Let the Games Begin

Ready, Set, Rio: Meet Houston’s Olympians

From fencing to tae kwon do, these athletes have gold on their minds for the 2016 Games.

Edited by Adam Doster With Jeff Balke and Steven Devadanam June 20, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

They are strong. They are fast. They are determined. This summer, gold is on their minds. Meet some of Houston’s most celebrated Olympians, en route to Brazil next month for the 2016 Games.

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Kelley, left, and Courtney Hurley

Image: Todd Spoth

The Hurleys, American Fencing’s Baddest Sisters

Kelley and Courtney Hurley are charming athletes who carry noticeable chips on their shoulders. Ask them to describe their position within the insular world of American fencing, and the 2012 Olympic bronze medalists in women’s team épée will answer honestly. “We’re kind of loners,” Kelley claims. Her younger sister is even more blunt: “People still hate us.”

Whether deserved or not, it’s easy to see how that reputation calcified. Kelley, 27, and Courtney, 25, never joined a local club as youngsters, never took proper lessons. Their friends didn’t even know how fencing worked. Instead, the pair learned the arcane rules from their parents, Robert and Tracy, who met at a Rice fencing club and later built their own personal fencing complex outside San Antonio, immediately adjacent to their house.

The family would train out back and then turn up at Texas youth tournaments in a salvaged RV, Nintendo 64 plugged into an adapter in the back, the girls wearing hand-me-down uniforms. At some point during the proceedings, their short-tempered mother would draw a yellow or red card for barking at a referee. And the talented Hurleys would win, over and over again, earning tepid applause for their efforts. “We were so used to having everyone on the other side, and just our mom and dad clapping on our side,” Kelley says. "We knew we had to stick together.”

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Kelley, left, and Courtney Hurley

Image: Todd Spoth

Eighteen months ago, in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, Kelley and Courtney moved back to Houston, the city they called home as toddlers, and joined the Alliance Fencing Academy in Spring Branch. There, under the tutelage of U.S. National Team coach Andrey Geva, they’ve finally found refuge. The facility has 14 renovated strips, an attached armory, and a tattered punching bag hanging from the back wall. Inside, hundreds of students of all ages and skill levels study the finer points of swordplay from one of the world’s most respected professionals.

Here, the Hurleys glide and feint in their steel masks six days a week. Though each ranks in the top 20 internationally in the discipline, this is the first time in their careers they’ve received formal instruction. It’s also the first time they’ve felt true kinship with other fencers. “All these [Houstonians] are so supportive of each other,” Kelley says. “It was almost like they adopted us.”

This summer, both sisters will fence in the individual and team épée tournaments. Courtney is aggressive and attacking, heavy on the blade. Kelley is left-handed, methodical, elegant. Each appreciates how championship fencing demands physicality and mental acuity in equal measure. And neither can wait to relive the adrenaline rush of an Olympic match. “It’s hard to explain the feeling of walking up on that stage about to fence—all these people, cameras going off, people cheering, it’s dark, and you’re struggling to breathe,” Kelley says. “But then once you start, everything fades away, and you’re just fencing.” —Adam Doster

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Glen Eller takes aim

Image: USA Shooting

Sharpshooter Glen Eller, Dead-Eye Marksman

Following months of grueling training, numerous competitive trials, and the pressure-packed competition of the Olympics itself, the average Olympian takes time off once the games wrap up. Sergeant Glenn Eller is not the average athlete. “After the 2012 Olympics, I spent 100 days in Afghanistan training the Afghan National Army and their soldiers to defend them- selves,” he says.

Eller, 34, is a gold medal winner in the double-trap shooting event. He’s also a dead-eye marksman for the U.S. Army, sta- tioned in Georgia with one of the most elite squads of shooters in the world.

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Glen Eller

Image: USA Shooting

Eller began shotgun target-shooting at the age of 8—his father used to take him to a range near the family’s house in Katy where he liked to “push the buttons.” He made his first Olympics 10 years later, in 2000, and was hooked. In fact, he got so busy with shooting tournaments and Olympic qualifiers, he didn’t have time for his studies at Auburn University. “If it was between shooting and school, shooting won.” When the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit offered him the opportunity to train full-time, he jumped at the chance.

One might think that hunting would have driven the Texas native’s early interest in the sport. After all, clay shooting isn’t exactly as popular as gymnastics or men’s basketball in the U.S. But he’s quick to point out that the sport is seen differently in other parts of the world. “In 2004, the only Olympic medalist for India was in my event,” he says. “In Italy, instead of golf courses, they have shooting ranges.” And Eller finds it exciting. “From the time we call ‘pull’ to the time we shoot the target,” he says, “that’s less than a second.” Trap shooting is also the rare Olympic event that doesn’t favor the young. Routinely, the best in the sport are in their thirties, and many compete well into their forties. Yet the sport isn’t for the faint of heart (or shoulder). Eller trains by firing between 300 and 500 rounds each day. “A normal person, if they shot what we did in a day,” he explains, “they wouldn’t be able to move the next morning.”

Eller intends to return to Texas at some point, but for now he’s focused on Rio, where he’ll compete alongside several members of his military unit, with whom he also trains. “I know if I beat my teammates,” he says, “I am probably beating the best in the world.” —Jeff Balke

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Cammile Adams

Cammile Adams, Swim Sensation 

Most Houstonians dip their toes in the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico from time to time. Not Cammile Adams. “I’m not really a sand person,” she says with a shrug. This bit of trivia is surprising, considering that Adams is, well, one of the best swim- mers in the world. “I love open-water swims,” she says, “but I like swimming in lakes.”

The native Houstonian practically grew up in a swimming pool near her family's home in Cypress. Her father was a swim coach, and her twin sister was as obsessed with the sport as she was. "We would go to swim practice with Dad to give Mom a break,”Adams says. By the time she was 5, she swam her first meet. This summer, at 24, she will head to Rio to compete in her second Olympics, hoping to medal in the women’s 200-meter butterfly, an event she competed in—and took home silver for—at the 2015 World Championships.

The transition from amateur to professional hasn’t been easy for Adams. “Training is a lot more intense,” she explains. In addition to six days in the pool each week (three of those doing sessions twice daily), she lifts weights and does yoga. “I honestly thought being a professional would be the exact same thing as when I was in college, but it’s completely different,” she says. “I just sleep, eat and swim.”

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Cammile Adams

Today Adams lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she trains with other members of the Olympic team and attends college at Queens University, working with past medalists (Ryan Lochte) and keeping her focus on gold.

When she visits her family and her fiancée in Houston, she continues her training, even swimming outside during Thanksgiving break. “It gets cold, but you can swim outside,” she says.

In the fall, she’ll return here to finish her undergraduate studies as a student teacher, hopefully in her home district of Cy Fair ISD. Her wedding will follow in October, she jokes, “because we needed to add something else to the list of things to do this year.”

Adams hasn’t decided whether this will be her last Olympics, but she knows that athletes can’t perform at their peak forever. “I don’t see myself being done anytime soon,” she says. “But, as you get older, your body doesn’t love you the same way that it used to.” She hopes that, at some point, she will be able to swim just for fun. “I don’t ever see myself stopping swimming,” she says. “It’s made me the person I am today.” —JB

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Steven Lopez

Steven Lopez, Tae Kwon Do's Elder Statesman 

When Steven Lopez steps into the ring in Rio, he will do so as the most decorated athlete in the history of tae kwon do. Lopez has won Olympic gold twice, in 2000 and 2004, and bronze once, in 2008. Between 2001 and 2009, he claimed top prize at the World Tae Kwon Do championships five consecutive times. And this summer, he’ll continue his quest for greatness at an age—37—when the majority of his peers have long retired. Jean Lopez, Steven’s brother and longtime Olympic coach, likens Steven’s longevity to a pro boxer fighting into his late forties: “Very few times in combat sports have we seen anything like this.”

The journey began in a Sugar Land garage, where Jean—five years Steven’s senior—tutored the athlete, along with his brother Mark and sister Diana, when they were kids. The Lopezes would go on to become the only family in history to have three siblings medal in the same sport in the same year, 2008, when Mark won silver and, like Steven, Diane won bronze.

In 2012, Lopez’s fourth Olympic Games, he fought with an injury, later learning he had a broken leg; he failed to medal. Now prepping for Rio, he says he enjoys “every minute of training.” Well, almost every minute: “Okay, honestly, at the moment I’m hating how tough the workouts are, how difficult the training is, how sore my body gets,” he laughs. “It’s almost a sadistic thing I have—I love pushing myself to—and surpassing—my threshold.”

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Steven Lopez, in blue helmet

As a literal poster boy, Lopez boasts a passionate, global fan base. His official Olympic mailbox in Colorado Springs, Colorado, regularly fills up with autograph requests. Fans swamp him at airports and restaurants when he travels abroad. (His older brother chuckles when recounting fans tearing at Steven’s clothes during a recent Mexico visit.) During each Olympic season, he is a fixture on shows like Oprah and Today. “I always pray that if I can achieve any amount of greatness, that it may inspire and motivate others, especially young people,” he says. “That’s my way of giving back to what’s been given to me.”

Indeed, Lopez’s authentic, squeaky-clean image has netted him some solid-gold endorsements. His toothy grin landed him a gig as spokesperson for Crest, and he’s appeared in ads for AT&T, Coke and Chobani, among others. His only notable vices are the occasional cocktail or pizza—when not training—and generous doses of reality TV.

As August approaches, Lopez, a firm believer in the practice called visualization, is mapping out “the perfect day and happily-ever-after” Olympic story. He will step into the ring and—“doing the little things, and controlling the controllable”—will win his medal match before wrapping himself in the American flag.

“Being an Olympian has been the ultimate honor for me my entire adult life,” says Lopez. “I get to represent God, my family, my friends, my teammates, my community and the greatest country in the world.” —Steven Devadanam

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Timothy Wang

Timothy Wang, Table Tennis Terror 

For young Timothy Wang, table tennis was a means to a colorful, collectable end. “I wasn’t too interested in it,” the 24-year-old says now. “Every time I took a lesson, I made my parents take me to the nearby Toys ‘R’ Us and buy me a pack of Pokémon cards.”

The need for gentle bribery was understandable. Wang’s parents grew up playing in Taiwan, and every day they’d lug Timothy and his two brothers, eight and nine years his senior, to the Houston Table Tennis Association for drills and scrimmages. Wang showed potential, but he was always the youngest one there—and always getting pummeled. (“I couldn’t beat any of them.”)

It’s funny looking back. A three-time national champion in men’s singles and a 2012 Olympian, Wang is now one of the country’s most accomplished ping pong players, a speedy two-side attacker with a prominent forehead and ludicrous hand-eye coordination. He finally took down his father at 16, and then relocated to northern California for six years, training full-time at the India Community Center Table Tennis Center, an elite club that sponsors promising paddlers and employs skilled instructors from around the globe. What had started as a mandated family hobby morphed into a vocation. “It was much better than me sitting at home on a computer or playing video games,” Wang says.

Watching table tennis at the Olympic level is mesmerizing. The white ball skitters and dances across the hard surface, bending with heavy spin at implausible angles. Success requires abnormal reflexes, pinpoint positioning and sustained focus. Four years ago, facing a North Korean in the preliminary round of the London games, Wang lost all of that. “As soon as I walked into the arena, the entire crowd started cheering,” he says. “And even when I was playing, I could hear people screaming, ‘USA! USA!’ I was super nervous.”

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Timothy Wang

That quick exit—he was swept in four games—informed his preparation for Rio. (Wang, who recently moved to Atlanta, qualified for the team event this past February.) Each morning, he rallies with a sparring partner for two continuous hours. In the afternoons, he plays multiball, an exercise in which his coach stands on the opposite end of the table with a bucket of balls and serves one after another, in perpetuity, while Wang perfects his footwork and form. (“It’s one ball, boom. One ball, boom. So exhausting.”) He’s even hired a personal trainer, former NFL wide receiver Corey Bridges, to help boost his strength and flexibility. It’s a cliché, Wang realizes, but after his abbreviated Olympic effort, he keeps reminding himself to “take it one match at a time.”

Regardless of his performance this summer, Wang already knows how he’d like to continue his career: by opening a club in Katy similar to the West Coast operation that served him so well as a teenager. He’ll call it the Houston International Table Tennis Academy, and renovations (as of press time) are nearing completion. “You have to find a pretty big space, because the table tennis courts are fairly large,” he says. “Then you have to get good coaches who are motivated and can bring the kids in and make them stay.”

Luckily, there’s already a Toys “R” Us right off the Katy Freeway. —AD

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Kassidy Cook

Kassidy Cook, Diving into a Comeback

In the time it takes to blink twice, Kassidy Cook could turn her Olympic dreams into a reality.

Bright-eyed and exuding pop-star charm, the Team USA hopeful made her first splash as a diver growing up in The Woodlands. Then a 17-year-old high school senior, and a rising star, she famously suffered a heart-wrenching loss in the 2012 Olympic trials, when she and synchronized diving partner Christina Loukas lost their bid by a razor-thin, .42-point margin to Abby Johnston and Kelci Bryant. Cook’s anguished, tearful reaction quickly made the rounds on social media.

“I have no resentment about any of that,” she says. “I think all that publicity actually shows how much time and effort and emotion people put into their sport.” Adding injury to insult, Cook also tore her labrum in 2012 after the trials and underwent shoulder surgery—she watched the London Olympics from a hospital bed. A second shoulder procedure followed in 2013.

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Kassidy Cook

But Cook, now 21, has shaken off the specter of 2012. In her first international competition in four years, she clinched a crucial spot for the USA diving at February’s FINA World Cup in Rio, placing seventh overall in individual three-meter springboard diving. She also found inspiration for making the summer games. “Walking into the pool, knowing this is where the Olympics are going to be held, that I could be back here in August competing in front of thousands live—and millions of viewers worldwide—was breathtaking,” she recalls. “I totally got goosebumps.”

There will be more goosebumps to conquer before Cook can secure one of two three-meter spots for Rio. Her June Olympic qualifier again pits her against Johnston. “I’ve known Abby for years, and I think of her more as a friend than a competitor,” says Cook. “My ideal situation would be Abby and me going to the Olympics.”

Cook has taken a year off from her studies at Stanford to focus solely on Rio. When she’s not training—three times a day with her Woodlands coach Ken Armstrong, including a rigorous pool schedule, plus Pilates and weight training—she enjoys hanging with her “big crazy family.”

While Cook’s already planning on competing in 2020, her priority is perfecting her split-second timing off the board. “In diving, it all happens so fast,” she says. “You have to combine the grace and rhythm of a dancer with the power of a gymnast.” She points to China—the odds-on favorite at Rio—as the prototype. But Cook isn’t intimidated. “They’re damn-near close to perfect, but they could crack,” she says with a laugh. “They could mess up too, and that’s all we need.” —SD

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