Gaux girls and guys
Arkansas athletes to compete in Beijing
Listed on the U.S. Olympic team roster for the 2008 Summer Olympics are 10 athletes with Arkansas connections. Among those 10, five have Northwest Arkansas connections.
These athletes are among the 596 members of the U.S. team who will be competing Beijing when the games begin on Aug. 9 following the opening ceremonies on Aug. 8.
Perhaps the most recognizable are John McDonnell’s former University of Arkansas standouts Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon Jr. It is no secret that McDonnell, the recently retired UA track coach, is responsible for making Arkansas a Mecca for track and field stars. His magic has boosted hundreds of athletes to world-class status and out of this year’s Arkansas hopefuls, four Olympians come from the UA stables: Gay, the 100-m runner and Spearmon who runs the 200-m.
Then there are the University of Arkansas female track and field stars 1,500-m runner Christin Wurth-Thomas and pole-vaulter April Steiner-Bennett. Although neither are Arkansas natives, both currently live in Springdale and have been competing seriously for almost a decade.
Rounding out the NWA contingent is 16-year old Margaux Isaksen, who will be competing in the modern pentathlon.
This is only Isaken’s second year to compete in the multi-skilled, modern pentathlon. Last fall Isaksen moved from NWA to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train. She was expected to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, but instead bested a veteran athlete to earn a spot in this year’s games.
Filling one of only two spots on the U.S. modern pentathlon team, Isaksen is joined by Shelia Taormina of Nebraska, who has competed in the past three Olympics and will compete this year in three different sports, making Olympic history as the first woman to do so.
This year’s U.S. Olympic team athletes range from age 15 to 50. Olympic sports not only require a tremendous amount of commitment and training, but also considerable financial resources.
Steiner Bennett, who holds down a full-time job as a teacher in the Springdale School District, helped finance her road to the Olympics by competing for a $50,000 prize on the TV reality show “Fear Factor,” which she won.
The travel expenses necessary to compete and qualify for a spot on the Olympic team are tremendous. Unlike university or college backed teams, most Olympic hopefuls are on their own, especially in off-the-wall sports like the pentathlon.
When members Fayetteville’s International Association of Fire Fighters local 2866 heard about the 16-year old Isaksen, they became interested.
“We found out that she and her family were paying. We wanted to help,” said Amy Bailey, a firefighter and union member.
The organization collects money throughout the year to give back to the community. They donate to several youth organizations like youth softball and baseball and Camp Sunshine.
After hearing about the young Olympic hopeful, the firefighters invited Isaksen to speak at a meeting. Now they are some of Isaksen’s biggest fans and supporters.
“We saw a 16-year old who is trying to better herself,” said Jeremy Ashley president of the IAFF 2866. The organization presented Isaksen with a $1,000 check to help her and her family with expenses.
Ashley said Isaksen did not ask for the money.
“We reached out to her,” Ashley said. “We are so impressed with her. Not only is she an exceptional athlete, she’s an exceptional person.”
Ashley said the firefighters were aware of the commitment made by both Isaksen and her family.
“Her whole family has sacrificed,” he said. “She was in Cairo, she traveled to Mexico City and won the [Silver] World Cup. She’s traveled all over the world and no one picks up the bill but her family.”
As an Olympic team member, Isaksen’s trip to Beijing will be paid for, however, her family must cover their expenses if they want to go to Beijing to see her compete.
“Our intent is to help with this,” Ashley said. Isaksen’s younger sister, Isabella, is also a fencing student.
The firefighters did not simply handover the check. They are following her journey to the Olympics and have become what may be her biggest fan club.
“We talk to her mom a couple of times a week; she’s going to let us know when Margaux will be on TV,” Ashley said.
The firefighters are not the only ones in NWA who are part of Isaksen’s fan club. Those at the Arkansas Fencing Academy in Springdale, where Isaksen began her journey to the Olympics will also be cheering on her efforts in Beijing. They’ve been cheering her on for a while now.
The modern pentathlon consists of shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and running. It was fencing lessons that eventually put Isaksen on the road to glory.
Isaksen spent many hours on her family’s farm south of Fayetteville, swimming in the White River and riding horses. But it wasn’t until she met Neal Picken and fencing coach Nadia Paunov at the Arkansas Fencing Academy three years ago, that she ever dreamed of competing and becoming a world-class athlete.
Isaksen excels in other areas, too. The two Isaksen sisters and their cousins Millie and Madeline Hogue, formed the Parker Branch Stream Team and two years ago were awarded President Bush’s Environmental Youth Award for their work.
To donate to Margaux Isaksen’s training fund, go to gauxgirl.com.
Others U.S. Olympic team members with Arkansas ties are: Jeff Hartwig of Jonesboro, pole vault; Michael Robertson of Bebee, discus; Terry Tiffee of North North Little Rock, baseball; pole vaulter Derek Miles, who lists his current residence as Jonesboro; and sprinter Muna Lee who lists her birthplace as Little Rock.
The Olympic games will be broadcast on NBC.
Gay and Spearmon featured on “A Shot at Glory”
Former University of Arkansas track stars Tyson Gay and Wallace Spearmon, Jr. will be going for the gold in Beijing in the 100-m and 200-m respectively.
Spearmon, a Fayetteville High School alumnus will be featured in a special episode of MOJO HD’s “A Shot at Glory,” at 5 p.m. Saturday and Gay at 8 p.m. Aug. 7. The show airs on Cox channel 736.
MOJO HD is a ten-part, high def series that delves into the mindset and motivation of some of America’s most promising and extraordinary athletes.
Tyson Gay has earned the reputation as being one of the fastest men in America and at the Beijing Olympics, he’s hoping to become known as the fastest man in the world. Seven years ago he was a lightly recruited high school sprinter from Lexington, Ky. After transferring from community college to train under the tutelage of Coach John McDonnell at the University of Arkansas, the once unknown star has risen through the ranks to become a world champion athlete. Gay is humble and reserve. When he found out that he was clocking times as fast as his heroes Michael Johnson, Frankie Fredericks and Maurice Greene, he could hardly believe it.
Three years ago at the University of Arkansas, 23-year-old Wallace Spearmon Jr. was the yin to Tyson Gay’s yang, the gregarious personality to Gay’s quiet demeanor. Now these two are seeking international glory.
Spearmon, Jr.—like his father—is one of the all-time great sprinters produced by Arkansas. As a freshman, Spearmon, Jr. became the first Razorback in history to win the NCAA Outdoor 200-m title. He was a three-sport standout at Fayetteville High, where he played basketball and football. Wallace’s fiancé is track star Monica Hargrove and both are coached by the elder Spearmon.
In “A Shot at Glory,” Wallace, his coaches, friends and family speak about the intense training required to earn a spot in Beijing games — the training schedules, mentors and role models, career-making competitions and personal effort behind the hard-fought climb to the upper echelon of sports. Spearmon Jr.’s personality shines through in “A Shot at Glory” in his interaction with friend Chad Graham of Chad’s Barber Shop in Fayetteville.
“A Shot at Glory” airs at 8 p.m. weekday evenings through Aug. 8. The first five episodes will premiere in a mini-marathon beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday, followed by a second mini-marathon at 4 p.m. on Aug. 9.