All you have is love

By Alan Abrahamson | April 30, 2012, 4:30 p.m. (ET)
John Orozco
John Orozco has been coming to the Olympic Training Center since he was 9, and there have been two important constants to his visits.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A few days ago, they held the Olympic Trials in wrestling in Iowa City, Iowa. Afterwards, several of those who made it, along with those who did not, went back home -- home being the U.S. Olympic Training center here in Colorado Springs.

Talk about, well, awkward.

 Sherry VonRiesen, Flower Nowicki, Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno
From top: Sherry VonRiesen, left, and Flower Nowicki at a U.S. Olympic Training Center lounge (photo by Alan Abrahamson); Michael Phelps is tall, Sherry VonRiesen not so much, but they share a deep affection (photo courtesy Sherry VonRiesen); Apolo Ohno, fresh off his "Dancing With the Stars" win, hamming it up with Sherry VonRiesen -- the photo hanging in her office (photo courtesy Sherry VonRiesen)

This, though, is why Sherry VonRiesen and Dokmai Nowicki are not just two of the most valuable players in the entire U.S. Olympic movement.

They are -- and it is not at all a stretch to say this -- two of the most beloved.

"I have the best job in the world," Sherry said. "For every athlete who makes [the team], 10 don't. The athletes come back and they want to celebrate -- but they're very sensitive to the athletes or teammates, or even their roommates, who don't.

On the wrestling team, "We have two athletes who share a room. One made it and one didn't. They want answers. You don't have answers."

All you have, she said, is love.

Sherry's formal title is "athlete liaison, program management division." Oh, brother. She and Dokmai are everybody's surrogate moms at the USOC Training Center dorm, which typically houses about 175 athletes.

No one calls Dokmai "Dokmai." Everyone calls her "Flower." Formally, she is the grill sous chef in the dining room attached to the dorm. If food truly is love, try Flower's pad thai. There's a reason people schedule meetings not only in Colorado Springs but at the Training Center on days Flower is known to be making her pad thai.

The Thai steak with mango rice is also fantastic. As Flower said, gently, "People just love that."

Sherry, who is now 66, has been the dorm mom on site for almost 15 years. She is originally from Topeka, Kansas. "Our goal," she said of her role at the Center, "is just to keep them laughing."

Flower, who is 56, has been in the United States since 1977. She grew up in Victorville, Calif., married an Air Force serviceman and moved with him to Colorado Springs in 1992. The next year, she got the job at the Training Center.

"They are going to have to carry us out," Sherry said.

She added, "Flower and I have been here so long that we have seen everyone come through here."

It's a ritual of Training Center life that gymnasts show up when they are perhaps nine or 10, maybe even younger, not to live full-time but for special camps. They're called "Future Stars" and it's often they're first time away from home.

Who looks after them? Sherry and Flower.

"These little Future Stars in gymnastics are so cute," Flower said. "They have their little jackets. They are looking around. I go up to them and say, 'Good morning!' And, 'How are you?' And, 'Help yourself. Here is the grill. Have some vegetables.' I make sure there's no desserts or ice cream early in the morning.

"I also make sure that if it's someone's birthday at the camp that we know. I have little cupcakes for all the little guys' birthdays." (And the big guys, too -- like pentathlon champion Eli Bremer.)

"I love Flower," John Orozco, expected to be a bright star on the 2012 U.S. Gymnastics team, said.

John, who has lived at the Training Center for the past two years, moving out from New York City, said, "I have known Flower since the first time I came here. I made the Future Stars team when I was 9. She cooked the best meals when I was 9. Every day when I was that little and I came and I saw Flower, I was like, 'OK, we are going to get the best food.'

"Now when I ask her to make some dishes, she is like, 'No, I can't. You're in training.' We come and she knows exactly what we want -- all the time.

"And Sherry -- she makes sure we are all taken care of and we are not doing anything bad. She is like a real mom to us. I'm 19 and there are guys here who are 30. And she's still like their mom."

The boxer Queen Underwood, also expected to shine at the London Games, said, "I like Sherry. She e-mails me and keeps me updated and stuff. I always tell her, 'Good morning!' And she gives me a big hug."

Queen, who is from Seattle, has been training since December in the Springs. She said, "Flower knows what I want. Four egg whites, scrambled. I don't want all that stuff to make me fat!"

Apolo Ohno, who lived and trained at the Center for years, had a fantastic relationship with Sherry and Flower. Now that he is an eight-time Olympic medalist, and off doing television and other projects, they miss him.

"People ask me the success of people we have worked with or become famous," Sherry said. "Apolo has courage enough to keep people around him who will be very honest," adding a moment later, "To me the success Apolo has had is that he would listen to what people said, and take it to heart."

"I do miss Apolo a lot," Flower said. "I haven't gotten to talk to him much after Vancouver," meaning the 2010 Winter Olympics. "He's busy!"

"Well, he will always send little messages," Sherry said, typically text messages, an Apolo specialty.

So does Michael Phelps -- another of their favorites. When Michael is in town for what are typically three week-long altitude training sessions at the complex's pool, Flower knows that Michael likes his eggs scrambled with jalapeños and cheddar cheese.

"He is a low-maintenance guy," Flower said with a big smile, adding, "Michael always says, 'Thank you,' and, 'Please,' no matter how tired he is or how busy he is."

The reason everyone loves Flower and Sherry is easy to explain. They treat  everyone at the Training Center like Apolo Ohno or Michael Phelps; to them, every single athlete and staffer is a winner.

Even the boss is a winner. Flower's condition for sitting for this article was that it had to include her praise for her boss, Terri Moreman, the USOC's associate director of food and nutrition services. Flower said, "My boss is so supportive."

"We are blessed to work with [Olympic] athletes," Sherry said.

It's really the other way around.

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