Tokyo Olympics to include more than 60 San Diego athletes
Fifteen of the 34 sports will have representatives from San Diego, ranging from age 13 to 56
Jennifer Valente grew up in San Diego as part of an active family. They went to the beach, they played baseball and soccer, they rode mountain bikes in the summer, they went skiing in the winter. She was part of the Junior Lifeguards program. In high school at Cathedral Catholic, she played water polo.
Her dream was to one day compete in the Olympics.
She didn’t know what sport, only that she wanted to be there.
“Just watching both Summer and Winter Olympics on TV from as young as I can remember,” says Valente, now 26. “Just watching people in their uniforms walking in the Opening Ceremony, so much celebration and everyone talking about it. I just knew I wanted to go to the Olympics and see how I stacked up against everyone else, see what I’m capable of.”
It says a lot about Valente, and a lot about San Diego, that you can dream of an Olympics before you pick a sport. San Diego offers that many paths to the Games.
Valente settled on track cycling after attending Tuesday Night Racing — TNR, to the cycling community — with her father at the 333.3-meter concrete velodrome at Morley Field. She enrolled in the free classes at the velodrome at age 9. By 21, she already had a silver medal in team pursuit from the 2016 Games in Rio. In Tokyo, her second Olympics, she’s entered in the team pursuit again plus two individual events.
Valente is one of more than 60 athletes with San Diego ties headed to Tokyo, which is an impressive enough number for a county of 3.35 million. That’s roughly the population of Uruguay, which is expected to send 11 total athletes to Japan.
Perhaps more impressive is the athletic diversity of the local contingent. It will be represented in 15 of the 34 sports on the Tokyo program.
Valente isn’t the only cyclist. Chula Vista resident Alise Willoughby, a silver medalist in 2016, is headed to her third Summer Games in BMX racing.
Willoughby moved to San Diego a decade ago from Minnesota when what was known as the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista built a replica track of the competition venue at the London Games.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has since returned the 155-acre center to the city; it’s now operated by a private entity and known as the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. Both men’s and women’s rugby sevens teams are based there, along with some track and field athletes and archers, but not the robust numbers that were envisioned when the site adjacent to Lower Otay Reservoir opened before the 1996 Summer Games as the USOPC’s only warm-weather training facility.
That hasn’t stopped San Diego County from producing Olympians, though, or being a training mecca across an array of sports. The Colombian BMX team stopped here for two weeks of training on its way to Tokyo.
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For the first time in recent memory, San Diego has no Olympic sailors. But it does have a 13-year-old girl who rides skateboards (Sky Brown) and a 56-year-old man who rides horses (Steffen Peters).
Francis Parker High can claim a baseball player (Nick Allen) and volleyball player (Garrett Muagututia). Scripps Ranch High boasts a golfer (Xander Schauffele) and trampoline gymnast (Nicole Ahsinger). Otay Ranch High has a Mexican softball catcher (Sashel Palacios) and a Puerto Rican basketball center (Isalys Quinones) among its former students.
Jamaica’s Shanieka Ricketts, a medal favorite in the women’s triple jump, is an SDSU alum (as is Schauffele). Brooke Raboutou, the top American woman in newly added sport climbing, is a junior at USD. Shlomo Lipetz and Alon Leichman, members of Israel’s baseball team, both played at UC San Diego.
La Jolla Country Day alum Kelsey Plum, the NCAA’s Division I career scoring leader, is representing the United States in the new discipline of 3-on-3 basketball. Two members of the U.S. men’s water polo team — Jesse Smith and Alex Bowen — competed for national titles at different times with the powerhouse San Diego Shores club.
There are no members of the U.S. surfing team from San Diego, but the guy largely responsible for getting the sport in the Olympics (Fernando Aguerre) is a regular on the Windansea break in La Jolla.
The local resident with the best chance of winning multiple medals is swimmer Michael Andrew, who moved to Encinitas from Kansas and uses an unorthodox training method of short, quick bursts instead of tedious mileage staring at a black line. He qualified in three individual events and is a candidate to swim on two relays.
He found instant acceptance.
“One hundred percent,” Andrew says. “We’ve only lived here three years, and what’s crazy is in that short period of time, it’s felt way more like my hometown than any place we’ve lived. I think it’s because we embody a lot of that spirit, that wherever you go there’s an elite athlete here.
“There’s something about not only the weather and the fact that everyone is really active. It promotes excellence and a healthy lifestyle. We’ve always lived that way, but now we’re finally in our natural habitat. This is definitely home.”
Andrew doesn’t live far from Tony Hawk, the godfather of skateboarding, which makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Perhaps no sport better personifies the county’s five-ring vibe, particularly in the park event where skaters perform tricks after dropping into a concrete bowl.
All three members of the U.S. women’s park team have local ties, as do two of the three on the men’s team. Several foreign skaters have moved here as well, taking advantage of the weather, the plethora of skate parks, the sport’s chill culture and Hawk’s prodigious legacy.
That includes Brown, who promises to be one of the Tokyo’s breakout stars. She has a Japanese mother and British father, will represent Great Britain and is the gold medal favorite in women’s park … at age 13.
She lives half of the year in Oceanside, a short drive from the CATF skate park in Vista designed by the same company that constructed the Tokyo venue. She convincingly won the X Games park event there Friday.
Bryce Wettstein, a member of the U.S. park team, grew up in Encinitas with a wooden bowl and vert ramp in her backyard just around the corner from Hawk’s home. Jordyn Barratt and Brighton Zeuner came to Encinitas as youngsters to compete in the annual Exposure event that promotes women’s skateboarding, instantly fell in love with the area and moved here with their families.
The where and what are part of it. The who might be an even bigger piece.
Amelia Brodka grew up in Poland, then moved to the East Coast before attending USC and ultimately settling in San Diego. She’ll represent Poland in women’s park in Tokyo.
“Skating is a very social sport,” says Brodka, 31. “It’s really fun to do together. When you’re skating alone, it’s not as fun and it feels like training. When you’re in a community setting, you can work together. It leads to a lot of progression. We all help each other — where you play your feet, how best to land a trick. We build upon ideas and share them.
“There’s moral support. There’s just a positive, community vibe.”
They call it a “make train,” where someone finally lands a flip or a jump they’ve been practicing, then someone else builds on the inspiration and tops it, then someone else.
You’re not walking into your local rec center and seeing LeBron James shooting around on the basketball court, then joining a pickup game.
“It’s so cool here,” Brodka says. “You’ll show up to at a skate park and you’ll see multiple pros on any given day, all helping each other. I’ve lived and traveled a lot of places — Europe, the East Coast, L.A. — but there’s no place like San Diego.”
SAN DIEGO OLYMPIANS
Sixty-four athletes competing in 15 sports:
Archery: Mackenzie Brown (Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center), Jack Williams (Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center)
Baseball: Patrick Kivlehan (Padres Triple-A), Nick Allen (Francis Parker), Shlomo Lipetz (Israel, UCSD), Alon Leichman (Israel, UCSD)
Basketball 3 on 3: Kelsey Plum (La Jolla County Day)
Basketball, women: Isalys Quiñones (Puerto Rico, Otay Ranch High)
Cycling, BMX racing: Alise Willoughby (Chula Vista)
Cycling, track: Jennifer Valente (San Diego, Cathedral Catholic)
Equestrian: Steffen Peters (San Diego)
Golf: Xander Schauffele (Scripps Ranch High, SDSU)
Gymnastics: Nicole Ahsinger (trampoline, Scripps Ranch High)
Rugby: Women (Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center): Abby Gustaitis, Ariana Ramsey, Cheta Emba, Ilona Maher, Jordan Matyas, Kayla Canett (Fallbrook), Kris Thomas, Kristi Kirshe, Lauren Doyle, Alev Kelter, Naya Tapper, Nia Toliver, Nicole Heavirland. Men (Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center): Brett Thompson, Carlin Isles, Cody Melphy, Danny Barrett, Folau Niua, Joe Schroeder, Kevon Williams, Maceo Brown, Madison Hughes, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, Perry Baker, Steve Tomasin
Shooting: Brian Burrows (Fallbrook) trap
Skateboarding: Men’s park: Cory Juneau (San Diego), Heimana Reynolds (Carlsbad), Steven Pineiro (San Diego, Puerto Rico), Keegan Palmer (San Diego, Australia). Women’s park: Bryce Wettstein (Encinitas), Brighton Zeuner (Encinitas), Jordyn Barratt (Carlsbad), Sky Brown (England, Oceanside), Amelia Brodka (San Diego, Poland).
Softball: Sashel Palacios (Otay Ranch, Mexico)
Sport climbing: Brooke Raboutou (USD)
Swimming: Michael Andrew (Encinitas), Andi Murez (Israel, Coronado)
Track and field:
Shanieka Ricketts (triple jump, SDSU, Jamaica)
Brittney Reese (long jump, OTC)
Erica Bougard (heptathlon, OTC)
Reggie Jagers (discus, OTC)
Chris Benard (triple jump, OTC)
Will Claye (triple jump, OTC)
Nick Christie (20k walk, Grossmont High)
Brooke Anderson (hammer, Rancho Buena Vista High)
Volleyball: Garrett Muagututia (Francis Parker), indoor
Water polo: Jesse Smith (Coronado), Alex Bowen (Santee)
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