Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: Catching up with WNY's Olympians, one year later

Time moves so swiftly in a young athlete's life. It has been nearly a year since Rio. You spend four years working toward your big Olympic moment, and then it's gone, just like that. The spotlight moves away, and it's difficult at first. But you're a competitor. Eventually, you move on, too.

"For me, the hardest part was walking away from Rio," said Emily Regan, who was in the winning women's eight in Rio, becoming the first Buffalo rower to win an Olympic gold medal. "You train literally for years, solely focused. Then when we leave, it's like 'What just happened?'

"I wouldn't say it was a letdown," Regan said. "It was sad to be leaving something I'd worked so hard for behind."

Training for an Olympic sport is a physically and emotionally draining experience. It can also be a solitary and thankless one, as you spend long hours working out, generally removed from family and home and the public eye.

Once it's over, an athlete needs a little time to recharge.

"Yeah, exactly," said Mary Saxer, a world-class pole vaulter from Lancaster. "The Olympics are emotional, regardless of the results. I've talked to some people who were at the Rio Games and made the finals or were medalist and had trouble getting going this year. There's just a lot, you know?"

Saxer has failed to qualify at the last two U.S. Olympic Trials. And she's still at it, 14 years after Rick Suhr saw her long jumping and encouraged her to take up the pole vault. On Friday, a day after turning 30, she'll head to Sacramento for the U.S. National Outdoor Championships.

She was thrilled to know that someone in the media cared. We tend to ignore the so-called minor sports outside the quadrennial Olympics. So I thought it would be nice to check in with our Buffalo-area athletes to see how they're doing nearly a year after Rio.

Our locals had their best Games ever, with three Buffalo-area athletes (Regan, Jake Kaminski and Matt Anderson) winning medals in the same Olympics for the first time in 88 years. Buffalo native Tom Terhaar, the head coach of the U.S. women's team, guided the women's eight to a third straight gold.

It likely would have been four medals, and maybe two golds, if Jenn Suhr hadn't fallen ill the week of the women's pole vault. Here's an update on our Olympians from Rio, and two who missed out:

EMILY REGAN (Gold, Women's Rowing Eight)

U.S. Olympians Emily Regan, Lauren Schmetterling, Katelin Snyder, Amanda Elmore, Meghan Musnicki, Elle Logan, Tessa Gobo and Kerry Simmonds pose with their gold medals at the USA House at Colegio Sao Paulo on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Getty Images)

Last weekend in Poland, Regan was in the stroke seat (closest to the stern) when the U.S. women finished third at World Cup II on Lake Malta. New Zealand won in a relatively slow time of 6:04.05. She also competed in the second U.S. four that finished fourth in World Cup II.

Regan had worked out in a pair before team selections in June. She was trying to improve in small boats to "be the best rower I can be," but didn't qualify for Poland in the pair. Aside from coxswain Katelin Snyder, she was the only rower in the eight who was in the boat that won gold in Rio.

"We have a young group, so I'm happy with our performance," Regan said. "We definitely improved over the regatta. Racing helped identify some areas where we need to improve, so we'll work there moving forward to Worlds in September."

Regan and the U.S. compete next at World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland next month. But the World Championships, which will are Sept. 24-Oct. 1 in Sarasota, Fla., are the big goal. The U.S. women's eight has won 11 consecutive major international races (World Championships and Olympics) under Terhaar, who will be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame this fall.

The streak dates to 2005. The Worlds, which will be held in a venue named for late Buffalo developer Nathan Benderson, will be the first held in this country in more than 20 years. That'll renew the pressure on "The Unbeatables," as Sports Illustrated called the women's eight before Rio.

"Tom takes takes a more hands-off approach in a post-Olympic year," Regan said, "especially with the returning athletes. He knows what he has had us go through over the lead-up to an Olympics. So it's a little more laid-back.

"I don't think anyone has a particularly big head when they come back," she said. "Rowing attracts the type of athlete who is more 'Put your head down and do the work,' goal-oriented. If you were going to keep training, you probably have a goal you still want to reach."

Regan, who turned 29 last week, said she tries to be a mentor to the younger women who have joined the national team. She's also had a lot of opportunities to speak to kids in schools after the Olympics.

"Mostly, I talk about the hard work aspect of rowing and being part of a team," she said. "That's a relatable part of the sport to anybody. I haven't had any kids ask me if I'm getting rich doing this."

JAKE KAMINSKI (Silver, Men's Team Archery)

Jake Kaminski of the Unites States competes in the Men's Individual 1/32 Elimination Round on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Getty Images)

Kaminski, a two-time Olympian and twice a silver medalist, qualified for the U.S. World Team in May and is in Salt Lake City this week for the latest leg of the Hyundai Archery World Cup series. Practices are Tuesday, followed by qualification, head-to-head play and medal matches this weekend.

The Elma native hasn't had much time to dwell on Rio. Since the Olympics, Kaminski has changed bow companies and married his former massage therapist. He and his wife, Heather, have started the Archers Association of America and co-authored a book about the sport.

"I'm just trying to ride the wave of excitement about it," said Kaminski, who makes a full-time living in the archery business. "We wrote a book of how to train for the sport, the first of its kind. It shows you how to get better with what you've got, whether you're shooting compound or recurve, at grass roots level or the highest level you can."

Kaminski got an individual fifth place at the World Field Championships a month after Rio. He competed in the first World Cup in China. He'll be competing at the National Target Championships from Aug. 2-6 in Illinois.

In 2015, Kaminski lost his sister, Elizabeth Diamond, to cancer. He didn't make the national team, but returned in '16 with new resolve. Kaminski said he loves archery because it makes him feel alive. He wants to be defined as more than an archer, but he'd love to win a third medal in Japan in 2020.

"Yeah, of course," he said. "I'm a competitor at heart, so as long as I'm competitive and it's sustainable, I'll do this as long as I can. I've been shifting gears a little bit, trying to just focus on broadening the brand of Jake Kaminski a little bit.

"I've always tried to be more than just an archer. I'm going forward with a lot more focus on that. I've got a go-getter for a wife. She's really helping me. So it is a whole change for me as far as lifestyle. A lot more excitement in my life and a lot more happening."

MATT ANDERSON (Bronze, Men's Volleyball)

Matt Anderson of United States spikes past Poland during the Men's Quarterfinal Volleyball match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Getty Images)

The West Seneca native knows how emotionally exhausting it can be for an Olympic athlete. Anderson admitted his emotions got the better of him in the London Games, when the U.S. didn't medal. He quit in the fall of his 2014 pro season in Russia, citing depression and burnout.

Anderson could have left Rio with major regrets. The U.S. team blew a big lead in the semifinals against Italy, costing them a shot at gold. In the bronze-medal match, they lost the first two sets to Russia. They could have packed it in, but with Anderson their top scorer, the Americans rallied to take the next three sets and win bronze.

"I think it was a reward for us," Anderson said a few weeks ago. "Being able to add to the medal count for our country and end our four-year quad on a high note after all our hard work made it kind of worth it.

"For me as a player, it's a big sigh of relief when you actually win something and it makes it a little bit more motivating to go back and continue to win."

Anderson rode that high into his pro season in Russia, where he led Zenit Kazan to a third straight European Cup title. They set a record for most dominant run, going 12-0 and dropping only two sets in the tournament.

"For our whole pro season, we went undefeated," said Anderson, who turned 30 in April. "That includes the Russian championships, Russian Cup and CEV Champions Leagues. It was pretty crazy."

He was voted the top spiker in the Russian League final and is regarded as one of the top men's volleyball players in the world. So Anderson remains at the top of his game.

"Yeah, I think I'm improving statistically," he said. "Physically, going from pro season to national team back to pro to national team is starting to break down my body a little bit. But I have two months off here now and I'm using this time to regenerate."

Anderson said would join the national team, which trains in California, to work out this summer. The U.S. team hosts Brazil, which won gold in Rio, for two USAV Cup international matches on Aug. 18-19 in Chicago. He'll be back home for his sister's wedding in October, then return to Russia for his pro season.

It's three years away, but Anderson intends to be in Japan for a third shot at Olympic gold. "Yeah. Hopefully I get better at the Olympics," he said. "That would be nice."

ANITA ALVAREZ, Synchronized Swimming Duet

Anita Alvarez (left) and Mariya Koroleva of the United States compete in the Women's Duets Synchronized Swimming Free Routine Preliminary Round on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Getty Images)

Alvarez has kept busy since finishing ninth in the duet in the 2016 Games. She and her new partner, Victoria Woroniecki, have been traveling the globe for the seven-stop Syncho World Series. This week, they'll be home for the Syncho American Open, which runs from June 22-24 in East Meadow.

The Kenmore native went to Rio last summer with modest expectations in a sport where judges rarely stray from established ranks. She met them by finishing above her world rank. Now the goal is to help lift U.S. synchro, which has fallen on hard times after dominating the sports for years.

Alvarez, 20, said it was hard to get re-motivated after the inspiring experience of her first Games. She and Koroleva were the only Americans to compete. The U.S. didn't qualify in the team event. After the Games, they were invited to the White House and to Fashion Week in New York.

"Coming off the Olympics, it definitely was tough to get back into regular training," she said, "back into the grind after being on such a high at the Games. It was definitely hard to come back and start over.

"But we have World Championships this summer (in Budapest in late July), which is a huge competition for us. We'll have a full team there, so it's bigger than the Olympics. There's a lot more going on."

Alvarez said she'll be competing in team, duet and solo this week. She won a gold medal in her first solo effort in China. She and Woroniecki were eighth in Japan in duet after winning two silvers in China.

When she left home three years ago to train with the national team in California, she was 17 and the youngest on the squad. Now she's a veteran leader. After Rio, she said her goal was to help lead U.S. synchro back to prominence by 2020.

"It's really crazy, being in this spot," she said. "Just two years ago, I was one of the younger girls, making her first national team and looking up to the other top swimmers and Olympians. Now I'm returning Olympian.

"I've enjoyed being able to bring a little extra experience to the team. It's been an exciting year."

JENN SUHR, Women's Pole Vault

Illness waylaid Jenn Suhr at the Rio Olympics. (Getty Images)

Suhr, who won gold in 2012, learned not to attach too much importance to one event last summer when she came down with a severe respiratory ailment a few days before the pole vault began in Rio. She finished seventh.

"Exactly," she said recently. "You go and try to qualify and try to make the best jumps and pole selections and train the best you can and do your best at Worlds."

On Sunday, Suhr is slated to compete in the pole vault at the U.S. nationals in Sacramento. She needs to finish in the top three to qualify for the World Championships from Aug. 5-13 in London, where she won gold in the 2012 Games.

Suhr, 35, will be seeking her 18th national title. She's had a busy outdoor season. She competed in Texas and Florida and Boston, where she finished secoond in the Adidas Boost event early in June. She had the best jump of the season (4.83 meters) until a month ago. She will be the underdog at nationals for once. Sandi Morris won silver in Rio and is the only American women to clear 5.00 meters outdoors.

MARY SAXER, Women's Pole Vault, Trials
JON JONES, Men's Shot Put, Trials

Mary Saxer in action during the women's pole vault at the 2014 Sainsbury's Anniversary Games in London, England. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

Saxer and Jones both attended the U.S. Trials last June and fell short of making the team. For Saxer, it was her second miss. In 2012, she jumped the same height as the third-place finisher, but lost an Olympic spot with more misses. She was recovering from a calf strain when he jumped last year.

Jones, the 2015 NCAA Division I champ at UB, fouled out at Trials. He decided to take the sport more seriously, moving to Chula Vista to work out with the other top American throwers at the Olympics training center. Saxer decided to take a lighter approach to pole vaulting.

"There's so much stress and pressure in an Olympic year," said Saxer, who lives in Boston, Mass.. "So this year, my approach was to have fun with it, to let the results happen and enjoy the places and events and opportunities that pole vault gives me. It's been a fun year doing that."

Saxer finished third at the national indoors. She said she's healthy and ready for the U.S. outdoor championships this weekend in Sacramento.

"I'm leaving Friday for outdoors," she said. "We jump on Sunday. I'm ready to rock and roll. Top three makes the World team in London in August."

Five-time All-American senior Jonathan Jones. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Jones also is scheduled to compete in the U.S. outdoors on Sunday. The top four qualify for  Worlds in London. The men's shot put begins at noon Pacific, five minutes after the women's pole vault begins. He finished second at the U.S. indoors, but got gold when the winner tested positive for steroids.

"The atmosphere here is all about winning," Jones said from Chula Vista. "We all push each other and it's a great atmosphere to be in. I'm glad I made the move."

Last year, Jones knew he was a long shot for the Olympics. Throwers tend to mature late and most fail in their first Olympic bid. Now he's on the path to his Olympic dream.

So 2020 is your time, he was asked?

"Right," Jones said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment