Life Reimagined

Olympians Who Reimagined Their Lives on the Way to Sochi

5 athletes who encountered Olympic-sized obstacles — and triumphed

SHAUN WHITE

A Flying Tomato on a quest for midair reinvention

Ok, so he didn’t win the halfpipe Gold in Sochi for a record third consecutive time. But even in defeat, Shaun White remains the most influential snowboarder in the world—one who will almost certainly find a way to turn this disappointment into triumph. After all, throughout his career one of his greatest strengths has been his capacity for reinvention on the fly.

The world’s best snowboarder admits that he sometimes changes a trick—recreates it completely—in mid-air to avert a crash. “I’ve been riding for so long that a lot of times if I do mess up I’ll just kind of relax and just kind of figure a way out of it,” he explains. He’s employed that rare improvisational skill on a macro level throughout his career, and indeed, his late-career frustration at Sochi mirrors similar trials on his way to first Olympic gold.

In 2002, in his first shot at the Olympics, White was a skinny 15-year-old with a Carrot Top-like shock of red hair and a penchant for big air. But he missed making a stacked U.S. team as older Americans swept the podium. “It was like I’d gotten permission to join the field trip but couldn’t go,” he told Vogue. “I had to have that setback, though, in order to go forward and become who I am.”

Entering the 2006 games in Torino White had everything that a 19-year-old snowboarder could want: burgeoning celebrity, a huge contract with Burton, X-Games medals. Everything except an Olympic gold medal. As soon as he got to Torino, things went very wrong. In his first run, he fell hard, and suddenly the prohibitive favorite had to scramble just to keep from being eliminated. A high-pressure run, pulled off to perfection, helped him reach the finals, where he snagged his first gold.

For Vancouver 2010, the pressure of expectation multiplied again, and White’s response was to not only reinvent himself, but to reinvent his sport. He convinced his sponsor, Red Bull, to build a million dollar halfpipe in the Colorado backcountry that could be accessed only by helicopter. There White trained in secret, launching himself into a foam pit day after day for months before the Games, perfecting tricks that most riders had considered impossible. He all-but clinched his second gold with his first run, but instead of playing it safe, he unleashed his now legendary Double McTwist 1260. “Shaun had a lot of ideas about things he wanted to do, and really pushed the sport into the future,” says White’s coach Bud Keene.

Little wonder that expectations in Sochi were goofy high. White’s original plan—to go for two gold medals, in halfpipe and in slopestyle, a new trick-heavy event—went downhill fast. He pulled out of the slopestyle citing lousy track conditions. And in the halfpipe, he put in the day’s best run in qualifying, but fell in the finals trying a cutting edge trick called a Yolo (aka You Only Live Once). The first person to nail it in competition? Iouri Podladtchikov of Switzerland, who used it to win gold. “I went for big tricks that only Iouri and myself are doing,” White told the New York Times. “I could have played it safe…but I really wanted to win.” So what’s next for the dethroned king of snowboarding? Some really intriguing improvisation, most likely.

JAZMINE FENLATOR

A Bobsledder Finds Calm—and Purpose—Amid Calamity

With one phone call in late 2012, everything threatened to change for U.S. Bobsled driver Jazmine Fenlator. The call was from her mother, telling her that Hurricane Irene had destroyed her house in Wayne, NJ and left her homeless.

“I thought about putting my dreams on hold,” Fenlator says. Her first reaction was to stop her Olympic training, quit the team and return to an office job to help support her mom. But Suzie Fenlator was having no part of that. Even though she ended up living in her car, Jazmine’s mother wouldn’t let her give up. “She’s a girl from New Jersey who has a chance to be an Olympic bobsled champion—I told her to just go do it. I told her I’m there in spirit. These chances don’t come around for just anybody.”

The hurricane was just part of Suzy Fenlator’s problems. She’s also been battling Lupus for most of her life, and over the last two years the auto-immune disease began aggressively attacking her organs. She’s suffered three strokes, two heart attacks, endured two open heart surgeries. As the Olympics approached the disease has left her blind in one eye and half blind in the other.

For Jazmine, this seemingly endless series of health crises cranked the everyday stress levels of a busy Olympic athlete to sky-high levels. When her mom had a heart attack in January of 2011, Jazmine drove down from Lake Placid where she was competing in the North American Cup. True to form, her mother told her to turn around. Jazmine stayed for Suzie’s heart surgery, but then returned to win two gold medals.

That kind of resilience has been a hallmark of Fenlator’s career. She was a track star at Rider College, setting records in discus and shot put. But she seemed unlikely to make the Olympic teams in those overcrowded events. Her coach had a radical plan: why not bobsledding? He determined she had the skills needed to triumph in the sport, and quietly sent in a resume to the U.S. Bobsled Federation. While the transition from track athlete to bobsledpusher isn’t all that unusual, Fenlator’s reinvention was more extreme: she became the driver. It’s a true stress trip: Every tiny adjustment to the sled’s line in each corner can make the difference between victory, defeat or crashing at supersonic speeds.

“Full aggression at the start,” says Fenlator, explaining her job. “And then you have to be very calm, and anticipate every turn, because within 10 seconds you’re probably going 80 miles per hour.” It sounds a bit like the rich but high-stress life she’s sharing with her proud and supportive mother.

ANN SWISSHELM

In Curling, Age Is Just a Number

Yes, it involves brooms, frantic ice sweeping, and lots of big-bellied folks from Fargo. It’s hardly a shock that curling is the Rodney Dangerfield of Winter Olympics sports, but it’s actually precision game of inches. Slide the “rock” (aka “that 45 pound hunk of polished granite with a handle”) a fraction of an inch to the left, sweep one extra stroke to steer it toward its target, and you’ll win a trip to the Olympics.

The tiniest miscue, and you’re staying home.

No one understands this more acutely than Ann Swissehelm. At 45, the Chicago native is the oldest competitor on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. But over the last three Olympic cycles she’s endured several career’s worth of heartbreak.

In 2002, Swisshelm’s team made it to Salt Lake City. They made history, but the cruelest kind: they finished fourth, in an event where they give out three medals. The fact that it was the best U.S. finish in history was, as they say, cold comfort.

Four years later, Swisshelm’s team finished second in the U.S. Olympic Trials—by a single point, in overtime. Goodbye Olympics! In 2010, Swisshelm’s team finished second again, and again stayed home.

“Those were the hardest losses,” she says. “But I don’t have any regrets.”

Time was running out on her dreams. But Swisshelm decided to give it one more chance. She joined with three other former Olympians to form curling’s answer to Basketball’s Dream Team. She quit her job, uprooted her life and began traveling twice a month to Toronto to train with Erika Brown, who made her first Olympic berth in 1988 when she was only 15.

Team Brown, as they’re called, took a while to gel, finishing a disappointing sixth in the 2012 U.S. Championships. Then they caught fire. They won a U.S. title in 2013 and finished fourth at the World Championships. With another year of experience together, their goal for Sochi is crystal clear.

“Going into this Games we’ve done everything we can possibly do to bring home a medal. That was the reason why we put this team together,” she says. Now she aims to redefine her sport, her age and her life. “This isn’t just enjoying the experience. Maybe in 2002, it was about being there. Now, it’s about performing.”

BRYAN FLETCHER

What's A Ski Jump When You've Beaten Cancer?

There are as many different reactions to a drag-down fight with a deadly cancer as there are people. For Bryan Fletcher, diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age three, it made him want to take on a death-defying sport. Fletcher endured seven years of chemotherapy and painful spinal taps in the bravely detached way that kids sometimes can. He painted his bald head Ninja Turtle green, and, during periods of remission, lived to ski at Steamboat Springs, Colorado where his dad was a ski patroller. Despite the heroic efforts, doctors gave his parents a grim prognosis: Bryan had a 15 percent chance of survival.

While fighting for his life, he convinced his parents to let him try a sport that would allow him to stare death in the face: ski jumping, “The doctors didn’t want me to jump, but I loved it,” Fletcher, a contender in Sochi in the Nordic combined, which links ski jumping and cross country skiing, told the Deseret News. “At that point, I didn’t have a very great life expectancy, so [my mom] just figured, ‘Let him do what he wants to do.’”

Indeed, ski jumping became part of Fletcher’s cancer cure. "I would go down to Denver every other week for chemotherapy and I would do exactly what the doctors asked and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible so I could get back to the slopes faster," he told the Park Record. "That was my main goal.”

He beat the odds and by age 10 was declared cancer free. He threw himself into skiing. But even fully cured, Fletcher’s route to the Olympics was a circuitous one. In 2002 he was a volunteer forerunner, testing the ski jumping hill before the Games. Then in Vancouver, he was forced to stand on the sidelines after falling down a flight of stairs and severely spraining his ankle. Instead of competing, he watched his younger brother Taylor represent the U.S. "Bryan celebrated his brother's success,” Penny Fletcher, the boys’ mom, told the Denver Post. “He was at every single one of those events with a smile on his face and pride in his heart.”

Last year, the brothers Fletcher won an unprecedented bronze medal for the U.S. at the World Championships. In Sochi, when they’re perched at the top of the run, Penny Fletcher may be nervous, but she won’t be truly worried. After all, how hard is it to face a ski jumping hill when you’ve stared down cancer?

NOELLE PIKUS-PACE

When Racing a Sled at 70 mph Becomes Kids' Stuff

In an Olympics jam-packed with scary-aggressive sports like downhill skiing and giant slalom snowboarding, there’s nothing more dangerous than skeleton, in which racers hurtle down an icy hard luge track head first at 70+ mph, their chins only inches from the ground. It doesn’t seem that such a hairy sport would be conducive to being a family affair, but that’s what it’s become for Noelle Pikus-Pace, her husband and her two kids.

Pikus-Pace is one of only three mothers among the 230 American athletes competing in Sochi. And it took a near-tragedy for it to happen.

In 2006, she was one of the fastest skeleton racers in the world and a contender for an Olympic medal in the fledgling sport. Then disaster struck weeks before the games. She didn’t crash. Pikus-Pace was standing in the finish area when she was struck hard by a runaway sled—the most freakish of accidents. While recovering between the Torino and Vancouver games, she had her first child Laycee, now 5. She got right back on the sled. Pikus-Pace finished fourth in Vancouver, just a tenth of a second away from a medal.

“I was happy,” she says now. “Not satisfied, but happy with my fourth-place finish.”

Pikus-Pace retired after Vancouver, and had another kid, Traycen, now 2. Fate changed her plans. She got pregnant again, but in April 2012 she suffered a miscarriage. Her husband Janson suggested that instead of trying to have another child immediately, she return to skeleton completion. "I just needed something to move on with, and my husband still knew that I loved doing skeleton," Pikus-Pace told the Los Angeles Times.

With her two children so young, they’d have to be part of this team effort. The couple began fundraising through social media to raise the cash needed for four members of the family to travel in Europe, where most skeleton events are run. That effort got a huge boost when one woman, touched by the family’s story, handed Pikus-Pace a card containing a $30,000 check.

Their life since the comeback has been something out of a reality show, traipsing around the continent, living out of suitcases, cramming a family into a tiny double room. “It is trying; I’m not going to lie,” she told The Washington Post. “It has its stresses.” But the Pikus-Pace family wouldn’t have it any other way.

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