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When Team USA Athletes Aren’t Competing, What Are Their Talents?

By Karen Rosen | June 29, 2016, 2:18 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, triathlete Greg Billington and sprinter Alyson Felix posed for photos at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 7, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel doesn’t usually let on that she’s a classically trained violinist.

 A young Elizabeth Beisel poses with her violin.

Yet Beisel is as comfortable with an individual medley composed of Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn and Tchaikovsky as she is with butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.

“I don’t come off as like an artsy violinist,” said the boisterous Beisel, a two-time Olympian who won the silver medal in the 400-meter IM and the bronze in the 200 backstroke at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “I’m definitely more outgoing and rugged. And when people find out that I’m a violinist, they’re like, ‘Oh, you have a soft side. That’s weird. I can’t picture you playing the violin.’ But I can’t picture myself not playing the violin.”

Beisel is one of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes who shared their sometimes hidden talents or skills with TeamUSA.org.

Beisel, who calls herself “a sucker for classical music,” began playing the violin and piano when she was 3 years old, two years before she joined the swim team.

“It’s just something that’s cool to get me away from athletics and sport and competition,” Beisel said. “It’s something that I just do for me.”

Olympic athletes who cook tend to share what they make.

Mariel Zagunis, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s saber, said her new obsession is making homemade corn tortillas and pork carnitas and having a taco night.

“I’ve been cooking for many years and I feel like I’m getting better and better all the time,” she said, “and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”

Fellow saber fencer Daryl Homer also knows his way around the kitchen. He counts duck breast, lobster salad, pastas and steak among his specialties.

Homer said there are similarities between wielding a knife on a cutting board and a saber on the strip.

“It’s craftsmanship,” Homer said. “And it’s creativity and not being afraid to fail. The other day I made a steak and I kept it in the oven too long, so I just threw it out. I had a sandwich instead after I’d wasted the time making the steak. But it’s just never being afraid to fail and it’s trying new things. You have to be patient, too.”

Olympic champion Ashton Eaton finds that versatility is the key to cooking, just as it is to being a decathlete.

“I can cook anything really,” he said. “You follow instructions; that’s all I do every day.”

Lauren Crandall poses with her cakes.

Eaton can cook a mean steak, the favorite meal of his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, a two-time world silver medalist for Canada in the heptathlon.

Field hockey player Lauren Crandall has a flair for baking. She used to make birthday cakes for her teammates after finding out what flavors they liked, but stopped because she wanted to “be a better influence than that.”

She’s also taken some time off from the oven because, “I realized I liked eating more than I actually liked the act of baking,” Crandall said, “so if I bake, then I’ll eat it and that’s not really part of my nutritional diet.”

Sitting volleyball player Bethany Zummo is using her expertise as a seamstress to make a wedding dress for teammate Kaleo Kanahele, who is getting married Aug. 20.

Zummo made her first dress out of sheer necessity. She didn’t get the best progress report her sophomore year of high school and her mother refused to buy her a new dress for the homecoming dance.

“So I ripped up all my bed sheets and I made a dress,” Zummo said with a laugh.

When Kanahele was still in high school, she asked Zummo a week before her prom to make her a dress. “I said, ‘Challenge accepted!” said Zummo.

(R) Bethany Zummo sews wedding dresses and Halloween costumes for her friends.

Now the wedding dress is her gift to the bride. Zummo hopes to one day open a shop, turning her sideline into a profession.

Other athletes have more unusual talents.

“I’m very good at reciting Harry Potter spells,” said diver Kassidy Cook, a big fan of the books growing up.

Which spell would she cast? “There’s defense and there’s ones for fun,” Cook said. “I guess ‘Expelliarmus,’ which is Harry Potter’s favorite spell, the one he used in ‘Goblet of Fire’ to get away from Voldemort.”

While Cook has few opportunities to show off her peculiar skill, Olympic swimming gold medalist Missy Franklin displays hers whenever she signs autographs.

“I have really good handwriting,” Franklin said. “My third-grade teacher, I copied her handwriting and I have really, really nice penmanship that I’m very proud of.”

Olympic gold-medal-winning hurdler Dawn Harper-Nelson doesn’t boast about writing a note, but about holding one.

“I love to sing and my husband and friends actually told me, ‘You can kind of sing a little bit,’” Harper-Nelson said.

So how long can she hold a note? “How long does Beyoncé hold it?” she said with a laugh.

But Harper-Nelson is uncharacteristically shy when it comes to singing in public. “Certain things on the track, I’m a monster, I’m a beast, I’m confident,” she said, “You ask me to sing, I’m like, ‘Don’t do that. Please.’ I’m nervous when it comes to that.”

Olympian Alysia Montano, who runs the 800-meter, could make her feel at ease. “I’m good at making people laugh – I hope,” Montano said. “I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I like keeping things light-hearted.”

Was she funny growing up? “Absolutely,” Montano said. “I used to be able to do the splits, but I don’t think I can do those anymore. I might hurt something.”

But she’s still funny.

Triathlete Greg Billington doesn’t tickle the funny bone, but he said, “I can tickle the keys” as a jazz pianist.

He also took a lot of dance classes growing up.

“I have fun with salsa and ballroom, but it’s more of something I do to get away from triathlon,” he said. “It’s never a competition; it’s just about enjoying yourself.”

Would he consider “Dancing with the Stars”?

“I’m very far from that,” he said.

But Billington knows athletes like Apolo Ohno and Nastia Liukin have parlayed Olympic success into a spot on the show.

“I should really downplay it so I can be an underdog,” Billington said. “You’ve got to just come out of nowhere.”

On a paintball field, watch out for Paralympic cyclist Jamie Whitmore. “I am a pretty good shot,” she said. “My team usually always wins. It’s a little harder now because I can’t run, so I’m more of the sniper, hiding and picking off everyone.”

Five-time Olympic shotgun medalist Kim Rhode also has an affinity for paint, but with a brush on a canvas. She often takes photographs on her trips.

“I love the composition and making the eye flow through the picture,” Rhode said.

Gymnast Donnell Whittenburg makes sure the beat goes on even though he had to leave his drum set at home while he’s training. “I bought ‘Rock Band’ so I can play drums all the time,” he said.

Badminton player Howard Shu doesn’t have musical talent, but he has what he calls “a Spidey Sense.” The hand-eye coordination that serves him so well with a racquet also works off the court.

“Sometimes, I catch myself doing weird things,” he said. “For example, I knock over a shampoo bottle and I’ll just unconsciously catch it.”

Olympic swimmer Matt Grevers also has dexterity. He immerses himself in video games when he has down time away from the pool.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to get too anxious about racing all the time, so to get a complete mental escape, it’s video games for me,” said Grevers, the 100-meter backstroke gold medalist in London. “I just think about what I’m doing in the virtual world. I don’t have to think about the pressures of real life.”

As a Rank 1 “Heroes of the Storm” player, Grevers said he is in the top 2 percentile in the world, and he also has a 2000 rating for “World of Warcraft.”

Fast Twitch is one of the names Grevers uses in the gaming world.

He may issue a challenge to fans after the Olympic Games. “I think I might go on Twitter and see if anyone wants to play with me,” Grevers said.

Good luck. Their odds may be no better than if they met him in the pool.

Related Athletes

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Elizabeth Beisel

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Lauren Crandall

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Greg Billington

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Bethany Zummo

Sitting Volleyball
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Mariel Zagunis

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Daryl Homer

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Ashton Eaton

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Kassidy Cook

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Missy Franklin

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Dawn Harper-Nelson

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Alysia Montano

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Jamie Whitmore

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Donnell Whittenburg

Artistic Gymnastics
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Howard Shu

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Matt Grevers