Crossing Over: Olympic Contenders’ Other Sports
In another display of versatility, Julie (Swail) Ertel won an Olympic silver medal in women's water polo at the 2000 Sydney Games, and will represent the US in triathlon in Beijing.
Tom and Ertel are not the only cross-over athletes. The 2008 US Olympic team may also include: a gymnast-turned-wrestler; barrel-racer-turned-track star; ski racer-turned-kayaker; and a female modern pentathlete who won two varsity letters on her high school boys' football team.
A few of them spoke to teamusa.org about their transitions.
Ertel didn't have a girls' water polo team at her high school in Orange County, Calif., but she had been a fast swimmer, and her speed proved to be an asset to the boy's water polo team. "I think they were glad that I could get to the ball. Swimming was a way I could get my foot in the door," she said.
Later, as Ertel made the switch from water polo to triathlon, she discovered some similarities between the two sports: "On the physical side, the eggbeater kick used underwater is almost identical to riding a bicycle, so those muscles definitely translated.
"I also think there's a toughness you need to play a boys' sport. Some guys on the high school team were chivalrous while others were horrified and made life miserable. Or, we'd go to games and the girls' locker room wouldn't be open. So, not letting the little stuff get to you - that translated very well."
Whenever girls' locker rooms weren't open, Ertel acquired another vital triathlon skill: the art of the quick change. In triathlon, the clock doesn't stop when athletes shed their gear from swimming to cycling to running. In water polo, she said, "I was always having to change in five seconds or less"- sometimes on the pool deck with creative towel handling. "Maybe that's where I got to be such a good transitioner."
Lindsey Durlacher, 2008 Olympic hopeful in Greco-Roman wrestling (55kg), was a gymnast growing up in suburban Chicago. "I think I could've kept at it longer if it wasn't for my poor form. You had to keep your toes pointed, legs straight, and everything flush in line. I was a stocky, awkward kid from wrestling.
Nonetheless, Durlacher said, "Gymnastics definitely complemented wrestling. It took a tremendous amount of strength."
Perhaps the biggest takeaway was flexibility. "I'm able to bend in and out of some position that maybe a less limber guy would have to give up points on, because he couldn't get out of the position," he said.
Modern pentathlete Mickey Kelly's Olympic discipline requires her to excel in five unrelated sports (shooting, fencing, swimming, equestrian, and running), but one of her fondest athletic memories was playing varsity high school football for two years - on the boys' team.
"Yeah, that's how small my town was," she said of Chatham, New York (population: 4,249). "But it was the coolest experience of my entire life."
Where most women are relegated to the kicker position, Kelly was a naturally fast cross-country runner and ended up as a wide receiver. "I could hold my own speed-wise. In one game, they designed this whole ‘Mickey play.' I think the quarterback got sacked or something so our cool ‘Mickey play' never got to run its course. It was unfortunate."
For volleyball star Logan Tom, the foray into javelin throwing took five transitions - from Little League baseball (pitching on her brother's team) to volleyball (showing up in cleats at the first practice) to softball to high jump to shot put before eventually placing third at a State meet for hurling a spear.
Oddly, the hardest segue was between baseball and softball. When she was too old for Little League, she played third base in softball.
"They literally had to shove me to get in front of the base. I said, ‘This is line-drive area, dude.' So I went up there and this big ole girl nailed one - I didn't even react. I felt the ball fly right by my freakin' eye and said, ‘I'm outta here.' I like baseball where you stand behind the base."
Tom sought another spring sport. "Track was in spring, but I wasn't a runner. I tried high jump but my knee hurt, so I was like, ‘Hey, I don't have anything to do.' They gave me a javelin and said, ‘Chuck it!' and it went really far. I did shot put, too, and [qualified for both events at] the state tournament but I was a skinny little thing. In Utah, we have these big Tongans and Samoans. You should have seen my eyeballs. I thought: there's no way - even if my technique is perfect - that I'm going to beat these girls [in shot put]. Javelin was different. They were just these twiggy little girls who came out there and all of a sudden, they'd twitch and it would go ‘Whoom!' I was like, ‘What the? Whaddaya? Whaddya?'"
Tom is not sure whether any of her throwing and catching skills had a direct impact on her volleyball game, but she highly recommends mixing it up. "Just learning how to move your body helps so much," she explained. "Playing different sports helped me be to more agile."
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.