware of the abuse and relinquished custody of the girls to their father.

    While Hazzuana went on to college, Queen, a great athlete through high school, enlisted in the Air Force, reneged on the commitment and instead began to party, according to Bearak.

    Then, at 19, she was introduced to boxing. After initially struggling in her first tournaments, she won her first amateur national title in 2007 despite having to balance training with a five-year apprenticeship as a pipefitter.

    Underwood represented the United States in the 2012 London Olympics, where women’s boxing debuted as an Olympic sport. Heading into Rio, Underwood, who competes as a light heavyweight, represents one of the United States' best chances to medal in women's boxing.

    Since winning in the Olympic trials in 2012, Underwood has been the national champion in her division in each ensuing year.

Kieran Behan, Ireland, Men’s Gymnastics

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    The trauma of being told he wouldn’t walk again is enough for a child to bear once. Kieran Behan relived the horror a second time.

    According to Cormac Byrne of the Irish Independent, Behan had a benign tumor removed from his leg when he was 10 years old. Doctors told him he would be confined to a wheelchair. After making an improbably quick recovery and beginning to walk once again, Behan sustained a head injury that confined him to a wheelchair two years later.

    Same prognosis.

    After three years of rehab, according to Byrne, Behan returned to gymnastics. But he underwent more adversity in 2010.

    He snapped his right cruciate ligament. Shortly after returning from rehab, he suffered the same injury in his left knee.

    I'm used to adversity, and it's just another thing that I've got to overcome,” Behan told Byrne. “The main thing for me is how I perform in Rio, and that's what I'm going to focus on.”

    He competed in the London Olympics, becoming only the second Irish gymnast to do so, according to Conor Heneghan of The first, Barry McDonald, qualified for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Chelsea Jaensch, Australia, Women’s Long Jump

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    For many athletes, sports provide a path to a better life. For Australian Chelsea Jaensch, track and field was a road to a better frame of mind.

    A promising career as a long jumper was derailed by injuries, prompting her to quit the sport at 19 to focus on her university studies, according to Luke Pentony of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

    After seven years away from the sport, she didn’t return to competition as a means of achieving unfulfilled goals or dreams. Instead, she found competition and training to be a coping mechanism for “anxiety that had often left her feeling uncomfortable in the most common of social situations,” according to Pentony.

    “For me, athletics was giving me that confidence boost to open other doors, like how to be social again and how to interact with other people and how to be uncomfortable in situations and be OK,” Jaensch told Pentony.

    But in her return, she discovered she still had immense skill in the sport. In 2015, she won the Australian national championship.

Yusra Mardini, Refugee Team, Women’s Swimming

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    Michael Sohn/Associated Press

    Yusra Mardini might be the only athlete in the world whose sport literally saved her life.

    The Syrian refugee, who will compete for the newly created Refugee Olympic Team, was forced to flee her home country because of civil war. With her sister, she went from Lebanon to Turkey with plans to sneak into Greece via the Aegean Sea, according to Juliet Spies-Gans of the Huffington Post.

    During the trip, her boat broke down and began to fill with water. Along with another refugee, Mardini and her sister jumped into the Aegean Sea and pushed the boat to land. A month later, Mardini and her sister went to Berlin.

    Mardini has always been a talented swimmer, but circumstances in Syria made training difficult at times.

    In Berlin, she was able to begin training with Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a swimming club that is based near her refugee center, according to the official Olympics website. There, she would train in a pool that was built for the 1936 Olympic Games.

    Mardini hopes she will inspire others, according to the Olympics website:

    I think my target is to qualify for the Olympics and to be an inspiration for everyone.

    I want everyone to stay strong for their goals in life, because if you have your goals in front of your eyes, you will do everything you can; and I think even if I fail I will try again. Maybe I will be sad, but I will not show it, and I will try again and again until I get it. I want to show everybody that it’s hard to arrive at your dreams, but it’s not impossible. You can do it; everyone can do it. If I can do it, any athlete can do it.

    She competes in the 200-meter individual medley, 200 freestyle and 400 freestyle events.

Lopez Lomong, United States, Men's Track and Field

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    At six years old, Lopez Lomong was kidnapped from a church and put in a prison camp in his native Sudan, according to Spies-Gans. Like Maker, Lomong was considered one of the “Lost Boys.”

    A group from his village helped him escape, which began a 72-hours long journey to the Kenyan border. Lomong lived in a refugee camp there for 10 years.

    Catholic Charities then helped him secure travel and residency in the United States, where he has excelled as a 5,000-meter runner. He would not only qualify for the 2008 but was honored as flag-bearer for the U.S. delegation.

    Lomong managed to reach Olympics again four years later in London, where he placed 10th in the 5,000 meters. 

    He also has a foundation, featured on his personal website, that aims to help bring clean water, education, health care and nutrition to South Sudan.

Yiech Pur Biel, Refugee Team, Men’s Track and Field

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    It has been only a year since 21-year-old Yiech Pur Biel began running competitively, per Tiare Dunlap of

    He began participating in the sport because it "gave him a sense of belonging," according to a video produced by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

    "Even if I will not get gold or silver I will show the world that being a refugee, you can do something," he said, via Dunlap.

    As a teenager, Biel left South Sudan, which was ravaged by civil war, and went to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, according to Dunlap.

    Biel will compete in the 800 meters, per the Olympics website

    In order to compete in the Games, all 10 members of the refugee team will receive a refugee passport. Biel is training in Nairobi, Kenya.


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