On August 5, 2016, about 200 nations will fly their flags high in the sky of Rio de Janeiro as they take part in the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. Thousands of athletes will walk and wave to the crowd, taking a moment before the clocks start and the whistles sound to reflect on the journeys that got them there ― and all that they have already accomplished.
As well they should. These are men and women who truly typify hard work and heart. These are athletes who have dedicated umpteen years and countless tears to their crafts, and who are now putting it all on the line for a shot at hearing their national anthems blare throughout Rio come August. Whatever our individual views are on the games as a whole, these competitors and their personal paths to Rio are worth celebrating.
Of course, the lead-up to Rio 2016 has been unique among Olympic countdowns. The world is watching anxiously as Brazil tries to manage the spate of potential disasters on its plate: the Zika virus; the city’s spike in violence and water pollution; the nation’s political and economic instability.
But with worries like these becoming increasingly paramount as August approaches, it’s more important than ever that we remember what makes the Olympics so special: the stories behind the scoreboards, the journeys behind the jerseys. So to get us all excited for Rio 2016, here are 11 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls whose stories will truly inspire you.
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Kieran Behan | Gymnastics
He was told he likely would never walk again. He was confined to a wheelchair. Twice. But now, Behan is back on the mat.
Kieran Behan was just a kid when doctors found a tumor in his leg. And he was just 10 years old when complications from the resulting surgery relegated him to a wheelchair.
So it came as quite a shock when less than a year and a half later, Behan had rehabilitated enough to be able to train as a gymnast once more. And thus it was entirely devastating when he suffered an accident during training, falling onto his head from the high bar. The accident resulted in brain damage and inner ear injury, which put him back in that wheelchair, with doctors and experts doubting whether he’d ever be able to walk once more.
But, yet again, Behan didn’t accept the bad twist of fate. And by the time he was in 21 in 2010, he was performing in the qualifying rounds of the world championships. Leading up to London 2012, he became only the second Irish gymnast in history to qualify for the Games. And in Rio, he’ll look to further inscribe himself into the all-time record books.
Dartanyon Crockett | Paralympic Judo
Growing up legally blind and occasionally homeless, Crockett has defied the odds on his journey to Games glory.
Dartanyon Crockett has never had it easy. He was born with a degenerative eye disease that rendered him legally blind, unable to see sharply beyond a yard or so away. His mother died when he was only 8 years old and his dad suffered from alcoholism throughout his childhood; there were stints when he was homeless “and mostly survived on cafeteria lunches,” per the Colorado Springs Gazette.
But he has persevered, and day after day he has fought the odds both on and off the mat. And this summer, the 24-year-old has only one word on his mind: gold.
"I will win gold in Rio, I have no doubt about that," he said. "I still have the want."
Daryl Homer | Fencing
Having found the sport only by accident, Homer dedicates much of his time to introducing inner-city kids to fencing.
Daryl Homer first crossed paths with fencing by way of a dictionary around age 5. Hailing from a single-parent home in the Bronx, Homer became fascinated with the idea of the sport, and asked ― then asked again and again ― his mother to figure out a way to get him on the strip. Eventually, he joined the nonprofit Peter Westbrook Foundation ― an institution founded “to expose youths in underserved communities to the sport,” per The New York Times.
From there, he quickly climbed up the ranks of the fencing world, eventually winning silver for his sabre work at the 2015 world championships in Moscow.
Just about 14 years after first walking through the Westbrook Foundation’s doors, Homer has taken its mission to heart, as he now spends his time off the piste working to introduce fencing to inner-city kids, with this champion championing the cause that has meant so much to him for so log.
“Within my own community, I fully understand that I am a role model and a success symbol,” Homer told BE Modern Man. “The first thing I tell people is that I’m just a kid from the Bronx. Strip away all the accolades and that’s what I am at my core ... [My] narrative shows that regardless of where you come from success is possible.”
Guor Mading Maker | Marathon Running
He fled Sudan’s civil war. He vowed to never run again. Decades later, Maker is proud to take the course under South Sudan’s striped flag.
As a child, Guor Mading Maker quite literally ran for his life to escape Sudan’s horrifying civil war -- a war that ended up killing his eight siblings. He was sent to live with his uncle, but didn’t complete the journey for three years: He was
"forced into labor" at the hands of Sudanese soldiers and kidnapped by herdsmen along the way, as the BBC notes.
He later had to flee from Cairo as well, and ended up in the U.S.
“When I left Sudan, I said, ‘I will never run again,’ because I thought running was only for me to save my life,” he wrote for the BBC.
Eventually his gym teacher convinced him to give track a shot. And he hasn't stopped running since.
But as a citizen of neither South Sudan nor America, he was, as he phrased it, “a man without a country” -- a problematic situation for an Olympic-caliber performer. So he competed in London as an "Independent Olympic Athlete." Now, however, with South Sudan officially being approved for inclusion by the IOC, Maker will be able to don his country’s colors to compete in Rio this summer.
Yusra Mardini | Swimming
Last summer, Syrian-born Mardini swam her way through the Aegean Sea, toward freedom. In Rio, she hopes to inspire others to dream big.
In August of last year, Yusra Mardini, just a teenager, was forced to flee Syria. The country was ravaged by civil war and her own home was wrecked, with no break in the violence on the horizon. So she and her sister made their way first to Lebanon. Then to Turkey. Then they planned to sneak into Greece via the Aegean Sea. But the motor boat on which they were to be smuggled broke down -- and the boat began to fill with water.
So Mardini, her sister and one another refugee climbed out and into the water, and, for hours, pushed the boat through the Aegean. Eventually they reached land in Lesbos, and she and her sister ended up in Berlin the following month.
Mardini’s been swimming competitively for a decade -- though practicing regularly was often a challenge in war-torn Syria, where, as Mardini phrased it, "sometimes you had training but there was a bomb in the swimming pool."
Now, she's aiming to earn a spot on the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes, the next stepping stone to achieving her dream of carving her way through the water on the Olympic stage come August -- exactly one year after she was forced to flee all she knew.
“I want to show everybody that it’s hard to arrive at your dreams but it’s not impossible,” Mardini said. “You can do it; everyone can do it if I can do it, any athlete can do it.”
Lopez Lomong | Track and Field
He was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan -- then a miracle happened. Now, he's hoping to make and medal in his third Olympic appearance.
Lopez Lomong was only 6 years old when he was kidnapped from church. A Catholic caught in the crosshairs of the Second Sudanese Civil War, he was taken and imprisoned, becoming one of the tens of thousands of Lost Boys of Sudan.
“I was locked in prison to die,” he said.
But, somehow, miraculously, a group from his village helped him escape -- he spent just about 72 hours running and running, until he reached Kenya, where he lived for a decade in a refugee camp. Eventually, the Catholic Charities group paved the way for him to travel to and take up residence in the U.S.
Ever since fate extended its hand and got him out of harm’s way, Lomong has viewed his own life as a means through which to spread hope to others who haven’t yet reached their dreams. In 2008, he was the U.S. flag bearer during the Opening Ceremony. In 2012 he came in 10th in the 5000m finals. Dreaming bigger and climbing higher is what Lomong does best -- so we should all expect him to defy the odds in Brazil.
“Now I'm not just one of the 'Lost Boys,'" he said, eight years ago, leading up to the 2008 Games. "I'm an American.”
The same still stands today.
Tatyana McFadden | Paralympic Track and Field
She had to walk on her hands until age 6. Now, she's one of the world's best on the track.
Born with a spinal cord disorder that paralyzed her from the waist down, Tatyana McFadden was just a baby when her birth mother left her in an orphanage in the Soviet city then called Leningrad. As the orphanage couldn’t pay for a wheelchair for the young girl, McFadden spent her first six years walking on her hands “simply to keep up with the other children.”
In 1994, a U.S. Department of Health official visited the orphanage, met McFadden and adopted her, moving her from Russia to Baltimore. With her arms immeasurably strengthened from all those years of walking on her hands, she thrived in wheelchair racing here in the U.S. She competed in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics, winning a total of three gold, four silver and three bronze medals. And she’s not done yet.
Ibtihaj Muhammad | Fencing
You've probably heard her name by now. But Muhammad isn't done leaving her mark -- not by a long shot.
The first Team USA member to compete in a hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad is using her platform for all the right things. With every meet in which she competes, with every word she speaks, she tells us of the importance ― and the beauty ― of diversity. She makes clear just how essential inclusivity is, especially in light of the ugly words and crimes of hate the world has witnessed in the past year.
“I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals ― not race, religion or gender,” she explained. “I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
Claressa Shields | Boxing
All Shields wants is to get her family out of Flint, Michigan. She thinks she can do that by getting back to that Olympic podium.
Long before their city made national headlines for its recent water crisis, residents of Flint, Michigan, faced a stacked deck. With unemployment and poverty ravaging many of the city’s blocks, then 17-year-old world-class boxer Claressa Shields hoped that the 2012 Olympics would be her family’s ticket out of Flint, holding her breath that maybe, just maybe, a gold medal in London would mean that her loved ones could break from the city’s stronghold.
But it was not to be, despite the fact that Shields won the 2012 gold medal. And as her family remains in Flint to this day, Shields has kept training and training, and this summer, she’ll walk into Rio 2016 with the same dream: winning gold for the sake, health and happiness of her family.
Brad Snyder | Paralympic Swimming
He lost his sight on a bomb squad mission in 2011. Five years later, he's notched two gold medals and is eager to add to his collection.
One year to the day after losing his sight in the midst of a combat deployment in Afghanistan, Brad Snyder, then in London, reached out his arm, touched the wall of the pool, raised his head and lifted his arm. It was summer 2012, and he had just won gold in the 100-meter freestyle race at the Paralympic Games.
Comeback stories are common in sports. Comeback stories like this are the things of fairytales. Now Snyder’s hoping to add to that happily-ever-after ending in Rio this summer. While in Afghanistan, his job was to defuse bombs for a Navy SEAL team, per NPR. Now, he’s continuing on with what he sees as his patriotic duty: getting in the pool and representing the U.S. by way of his strong, quick, slicing freestyle stroke.
"I know there are a lot of guys out there, guys and girls, who are struggling with a tough hand,” he said after earning the medal in 2012. “And hopefully my success here at the Paralympics can reach out to those people and say, 'Hey, there is a way forward; there is something you can go out and do that will give you that relevance and success again.’”
Matt Stutzman | Paralympic Archery
The "Armless Archer" refuses to think of himself as disabled. He'd rather think of himself as a world-record holder.
Matt Stutzman was born without arms, but thanks to inconceivable skill and unimaginable resilience, he has made a name for himself in the world of archery. Preaching the motto “impossible is a state of mind,” Stutzman set the world record for farthest accurate shot with a compound bow in Dallas, Texas, late last year, hitting his target from 310 yards -- breaking his old world record by 80 yards.
The self-proclaimed “Armless Archer” took home silver in the 2012 Games. In just shy of 100 days, he’ll be looking to one-up himself once more, lining up his bow and going for gold in Rio.
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