Fittest loser
Article updated: 7/27/2012 6:30 AM

Suburban athletes take shot at Olympics in London

Most aren't marquee names, but a lot can change in 17 days

Among the Olympians competing in the 2012 Games in London with ties to the suburbs are (top left to right) Evan Jager in the 3000-meter steeplechase, Candace Parker in basketball, Sean Rooney in volleyball, and Sylvia Fowles in basketball; (middle left to right) Amy LePeilbet in soccer, Tamika Catchings in basketball, and Sarah Zelenka in rowing; (bottom left to right), Melissa Seidemann in water polo, Swin Cash in basketball, and Richard Oruche in basketball. Oruche is on team Nigeria, while the others represent team USA.

Among the Olympians competing in the 2012 Games in London with ties to the suburbs are (top left to right) Evan Jager in the 3000-meter steeplechase, Candace Parker in basketball, Sean Rooney in volleyball, and Sylvia Fowles in basketball; (middle left to right) Amy LePeilbet in soccer, Tamika Catchings in basketball, and Sarah Zelenka in rowing; (bottom left to right), Melissa Seidemann in water polo, Swin Cash in basketball, and Richard Oruche in basketball. Oruche is on team Nigeria, while the others represent team USA.

 

Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer/pkunzer@daily

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By Caitlin Swieca

Weeks before the torch was lit in London, the Chicago area claimed its first underdog story of the 2012 Olympics.

It came in the form of Anna Li, a gymnast from Aurora who, two years ago, had walked away from the rigorous sport after a successful college career at UCLA.

Then the former Waubonsie Valley star decided to make one final run at her Olympic dreams and was named an alternate to the five-woman gymnastics team after a strong showing at Team USA's trials. At age 23, though, it appears Li's Olympic journey has come to an end with a neck injury suffered in training this week.

With the games officially opening Friday, other compelling stories of athletes with local ties will emerge throughout the competition.

In all, 45 Olympians have ties to the Chicago area or the state of Illinois, with 15 having some roots in the suburbs. Some of them play professionally in the area, while others spent their college days at Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame or other Midwest universities.

Some local prep stars are returning to the Olympics, looking to build on their past success. The U.S. women's basketball team is a favorite to win its fifth straight gold medal, and former Stevenson High School player Tamika Catchings will look to win her third gold medal, with former Naperville Central standout Candace Parker going for her second. Chicago Sky players Sylvia Fowles and Swin Cash also will help lead the team, which includes DePaul coach Doug Bruno as one of its assistants.

But the men's basketball team, often full of Chicago representatives, is left with only two this year: Anthony Davis, who played at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago before being drafted by the NBA's New Orleans Hornets; and coach Mike Krzyzewski, who got his start in Chicago but found his success at Duke University.

Chicago-born superstars Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have been sidelined by injuries, as has Bulls center Joakim Noah, who would have played for Team France. Bulls forward Luol Deng is playing for England, and Bensenville's Richard Oruche earned a spot on Nigeria's basketball team.

But outside the limelight of the marquee sports, there are other local athletes with great stories, such as Chicago windsurfer Bob Willis -- the first U.S. Olympian in sailing from a state other than Florida or California.

Some of these homegrown athletes are making their second appearance on the Olympic stage, with varying degrees of success in their past trips.

Christina Loukas, a diver from Riverwoods, took a break from the sport after finishing ninth in 3-meter springboard in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She returns to the Olympics in London with a newfound drive to medal.

Prolific backstroker Matt Grevers, a Lake Forest High School and Northwestern graduate, took the silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke in 2008. At this year's trials, he fell just short of breaking the world record in the event. He heads to London as a gold-medal favorite.

Wheaton native Sean Rooney won gold with the men's volleyball team in 2008. The 6-foot-9 outside hitter made the squad again this year, and the team is headed to London to try to defend its standing atop the podium.

These Olympic veterans will be joined by fresh faces looking to establish themselves.

Itasca's Sarah Zelenka didn't discover rowing until her freshman year at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Seven years later, she'll represent the United States in the women's pair event.

Evan Jager, a graduate of Jacobs High School, is even newer to his event, having run his first competitive steeplechase 13 weeks before London's opening ceremonies. Jager has already dropped 11 seconds off his qualifying time to set a new U.S. record in the event -- a time that would have earned him gold in the 2008 Olympics.

The youngest Olympian on the U.S. wrestling team is Ellis Coleman, but in wrestling circles he's better known as "The Flying Squirrel," after his signature move that made him a YouTube sensation. An Oak Park native, Coleman will compete in the 60-kilogram Greco-Roman class.

If the Olympics are about stories of unlikely success, Chicago has already had a handful. As the London Games begin, the next 17 days will undoubtedly bring more great storylines. And with so many local connections in events across the board, there's a good chance that some of the faces lighting up the world's biggest stage might be familiar.


• For the latest and most complete coverage of the 2012 Olympics, visit summergames.ap.org/dailyherald.

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