Team USA's Early Olympic Qualifiers Feel Relief On Road To Rio

By Karen Rosen | March 16, 2016, 7 p.m. (ET)
Synchronized swimmers Mariya Koroleva (L) and Anita Alvarez pose during a photo shoot at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.


Taekwondo athlete Jackie Galloway was at baggage claim at DFW Airport when she found out.

Cyclist Sarah Hammer knew when she crossed the finished line.

Synchronized swimmers Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva figured it out when they emerged from the water and saw their ranking.

Fencer Daryl Homer got the good news online after seeing tweets congratulating him.

And shooter Morgan Craft had to defeat a really good friend to do it.

All are qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.


Taekwondo athlete Jackie Galloway poses during a photo shoot at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.

With less than five months to go until the Opening Ceremony on Aug. 5 in Maracana Stadium, 47 of the 550 or so athletes on Team USA have been determined (pending approval of nominees by the U.S. Olympic Committee).

“It’s actually a relief,” Galloway said. “Honestly, I get to just focus on training. I qualified back in December, so I’ve just been able to focus and prepare myself for August as opposed to worrying about other qualification processes.”

Not only is the pressure off, but Galloway said securing her spot “takes the strain off my body in terms of traveling” to qualifying events.

Galloway had returned home to Dallas from the Grand Prix Final in Mexico City last December when a team official approached her as she waited for her luggage.

“He said, ‘Oh, Jackie, I was about to send it to you – we just got the email officially inviting you (to the Olympic Games),’” said Galloway, an alternate for the London 2012 Olympic Games while competing for Mexico. “And I held it together in baggage claim and then my boyfriend picked me up and I was like, (crying) ‘I qualified.’ That’s when the emotion kind of washed over me.”

Many of the athletes already qualified are in sports that use a points system. But athletes in other sports train in uncertainty, always aware that their Road to Rio could hit a dead end.

For example, track and field and swimming contenders get their only shot at U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which run into early July, while the final men’s and women’s 12-member rugby rosters will not be named until July 17.

“That is a lot on your mind, weighing on you, ‘Am I going to make it or not?’” Craft said. “That would be rough.

“I am lucky enough to have made it already.”

In September, she won the gold medal in women’s skeet at the ISSF World Championship Shotgun in Lonato, Italy, beating teammate Caitlin Connor in a head-to-head shoot-off. That gave Craft enough points for one of two quota spots. Had Connor won, she – and not Craft – would have been a first-time Olympian.

“I love Caitlin to death and she had such a good year, too,” said Craft. “We equally deserved that spot, so just the fact that we both made it into the gold medal match and were shooting off for the World Championships, it was very emotional.”

Connor has another crack at it during the second phase of Olympic Trials in May, but five-time Olympian Kim Rhode holds a five-shot lead going into that competition.

Fencer Alex Massialas was one of four top U.S. foil fencers vying for three berths when he locked up his spot in February at a tournament in Bonn, Germany.


Fencer Daryl Homer poses during a photo shoot at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles.

“It felt like a weight being lifted off my shoulders, but that was never the goal from the beginning,” said Massialas, who competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games and earned an individual silver medal at the 2015 World Championships. “The goal isn’t making the Olympics; the goal is doing something at the Olympics. This is only the first step to getting that gold medal in Rio, or hopefully two.”

Homer, who fences saber, knew he had accumulated enough points based on his silver medal at worlds last year, but the announcement did not come until last month.

“People were tweeting ‘congrats,’” he said. “I went, ’What?’ I didn’t know.”

Homer went online for confirmation. After a couple of months of quadrupling his workload, he is now being more selective in his training to make sure he stays 100 percent healthy.

“Everything’s a tune-up for the Games now,” Homer said.

He feels for athletes in other sports who are still in the pipeline. “I think it’s really tough because I just know the amount of pressure that comes with your parents wanting to buy tickets and people just wanting to congratulate you and all that,” Homer said. “It’s just very, very tough to keep that level of focus and keep competing on a high level.”

Some athletes who qualified early have teammates still vying to make it. For weightlifter Jenny Arthur, one of those teammates is also her boyfriend, Norik Vardanian, whom she began dating last October.


Weightlifter Jenny Arthur poses during a photo shoot at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.

“Norik and I train alongside each other,” said Arthur, who found out in January that she’d made it based on scoring the most points at the 2014 and 2015 world championships. “Every day I’m trying to stay on his case. It’s not that he really needs it, but I want him to be there with me, so we’re still working towards that every day.”

For Arthur, who only began weightlifting in 2009, this is her first Olympic Games. For cyclist Sarah Hammer, it’s her third.

Hammer won the bronze medal in women’s omnium in London at the 2016 UCI Track Cycling World Championships earlier this month to clinch her spot. On March 18, she is also expected to qualify in team pursuit. Hammer won silver medals at the London 2012 Olympic Games in both events.

“It’s definitely one box to check along the way,” Hammer said of qualifying. “My plan, ever since the London Olympics and getting the two silver medals, was to get the gold medal in Rio. It wasn’t ‘Let me make the team and get to Rio,’ it was ‘Let me plan how I am going to win and how we are going to win as a team.’

“There’s nothing like taking my foot off the gas or anything like that. It is the same plan as always.”

Carlos Balderas was the only U.S. boxer who did not have to compete at Olympic Trials or go through international qualifying tournaments. He punched his ticket to Rio through the World Series of Boxing in 2015.

“A lot of people were saying this was given to me, but people don’t know what I had to go through to be where I am,” said Balderas, who got the call in November that he was in. “The World Series of Boxing was a very, very hard tournament for me because we were fighting every other week against the No. 1 fighters of a country and the traveling really took a toll on our bodies. It was a big relief knowing that I didn’t have to go to the trials, but I honestly believe that it wouldn’t have made a difference. I believe I would have come out on top anyways.”


Boxer Carlos Balderas poses during a photo shoot at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles.

At the Team USA Media Summit, Balderas was one of about a dozen athletes among the 110 participants who could wear the Rio apparel knowing he was definitely going to the Games.

“I’m so excited,” he said. “Words can’t even explain the way I feel. I still can’t believe it. My family broke down in tears crying because they’ve gone through so many sacrifices, done so much for me, and knowing I’m going to Brazil really is a great, great feeling. I’m on a mission out there. I’m not going to be up late or be messing around. I’m going to just be focused on my fights, focused on bringing back a gold medal.”

Synchro duet Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva qualified for the Rio Games in early March in the same pool in which they will compete in August.

“We’re going to go back and take a look at our routines, take feedback we got from the judges at the qualifier and we’re going to definitely add some more difficulty,” Alvarez said.

Koroleva, who had a different partner, Mary Killman, four years ago in London, said there are a couple of athletes she knows from the last Olympic Games whose trials take place close to August.

“I can’t even imagine waiting that long,” Koroleva said. “The anticipation, I feel like, is stressful.”

Shooter Vincent Hancock agrees with that assessment. Hancock is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in skeet, but this is the first time he had the luxury of qualifying a year in advance.

Hancock scored enough points in winning a world cup in Azerbaijan last August to put him over the top. Prior to the London Olympics, he qualified in May, giving him less than three months before Games time.

“For me, it was actually more fun and easier competing at the Olympics than it was making the team,” Hancock said, “just because our whole goal depends on ‘You have to get to the Olympics if you want to win a gold medal.’ Being able to just go ahead and know that you’re there, that takes one part of the equation away. So it’s really a relief to know this time and not have to worry about the selection matches.”

There are still plenty of shooters vying for open spots. “I don’t think we can go wrong with any of the top athletes that we have,” Hancock said, adding with a laugh, “But I’m glad that I’m not in their position this time.”