Better late than never? Undoubtedly true for these elite valley athletes as they train to take on the world at the long delayed 2020 Summer Olympic games.
Kayla Miracle & Victoria Anthony
First contested as an Olympic event in 708 BCE, wrestling is among the most primeval of all competitive sports. However, it wasn’t until 2004 that women’s wrestling became a sanctioned Olympic event. In the interim, Greater Phoenix has become something of a hotbed for female wrestling talent, stoked both by the championship program at Arizona State University and by private training centers like Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club in Tempe, which trained four nationally ranked wrestlers in 2021, including 25-year-old Indiana native Kayla Miracle, who qualified for the 2021 U.S. team by winning the 62 kg. (136.7 lb.) division at the Olympic trials in April. Fellow Sunkist trainee Victoria Anthony finished second at the trials (48 kg./105.5 lb.) and will serve as an Olympic alternate. The Games begin July 23.
A high school baseball star in Connecticut, Josh Zeid was drafted out of Tulane University by the Philadelphia Phillies and briefly made it to the “show” as a power relief pitcher in 2013-2014. Injuries derailed his Major League playing career, but not his love of baseball. Now 34, the Valley resident hooked on with the Chicago Cubs as a pitching analyst in 2019 and later obtained Israeli citizenship so he could pitch for Team Israel in the 2020 Olympics, as a way of honoring his Jewish heritage. “If you become a successful athlete, you should let people know where you’re from,” he told the Jewish Standard in 2014. Israel earned a Tokyo berth by winning its regional qualifier and will face off against Japan, the U.S. and others in a six-team Olympic field.
Though he never held a racket prior to the 1995 car accident that deprived him of the use of his legs, Bryan Barten may have been destined for tennis. A two-time Paralympian (2012, 2016) in “quad” singles (meaning his upper body is also partially impaired), Barten coaches wheelchair tennis and wheelchair rugby at the University of Arizona as his full-time gig, jetting off to play in seasonal tournaments to bolster his international ranking. As the world’s No. 10 player at the time of the Olympic cut-off in early June, Barten earned a spot in Tokyo, since the 12 top-ranked singles players qualify. It may be the last Paralympic hurrah for the 48-year-old veteran swinger. “I haven’t decided if I will retire or not [after the Olympics],” he told us by email from a tournament in Nice, France. “I’ll take some time off from touring after the ’21 season, [but] I’m just appreciating the opportunities I have now.”
As this issue went to press in mid-June, Croatian power forward Dario Saric had arguably bigger issues on his mind than international basketball – namely, helping the Phoenix Suns advance past the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Western Conference playoffs. A valuable contributor off the bench for coach Monty Williams (8.7 PPG in 2020-2021), “Super Dario” is expected to join the Croatian team in Tokyo should it claim one of four spots up for grabs at the FIBA Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament in early July. If Croatia does qualify, Saric could face off against Suns teammate Devin Booker, believed to be a shoo-in candidate for Team USA.
Jade Carey & Riley McCusker
Not even gymnastics superstar Simone Biles is more of an Olympics fait accompli than Jade Carey. Coached by her father Brian at Arizona Sunrays in Arcadia, the Oregon State-bound athlete seized an individual spot representing the U.S. in Tokyo way back in April 2020, based on her dominant floor exercises and balance beam work in a series of international meets known as the World Cup. Nonetheless, Carey was due to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials in June to secure a spot on the four-woman U.S. team, which would allow her to compete for a team medal. Fellow Sunrays trainee Riley McCusker, meanwhile, also qualified for the trials, almost entirely due to her mastery of the uneven bars. Pundits speculated that she had a chance to earn a committee-selected individual Olympics spot alongside Carey, given her high probability of medaling on the bars.
Dushos Itsekiri, Anaso Jobodwana, CJ Ujah, Ameer Webb & Chris Royster
Due to its favorable wintertime climate, the Valley has long been a popular training spot for international track and field athletes. “But that all came to a crashing halt this year due to COVID,” says Andreas Behm of ALTIS, a Phoenix-based sports performance firm that has trained upward of 50 Olympians since its 2015 founding. “Arizona shut down access to tracks since March 2020, so full-time training has been super challenging.” Despite the, ahem, hurdles, the five elite ALTIS-trained runners pictured here – shot in early 2020 at Paradise Valley Community College, before the shutdown – may yet bolster the company’s Olympic bona fides. Most national trials for Tokyo were slated to take place in late June, after this issue went to press.
Aries Merritt & Xie Wenjun
2012 was an annus mirabilis for U.S. hurdler Aries Merritt. In one five-month whirlwind of on-track dominance, the Chicago native became the first American to win the World Athletics Indoor Championships in the 60-meter hurdles; won gold in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London; and, finally, set the world record in the 110 meters (12.80 seconds) at an international meet in Belgium – a record that still stands. Now 35, Merritt is looking to belt out a swan song for the ages in Tokyo, perhaps alongside fellow ALTIS trainee Xie Wenjun (China), regarded as the Pacific Rim’s best 110-meter specialist based on his 2019 Asian Championships victory.