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Area Olympians reflect on London experience

LONDON ENGLAND - AUGUST 31:  Joseph Berenyi United States competes Men's Individual Cycling 3 Pursuit qualificatiday 2 Lond2012 Paralympic

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31: Joseph Berenyi of the United States competes in the Men's Individual Cycling 3 Pursuit qualification on day 2 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Velodrome on August 31, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

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Every few months, my dad will send me an e-mail about a local group teaching people how to curl.

“This is it! Our chance to make the Olympics!” my dad will write. “I think we can still do it.”

My dad is 62 and I’m 34, so our best high jumping days are probably over and sprinting is more of a shuffle. As best we can calculate, curling is our last best hope of fulfilling our Olympic dreams.

As a boy, I imagined that by now I’d have won a few gold medals. In my parents’ driveway, I hit the game winning shot a few dozen times. In the back yard, I broke the tape in the 100 meters just ahead of Carl Lewis. Turns out, I missed my Olympic opportunity by a lack of talent, effort and dedication. (Otherwise, so close.)

My lucky break is that as reporters, we get to live vicariously through people with real talent. And the Fox Valley shone brightly in the summer Games. There were less than 15,000 athletes competing in the Olympic and Paralympic games — about 700 from the U.S. Against those odds, five local residents represented all the local dreamers.

Here are the stories of their 2012 experiences in London and their plans for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The stories were excerpted from longer interviews by myself and reporter Stephanie Lulay.

- Matt Hanley

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Updated: December 5, 2012 6:13AM

Candace Parker

Parker, a 2004 Naperville Central High School grad and WNBA superstar, returned to the Olympics four years after winning gold in Beijing in 2008. In the 2012 gold medal game, she led the team with 21 points and 11 rebounds, helping the U.S. women win their 41st consecutive Olympic game.

Last time, I was … so focused, and not really enjoying the experience as we were winning. This time I really took my time and got to know some people and really enjoyed playing in the Olympics. I took more pictures this time around.

Whenever you walk in for opening ceremonies, it hits you. Beforehand you’re kind of like, man, I don’t really want to do this. It’s a lot of standing, a lot of walking. And then you walk in and you just forget that you stood up for an hour-and-half walking to the stadium. Then it’s just cheers and you feel so proud to be representing your country and you realize you’re one of 12 to be representing the United States. It’s such a moment. Then, at the end of the Olympics when you’ve got that gold medal around your neck and they’re playing your national anthem, that’s extremely special.

After it’s finished, you kind of go back into WNBA mode. We kind of took a break from that season so I think I was just ready to get back into the season and finish what we started here. (Parker’s WNBA team advanced to the conference finals.) We celebrated a little bit. I think the next day we went back to being opponents.

My gold medal is actually underneath my bed along with the other one. I haven’t really decided what I wanted to do. I need to be more careful and take more precaution about where I put it. I just got back from doing Sportscenter and my daughter found my medal on the counter and put it in her backpack and was walking to school. I was like: ‘Your backpack’s heavy.’ … I found out she was going to show it to her class because we won the gold medal. Not mommy. She did, too.

I think I just kind of want to step away and enjoy winning this gold medal. I think whenever you win a championship everybody’s like: OK, so when are you going to do it again? I’m just kind of taking my time, enjoying my experience and really reflecting on things. I’m just kind of going to make my decision (about Rio) later on.

Definitely not ruling out (Rio) at all. I think the Olympic experience is something that anyone would love to do again and again and again.

Anna Li

The 2006 Waubonsie Valley High School graduate was one of the heartwarming stories of the Olympic Trials. At 23-years-old, Li was much older than most of the women’s gymnasts, but made the team as an alternate specializing in the uneven bars. While training in England, however, the Aurora resident was injured before the gymnastics competition started.

I hit a point where it was so difficult that I wanted to have friends and have a normal life. ... All we did was train and go to school every single day. But it wasn’t until it was closer to the Olympics – the last two years – that I decided I wanted to make every sacrifice possible to make the dream come true. When it got closer to the Olympics, I basically just gave it my all and I knew that no matter what the outcome was, it was going to be worth it to have no regrets.

It was kind of like a nothing-to-lose mentality. I knew the position I was in where I had a shot, but I didn’t want to focus on that. I wanted to focus on enjoying the moment and whatever the outcome was, I just wanted to make sure I performed the best that I could. I prepared really well and I went out both days at Olympic trials and hit my routine. So I was really proud of myself, whether they named me to the team or not.

After the competition, right when it was done, we were all herded into a little room. It seemed like a long time. They had to make the decision right away because it was televised. Going into that room where they announced the names I was just really nervous because I knew that I wanted to make the team and I knew that I did well enough to make the team.

I think I yelled in my head: I did it! After all this time, all these years, all these injuries, everything that I’ve overcome, I was just thinking: I couldn’t believe it. I actually did it.

It (the injury) was from training on the uneven bars…. Basically, slipped off the bars and landed pretty much on my neck. I tore a ligament in between disc five and six in my neck. At the moment, it was very painful. I remember right after it happened telling them I could still go up and do my routine. But I couldn’t get up. I was taken to the hospital and stayed overnight. I just wanted to stay and support the team.

I just knew that USA was going to win just because of how well we’ve been training ... You could have put together five girls with any of the eight girls we had and I know we would have won.

I’m not sure (about Rio) because it’s four years away, but for right now just mainly focusing on making sure my neck is healed fully so that I can be superactive again if want to go for it. As of right now I’m not in a lot of pain.

Evan Jager

Algonquin-raised Evan Jager, 23, finished sixth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympics, just months after switching to the event. He is the current American record holder for that event.

I thought at some point in my career... I was going to have a chance to make an Olympic team if I continued to work hard and stay healthy. I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work in high school, or even my first year of college, but after making the World Championship team in ‘09 in the 5K... I thought that I had a chance of doing it three years down the road.

We made the change to steeplechase earlier this year. I was practicing a ton and just making sure I was getting the technique down.

(After placing sixth at the Olympics), the first week I’d say, I was pretty disappointed. With how well the season had been going for myself... the times I was putting up and being as competitive as I was in the races I was in, I kind of led myself to believe that if everything went right for me that I would have had a chance to medal. And obviously I would have needed to have the perfect race for myself and a couple of the other guys in the race probably would have needed to have a sub-par performance for that to happen. But I still left myself that little small glint of hope that under the right circumstances that I could have medaled. I think the biggest hit I took was just seeing how far away I was to actually being ready to compete with those medal-type athletes. That was a bit of a hit to the ego and to the, to my heart, basically.

I had really only been racing steeple for a few months. I don’t think my performance in London was a terrible performance. (But) I don’t think I exceeded my or anyone else’s expectations in that race.

I was still pretty bummed about the race. I had just finished my cool down, talking with a couple of other track athletes that I knew. The racing had finished for the day. So all of the Olympic athletes were coming out of the stadium, walking past us. Some of the basketball players came out and I actually saw Kobe Bryant came out. Kobe walked over toward me, and shook my hand and said, “Hey, we were watching you out there, just want to say great race, nice job representing our country.” That was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to me. Nobody told him to do this. He just kind of came over to me and just congratulated me. It was just an absolutely surreal, kind of cool experience that I never would have expected to happen.

One of my first thoughts after my race in London... I was already excited to start working toward making the team in 2016 to compete at Rio.

Alyssa Gialamas

Waubonsie Valley High School sophomore Alyssa Gialamas qualified in three Paralympic swimming events. She finished fifth — the top American — in the women’s 200 meter freestyle after breaking the U.S. record by 2 seconds to qualify for finals.

You give up so much of your life for a chance and a little spot. ... Eat, sleep, swim and go to school was my life for the last year.

I had a very tough year. I think I did question it because so many things weren’t going right for me, I said: Why even try? But I had a lot of people believing in me and believing in my dream. ... They didn’t let me give up because I made it so far.

I was really excited to swim that (first) race. I think I did the best I could under the circumstances that I was given, with my head spinning, being in the Olympics the first day – no idea what to expect – I think I did the best I could under those circumstances.

(The race) was really nerve wracking for me. I’m not used to having new competition or someone, like, right there next to me. Because at the meets around here, I’m usually the fastest so I’m usually just focused on the time. So I was swimming and I was like, oh, there’s four people swimming next to me. This never happens.

I was a little upset because I missed finals by .5 seconds. Someone out-touched me. But I was glad my first race was out of the way. I knew what I needed to do. I knew what I did wrong so I could make it stronger in the 200.

The moment I think I’ll remember forever is walking out for my 200 free final and knowing that that was my goal, that’s what I came here to do: to drop time in my 200 and make it into finals, and I did. ... That will be the moment I won’t forget.

I just think the whole thing was so surreal. I would wake up every day and go: Wait, I’m still here. This is still real.

I’m ready for Rio 2016. I for sure want to go. I’m calling these my warm-up Games, they’re ones that set the stage for the next four years. And I want to definitely accomplish a lot more in Rio.

Joe Berenyi

Berenyi, an Oswego father of three and Paralympic cyclist, brought home gold, silver and bronze medals at the games. At 43, it was his first time competing at the Paralympics.

When we got there; that’s when it really hit. (At the Opening Ceremonies) I had never walked in front of 80,000 people. It was an honor to be representing the country, especially with my teammates. We were a pretty close-knit team. It was kind of an overwhelming joy even. It’s kind of a hard emotion to put into words. I was proud to be there.

I was hoping for two (medals) at least, but wasn’t confident for a gold. I thought there was a few events I’d do well in and had done well in over the past year. I thought I had a shot. I was hoping for two medals... but having the gold, that means a lot more. I’d achieved what I’d been training for. Not to take anything away from the other medals, but it’s a gold medal.

I knew I was ahead from where my coach was standing on the track. It depends on where you stand whether I’m ahead or behind. So I knew when I crossed the finish line I had won (the gold). I rolled around the track to slow down because there’s no brakes in sixth gear. And then when I came by, the coach threw the flag over my shoulders because I can’t let go of the handlebar. I took another lap or two with the flag and then I came in. And I had trouble getting off the bike ‘cause my legs were so tired.

(Having my daughters there) meant so much because I missed so much of the summer with them. To show them why I was gone. So they knew how important or how big of deal it was. The sacrifice, me not being around. How much they missed me and all of the little letters they used to write me: ‘How much I miss you’ or ‘I wish you were home’ and all that kind of stuff.

(My medals are) in my backpack. I usually have to take them with wherever I go. I’ve been to the kids’ school, Waubonsee (Community College) alumni recognition, village of Oswego recognition... lots of little recognition or media things. People want to see ‘em so I carry them around a lot.

I’m going to keep competing. (Rio’s) the next goal... we’ll see how the next four years play out. Since I’ve gotten a real taste of it, I really want to do it again. (But) I’ll be 44 in a couple weeks. I’ll be almost 48 next time. It’s a big difference from the 20-year-olds.

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