By Nick Pasco
Several Long Islanders are among hundreds of American athletes trying to qualify for Team USA with the goal of competing on the world stage during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics this August.
The only athlete who made the cut by February was Bora Gulari, a skipper on the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team who’s formerly from Long Island and now living in Detroit. Syosset native, WNBA all star and three-time gold medalist Sue Bird is expected to make the US women’s basketball team once the roster is finalized. Other locals facing Olympic trials on the road to Rio include 2012 Olympic racewalker Maria Michta-Coffey of Farmingville, boxer Cam Awesome of Uniondale as well as soccer players Crystal Dunn of Rockville Centre and Allie Long of Huntington.
“I’m definitely excited, and proud to represent my country,” said Gulari, 40, who will be competing in the two-person mixed multihull event with his teammate, Louisa Chafee, daughter of ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, on their Nacra 17, a high-speed catamaran. “I feel like the hard work has just begun.”
Team USA is expected to send more than 500 athletes to compete in Brazil from Aug. 5-21, but the U.S. Olympic Committee won’t confirm the final list of names until July 18. About 100 competitors have made the cut so far, with three months left to qualify.
Bird, the 35-year-old point guard for the Seattle Storm, believes Rio will be her last Olympic games. She’s aiming to bring home her fourth consecutive gold medal, which would cement her status as one of the best women’s basketball players of all time.
“I’m at the end of my career,” Bird told NBC Sports. “This is more than likely going to be my last Olympics. When you get older, you start looking back on your career more, and you want to leave some sort of legacy, and to be a fourth time Olympic gold medalist wouldn’t be so bad.”
But unlike most of her fellow local Olympic hopefuls who have to qualify in their respective sports, a committee decides if Bird goes to Rio. Waiting for a decision by the head U.S. Women’s National Team coach are soccer players Dunn, a 23-year-old attacker for the Washington Spirit who’s become among the top scorers on the USWNT, and Long, a 28-year-old midfielder for the Portland Thorns who’s also under consideration for the 18-player roster that the US women’s soccer team will send to the Olympics.
For the rest of the pack of local Olympic hopefuls, the grind to getting to Rio is tricky. After a long road back from a suspension for failing to give the anti-doping committee his whereabouts in 2012, Awesome, the 27-year-old boxer, has two more chances at joining Team USA. He has to finish in the top 3 either May 13-22 in Bulgaria or June 14-26 in Azerbaijan.
“They say everything happens for a reason,” said Awesome, who became a vegan and changed his name from Lenroy Thompson as a part of his “rebirth” following his suspension. “I disagree with that. I believe things happen, and you, being a person trying to be optimistic, need to make it seem better for yourself.”
Michta-Coffey, the 29-year-old racewalker hoping to make her second trip to the Olympics, will represent Team USA Track & Field in the World Race Walk Team Championships on May 7 and 8 in Rome.
“I am stronger, faster and wiser this time around,” Michta-Coffey wrote on her website, where she documents her training. “I have new goals and new aspirations. It’s not just about making it this time, it’s about how well I can place against my international competitors. To achieve this, I have decided to take my training and recovery to another level.”
A few other athletes with local ties had their Olympic dreams already dashed. Austin Meyer, a 25-year-old rower born in Rockville Centre and living in Boston, missed his shot at going to Rio when he came in second this weekend in the US Olympic trials. Danny Caparelli of Floral Park and Divine Jackson of Hempstead tried to get the US handball team to qualify for the Olympics, but will have to try again in four years.
So will LI’s youngest Olympic hopeful, 14-year-old Estee Ackerman of West Hempstead, who was trying to make the US table tennis team, but chose her faith over the competition. She lost the first two of her matches in the qualifiers and chose not to compete on the final day because she is Jewish Orthodox, and the match fell on Shabbat, the day of rest in her religion.
“I know my decision was the right one, because in life I will always keep Judaism as my No. One priority,” Ackerman told Jewish Business News. “I was disappointed. I love playing on such a big stage and beautiful crowds that come to watch, but as much as I love table tennis, not playing on Shabbos is a greater reward.”
(Photo credit: Cam Awesome/Trappfotos; Bora Gulari/US Sailing Team Sperry via Will Ricketson)
-With additional reporting by Ellie Schoeffel and Timothy Bolger