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The Road to Rio Runs Through Charlotte

Local athletes are working to stamp their tickets to the Olympic Summer Games.

By Adam Rhew

Underneath a cherry-red helmet, canoeist Casey Eichfeld stares at the roaring water ahead, his deep breaths pushing the blue flotation vest wrapping his chest up and out. The second afternoon of the USA Canoe and Kayak Olympic Trials, a sunny but breezy Saturday in April, is just getting started, and Eichfeld is focused as he sits in his boat at the starting line.

He bobs in the flat water at the start of the nearly 1,000-foot-long slalom course, which is designed to challenge paddlers to maneuver their boats through gates—white plastic poles with red and green stripes suspended just above the surface—all while fighting Class III and IV rapids.

Eichfeld, 26, is comfortable at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a man-made recreational facility in Charlotte that doubles as an Olympic training ground—especially for homegrown talent. A veteran of the 2008 games in Beijing and the 2012 games in London, Eichfeld knows this run is his best chance to punch a ticket to this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He has a lead on other paddlers in the points standings, but a sloppy run the day before has made Eichfeld determined to lock up a spot on the U.S. team today instead of waiting for the next round of trials.

“Races are won and lost by the mental fortitude of the athlete,” according to Eichfeld. “I’m an athlete who operates well under a bit of pressure,” he maintains.

The starter gives the signal, and Eichfeld is off. As he digs the blade of the paddle deeper, pulling his boat toward the first slalom gate, the crowd of people watching roars. The paddling community is out in full force, but so are the local Charlottean: people walking their dogs, young children sprawled out on blankets and 20-somethings drinking craft beer.

Eichfeld barely notices them as he noses the boat through the first gate.

Charlotte’s obsession with Olympic sports is nothing new.

Like the rest of the country, the city was enthralled with speed skater Dan Jansen’s triumph at the 1994 Winter Games in Norway—when the Olympic veteran finally won a gold medal in his last race after three busted attempts. Unlike the rest of the country, though, the Charlotte area became Jansen’s home.

Jansen moved here in 1999 and was the city’s only Olympian for a while.

Standout NBA guard Stephen Curry grew up here and played basketball for nearby Davidson College. Curry plays for Team USA when he’s not draining three-pointers for the Golden State Warriors and is expected to be a key contributor to America’s hoop dreams in Brazil.

Swimmer Ricky Berens, who won a gold medal in 2008 and gold and silver medals in 2012, also went to high school in Charlotte and competed for SwimMAC Carolina, a leading club team. No other organization has had the type of impact on Charlotte’s Olympic dreams as SwimMAC’s Team Elite.

The roster is a who’s who of Olympic swimmers, all drawn to Charlotte to train for coach David Marsh, a superstar in the professional swimming world, and the 2016 U.S. Women’s Olympic Swimming head coach. Marsh’s style differs from that of his peers. He favors fast-paced interval training and innovative workouts over long, grinding sets of laps that can take hours—and it works.

“David knows how to deliver,” said Finbarr Kirwan, who works for the U.S. Olympic Committee and is a liaison with high performance programs like Team Elite. “It’s a community of excellence he’s created down there.”

Eleven-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte started training with Marsh in 2013, joining his buddy and fellow Olympian Cullen Jones at SwimMAC. Athletes from six other countries are on the Team Elite roster, including swimmers from Bermuda, the Netherlands and Zimbabwe. Kirsty Coventry, a Zimbabwean backstroker who swam for Marsh in college, came to Charlotte two years ago to refine her stroke as she prepares for her fifth Olympics. Madison Kennedy, a sprint specialist, whose best event is the 50 freestyle, works as a trainer at Hilliard Studio Method and a team ambassador at Lulelemon at SouthPark Mall when she’s not swimming.

In full, SwimMAC’s Team Elite already has 27 Olympic Trials qualifiers. A few among them are: Cammile Adams, a silver medalist in the 200 butterfly at the 2015 FINA World Championships; Micah Lawrence, a bronze medalist in the 200 breaststroke at the 2012 Olympics; Katie Meili, an American record-setter in the 100 breaststroke in 2015; Tyler Clary, a gold medalist in the 200 backstroke at the 2012 Olympics; and Tim Phillips, a gold medalist in the 400 medley relay at the 2015 FINA World Championships.

Many of those swimmers, plus top Olympic hopefuls from across the country, dove in at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Charlotte, an important four-day meet on the professional circuit.

The Arena Pro stop in Charlotte was also one of the last chances for swimmers to work out any competition kinks before the Olympic Trials this summer. And in the swimming world, all eyes will be on SwimMAC’s performance. Some insiders predict that as much as a third of the USA Swimming roster will come out of Marsh’s squad in Charlotte.

“We work with programs we believe will have a very strong impact on medal count,” Kirwan said. “We hold that program in very, very high regard.”

Marsh’s competitors aren’t the only swimmers hoping their road to Rio runs through Charlotte, though.

As many as 150 physically disabled swimmers will try to earn a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team during the multisport trials here in Charlotte June 30-July 2; it’s set to be the largest Paralympic Trials in U.S. history. These athletes have a wide range of impairments—everything from partial blindness to amputations—and are considered some of the best in their field. “Paralympics, internationally, is focused on elite competition,” said Julie O’Neill, who runs the Paralympic program for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “It is the pinnacle sporting event, just like the Olympics are.”

The USOC will host trials for cycling and track and field in Charlotte, too, taking advantage of a collegiate track at Johnson C. Smith University and the rolling terrain that surrounds the city. This is the first time the Paralympic team has hosted trials for multiple sports at the same time, and O’Neill expects the event to be the largest in U.S. Paralympic history. “The challenge was finding a place that could support it with the caliber of venues that we need, and Charlotte offered that,” she said. As many as 500 competitors will try to qualify for the games, also in Rio this summer. The American Paralympic team will include 265 athletes from 21 sports. 

O’Neill says the city offered more than just venues, though. Because Charlotte has such strong recreational cycling, running and swimming communities, the Paralympic team knew they would find an emotional connection from fans. “That definitely played a role,” she said, “knowing the expertise and the support were there in addition to just the venues.”

Among those hoping to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in Rio is 23-year-old Jill Moore, a native of nearby Concord, who is currently on a wheelchair racing scholarship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She plans to graduate with a degree in industrial design in 2017. Though she was born with Spina Bifida, which paralyzed her, her family’s love of bike riding ushered Moore into the world of wheelchair athletics from an early age.

Moore was a member of North Cabarrus High School’s track & field team while in school there. At the time, competing at the high school level was extremely rare, but it was Moore’s launching pad. She also played wheelchair basketball for the Charlotte Rollin’ Hornets Junior team and was part of the 2009 National Championship crew. In 2010, she was part of the Team USA swimming squad for the IWAS Junior World Championships in the Czech Republic. Moore also competed for Team USA’s track and field team at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto. Now, almost a year later, she hopes to showcase her talents in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.

Like Moore, if Paul Peterson III, of Charlotte, has his way, he’ll compete for glory in Rio this September.  A relative newbie to the Paralympics track and field game, Peterson lost his right leg in a car accident back in 2007, when he was 15. During a follow-up visit after his leg amputation, Peterson’s prosthetist encouraged him to start running.

Peterson, a sprinter and long-jumper, trains at Johnson C. Smith University under Coach Anthony James. In his short career, Peterson has finished as a USA Para National Championship bronze medalist for the 100-meter in both 2013 and 2014 and as an IPC World Championship finalist for the long jump in 2013. He’s determined to add to his medal collection in a few short months

Eichfeld’s canoe pitches and rolls in the rapids.

Millions of gallons of water churn around him as he bounces through each successive gate. When he hits the most challenging section of the course, a DJ yells to the crowd, “Casey Eichfeld is puttin’ on a show today, folks!”

Eichfeld grits his teeth and charges toward the final third of the run, his soft performance the day before still on his mind. “I needed to remember that I didn’t want to just do the bare minimum to make the Olympic team,” he said after that one. “I don't think about much on the water besides the feel of my boat, the window through the gates so that I can see the next gate and the bottom of the gate poles.”

It is enough. Eichfeld finishes the course in 98.59 seconds. That’s all it took—a little more than a minute and a half—to punch his ticket to Rio.

“It was so special to do it at home,” he said after the race. “Normally our final qualification is a race in a far off land. To be able to kiss my fiancé, hug my parents and feel the excited and proud energy from the crowd of people who mostly comprised of complete strangers,” he paused. “That made it a race I will vividly remember for the rest of my days.”

This article ran in the June 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings.