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U.S. Olympic media summit: Time to turn off the cynicism

September 10, 2009 |  5:06 pm


Reporting from Chicago -- Sometimes we cynical journalists (redundant, I know) moan and roll our eyes when TV networks air those up-close-and-personal features that focus on the incredible obstacles athletes have overcome to reach the Olympics.

But after speaking to some of the prospective Vancouver Olympians who are attending this week's U.S. Olympic media summit, it's clear that many truly have endured truly horrific injuries and personal tragedies that have shaped them, made them stronger and helped them rise above average. 

For example: Emily Cook, a freestyle aerials skier from Belmont, Mass. Two weeks after she made the 2002 Olympic team she took a horrible fall in a training jump at Lake Placid, N.Y., suffering a dislocation, torn ligament and fracture in her left leg and fracture and torn ligament in her right leg. "I watched the Salt Lake City Games from a wheelchair," she said.

After more than 2 1/2 years of painful rehabilitation that began with merely taking steps in a pool, she came back to qualify for the 2006 Turin team and finish 19th overall. "I had unfinished business and I was going to do everything in my power to get back," she said, matter-of-factly.

She's still taking care of that business, trying for one last run at an Olympic medal in Vancouver at age 30. "I have no control over how the other athletes are going to jump," she said, "so to say, 'Yeah, I think I'm going to medal,' of course I want to. That's what I'm going there to do, but  really what I'm going there to do is the best jumps that I can do. And they've been on the podium before. I'm definitely preparing myself to be there in the future as well."

Speed skater Jennifer Rodriguez thought she had left her sport in 2006, after finishing out of the medals at the Turin Games. She had won bronze medals in the 1,000- and 1,500-meter races at Salt Lake City and had a bike shop with her husband, KC Boutiette.

In the subsequent years her marriage broke up and she lost most of her life savings in the bike shop. In June, her mother, Barbara, to whom she was extremely close, died of cancer. Skating became her therapy, she said, and her comeback is well under way at age 33.

She was especially shaken after her mother's death and stayed off the ice for about a week before returning to her training base in Salt Lake City. 

"When you're going through that everything is so gloomy and down and you're kind of  thinking negatively because your whole world is crashing down," said Rodriguez, who wears her mother's wedding band on a chain around her neck. "But when I went back to Utah, instantly, just to be around my teammates again, to be laughing again and back in the rhythm of things again, I was like, 'This is what I'm supposed to do. My mom would want me to be doing this.' "

Rodriguez said she feels better on the ice now than she did a year ago and has skated good lap times. But she won't get a chance to measure herself against elite competition until the sport's World Cup season starts in November.

"Once that happens I'll have a much better feel of what to expect going into the Games," she said. "Right now you're kind of going in blind until you actually start races. I'll know a little bit more in the next month or so."

 More from the Olympic summit on Friday, when half-pipe snowboarders and figure skaters take their turns being interviewed. Among the day's scheduled guests are world figure skating champion Evan Lysacek, who trains in El Segundo, as well as Southern Californians Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang.

-- Helene Elliott

Photo: Emily Cook poses for a portrait at the U.S. Olympic team media summit in Chicago on Thursday. Credit: Harry How / Getty Images