Unlikely Olympians: 4 Athletes Who Beat the Odds

by Cecee McDaniel

Olympic athletes are, in a phrase, amazing people. Their displays of strength, endurance and mental toughness are the reason we watch the human drama that is the Olympic Games. Here’s four Olympians who forged unconventional paths to the London Games:

Bronx baby: U.S. Olympic gymnast John Orozco


John Orozco, 19, is an American gymnast and the 2012 national champion from a background that typically does not suggest a future in elite gymnastics. Where most elite gymnasts come from suburban, middle-class families and begin training as soon as they can walk, Orozco, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, began at the comparatively ancient age of 7, after his father, a sanitation worker, signed him up for a free gymnastics class. He displayed signs of ridiculous talent and overcame the almost clichéd racial prejudices that come with competing in a nearly all-white sport. His coach believed in him so much that he offered to train Orozco without compensation.


A natural(ized) sprinter


Haley Nemra, 22, runs the 800m for the Marshall Islands, after overcoming one huge diplomatic hurdle; namely, that she was born in the U.S. and had never visited the Marshall Islands prior to 2010. A native of Washington state, Nemra would have not qualified for the U.S. team. But her father’s national origin, the Marshall Islands (pop. 68,000), provided a pathway for Nemra to complete as an Olympic athlete. She became a Marshall Islander in 2007. Here’s to creative athleticism!


Plays with pain: Lauren Perdue

Lauren Perdue, a 2012 gold medalist (4x 100 freestyle relay) from Greenville, N.C., qualified for the U.S. swim team with a small piece of bone floating of her vertebrae. A March 3 surgery removed the bone spur, and Perdue, 21, returned to elite form in time to make the Olympic team. Remarkable is her training regimen: She swims 7,000 to 10,000 meters a day, 3.5 hours a day, 6 days a week. Less remarkably, Perdue, who attends the University of Virginia, is also a Twitter maven (@LoPerdue); she recently posted about turning down an invitation from Lebron James to share a meal in the athletes’ dining hall.


Melanie Roach, musclewoman

In my opinion, one of the most impressive Olympians is weightlifter Melanie Roach, nickname Wonder Woman. She’s a wife and mother of five kids who also manages to run her own gym, Roach Gymnastics. Trained as a gymnast until she dislocated her shoulder, Roach, 37, from Bonney Lake, Wash., turned to pumping iron. At 5’1” and 117 pounds, she placed 6th in the 2008 Olympics, lifting 83 kg (183 lbs) in the snatch (a new personal record), 110 kg (242.5 lbs) in the clean & jerk, and a total of 193 kg (425.5 lbs) – personal and American records.

Her gym trains over 500 up & coming weight lifters. She’s taken a sabbatical to give birth to her 5th child, sitting out the 2012 games in London, but has already began training for the 2016 Games, when she’ll be 42 years old. Get it, girl.


As if merely qualifying for the Olympics weren’t a huge achievement, these four amazing athletes have demonstrated the value of fierce loyalty to one’s goals and vision for oneself. And that makes them elite in more than just athletics.


Cecee McDaniel, a student at California State University in Los Angeles, is a Roadmonkey intern.

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