36 athletes to represent Illinois at the 2016 Rio Olympics
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are a few days away, and the countdown to the opening ceremony has begun. Countries have finalized their rosters, and 36 athletes from Illinois will represent their countries at this year's Summer Olympic Games -- 30 of them as members of the U.S. team.
This year's Team USA Illinois Olympians are headlined by returning athletes Evan Jager (steeplechase) and swimmer Conor Dwyer. Dwyer won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games as a member of the 4x200-meter relay and finished fifth in the 4000-meter freestyle. Jager competed in the 3000-meter steeplechase, finishing sixth.
Other notable athletes representing Illinois include Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, forwards Niko Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio; Chicago Sky guard/forward Elena Delle Donne; and Chicago Red Stars defender Julie Johnston, forward Christen Press and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
There also are lesser-known local athletes competing at the Olympics for the first time in a wide variety of events. Libertyville native Laura Zeng in rhythmic gymnastics, Zack Ziemek of Itasca in decathlon and Kelsey Robinson of Bartlett in volleyball of Bartlett are just a few of the many Olympians looking to compete for a medal in their first experience representing not only the United States but the Chicago area.
"Obviously it's a huge honor to be able to represent the United States," Ziemek said. "Even though I've gone to school in Wisconsin for the last five years, I'm mostly known for being a local Northwest suburbs Chicago kid and Lake Park (high school) kid. So to be able to represent that area so well and to be able to make the Olympics and show that kids from the area are able to accomplish goals and dreams really means a lot to me."
Ziemek, who qualified for the Olympics in the decathlon earlier this month at the U.S. Olympic Trials, knows that becoming an Olympian is an accomplishment that will follow him throughout his life and beyond.
"I made the World team last year, but not many people understood that there's a World Championships for track and field," Ziemek said. "To say that I'm going to the Olympics representing the United States, and no matter what -- people are telling me -- for the rest of my life I'm an Olympian, and on my gravestone it'll say 'Zack Ziemek, the Olympian.' So to be able to represent the United States and make it to the Olympics is the greatest honor in sports, I believe."
For many of these athletes, qualifying was a process that involved making tough sacrifices and dedicating periods of their lives to early mornings and late nights away from their family. For Robinson, who has participated in Team USA volleyball since 2014, it was difficult to get through the years of preparation, but she said she believes the effort was worth the reward.
"With (volleyball) and how much we're overseas and how much we're away from home, my parents aren't very hands-on with everything I do, but definitely they've been in my corner mentally the entire time," Robinson said. "Those moments of doubt that you don't think you can do it -- they've been the ones that have made me forget that and believe in myself. That was the biggest guidance I had from them, which was the mental support. I can't say how relieved they are that I'm going, and it was a really emotional day when I made it."
While many head to Rio wanting to soak in the experience and enjoy the ceremonies, the focus is still set on going home with a gold medal around their necks.
"You can't put into words what that'll feel like," Robinson said. "I'm just trying to take it day by day and really enjoy every single moment of this. If I walk away with gold at 24 years old, it would be everything I've ever dreamed of."
• Follow Russell on Twitter @Russ_Dorsey1, and follow Manny @Manny_DeJesus18.