While LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ryan Tannehill dominated the South Florida sports headlines over the past four years, 41 athletes with local ties toiled away — most of them in relative obscurity — with dreams of making the Rio Olympics.
Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva of Homestead was perfecting his daring bar routines at a gym in West Kendall under the watchful eyes of his parents, who both competed for the Cuban national team. Judoka Angelica Delgado, whose father also defected from Cuba, split time between gyms in Coral Springs and South Miami while pursuing a double-major at Florida International University.
Sam Dorman and Marcela Maric were ramping up their dive lists at the University of Miami pool with the guidance of Hurricanes coach Randy Ableman, who has led 11 UM divers to the Olympics so they could fulfill the dream that was stolen from him as a member of the 1980 U.S. team that boycotted the Moscow Games.
At the FIU Aquatic Center, Naomi Ruele was breaking school and conference records in the 50 free, and earning her way to the Rio Olympics as the first female swimmer ever to compete for her native Botswana.
Meanwhile, at Princeton University, Ashleigh Johnson, who grew up in the Redland and attended Ransom Everglades High, was the starting goalie on the water polo team and would become the first black American and only non-Californian on the U.S. Olympic team.
And then there’s Nick Delpopolo of the U.S. judo team, who was sent home to New Jersey from the 2012 Olympics after finishing seventh and testing positive for marijuana. He said he unknowingly ingested a pot-laced brownie at a pre-Olympics party. He was devastated that his mistake shamed his country, his teammates, his coaches and his parents, who adopted him as a baby from a Serbian orphanage.
Delpopolo moved to an Opa Locka efficiency with his girlfriend and five cats a few months after the 2012 Games.
He sought a fresh start at Budokan Judo Club in Hialeah under coaches Evelio Garcia and Orlando Fuentes, whom he had known for years.
“I don’t want that mistake to define my life,” Delpopolo said. “I’m not just the guy who got disqualified for eating the pot brownie. I’m a top-tier judoka and a top-tier person. I’m so excited to be back.”
Twenty one South Floridians will be competing for the United States. And in keeping with the area’s diversity, 20 locals are representing other countries. Each has a unique story, but they all have one thing in common — South Florida roots.
Meet our local Olympians...
▪ Foluke Akinradewo, Fort Lauderdale (St. Thomas Aquinas), women’s volleyball: One of four returning players from the 2012 Olympic silver medal team. The 6-3 middle blocker graduated from Stanford and has U.S.-Canadian-Nigerian triple citizenship.
▪ Allison Brock, Wellington, equestrian dressage: Brock began riding horses as a young girl in Hawaii. She will be competing with her horse Rosevelt, a Hanoverian stallion.
▪ Kassidy Cook, Plantation, diving 3-meter: Moved to Houston at age 10, but her love of diving began as a kid in Plantation.
▪ Angelica Delgado, Miami (Ferguson High, FIU), judo 52 kg: Her father, Miguel, was a member of the Cuban national team and introduced her to the sport at age 9. She’s a three-time U.S. champion and two-time Pan American Games bronze medalist.
▪ Nick Delpopolo, Miami, judo, 73 kg: Was sent home from the 2012 London Olympics for a positive marijuana test. He says he inadvertently ingested it in a brownie at a pre-Olympics party. Serbia-born, raised by foster family in New Jersey, moved to South Florida in 2014 to get a fresh start with coaches Evelro Garcia and Orlando Fuentes.
▪ Sam Dorman, UM, synchro diving: A 2015 NCAA champion at UM, will be competing in Rio in synchronized 3-meter diving with Indiana’s Michael Hixon, with whom he just partnered shortly before the Olympic trials.
▪ Kent Farrington, Wellington, equestrian: Born in Chicago, took first riding lessons at 8 at a downtown carriage barn. Top-ranked American show jumper. Won bronze at 2015 Pan Am Games. Rides Voyeur, a Dutch Warmblood.
▪ Sylvia Fowles, Miami, women’s basketball: The 6-6 center who played at Edison High and Gulliver is in her third Olympics. She is a two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and in 2015 led the Minnesota Lynx to the league title and was named MVP.
▪ Arman “Gino” Hall, Pembroke Pines, track and gield 4-by-400: Graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas in 2012, and from University of Florida in 2016. Won gold medal in the 400 at the 2011 World Youth Championships with a time of 46.01.
▪ Dave Hughes, Miami, sailing, 470 2-person dinghy: The 38-year-old former White House intern went to the 2012 Olympics as a coach for sailor Trevor Moore, who went missing in Biscayne Bay in June 2015 and was never found. Moore shared a Coconut Grove house with Hughes and had recently gotten engaged to be married. Hughes says Moore’s memory is fueling his Olympic medal dreams.
▪ Ashleigh Johnson, Redlands/Ransom High School, water polo: The first black American on the U.S. women’s water polo team, and the only non-Californian on the team. After leaving Ransom, she attended Princeton University.
▪ Madison Keys, Boca Raton, tennis: Ranked No. 12 in the world. Reached semifinal of 2015 Australian Open and quarterfinal of 2015 Wimbledon.
▪ Danell Leyva, Homestead , Gymnastics: The 2012 Olympics All-American bronze medalist and reigning world silver medalist on high bar. He is coached by his stepfather and mother, both of whom competed for the Cuban national team before defecting to the United States. He was added to the team for Rio after John Orozco went down with a torn ACL.
▪ Nick Lucena, Cooper City, beach volleyball: Former high school soccer player turned to beach volleyball and continued to play while at Florida State University. Married to former pro volleyball player Brooke Niles. Won silver medal at 2015 FIVB World Tour.
▪ Pedro Pascual, Miami/Boca Raton, sailing RS-X: Windsurfer Pascual put his studies at Florida Atlantic University on hold to pursue the Olympics. Sails out of the Miami Yacht Club.
▪ Robin Prendes, Miami, rowing lightweight fours: Finished eighth at the 2012 London Olympics, and fifth at the 2013 world championship. Born in Cuba, raised in Miami, Coral Park High and Princeton grad.
▪ Brianna Rollins, Miami Northwestern, track and field 100 hurdles: Her time of 12.26 seconds is the fourth-fastest in history. Rollins attended Clemson and won the 2013 World Championship.
▪ Sloane Stephens, Plantation, tennis: This is first Olympics for Stephens, who has won three WTA titles this season. Her mother, Sybil, was a top swimmer at Boston University, and biological father, John, played in the NFL.
▪ Lexi Thompson, Coral Springs, golf: At 21, she has already won eight tournaments. At 12 became youngest player to qualify for U.S. Open. At 16, youngest to win an LPGA tournament.
▪ Serena Williams, Palm Beach Gardens, tennis: Top-ranked player in the world, winner of 22 Grand Slam titles, competing in fourth Olympics. She has won four gold medals — three in doubles with sister, Venus (2000, 2008, 2012) and singles in 2012.
▪ Venus Williams, Palm Beach Gardens, tennis: Won singles gold medal at Sydney Olympics in 2000, and has won three doubles titles with sister, Serena.
▪ Jill Ellis, Palmetto Bay, US women's soccer coach: Coached Team USA to the 2015 World Cup title, and has 50 victories as national coach.
▪ Randy Ableman, UM, USA Diving staff: A member of the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Games. A US Olympic coach in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2012 and coached South Africa in 2008. Has produced 11 Olympians at University of Miami.
▪ Randy Horner, FIU, Swimming (Botswana): Will be coaching FIU’s Naomi Ruele and Nova’s David Van der Colff in Rio.
▪ Andy Kershaw, UM, USA Swim manager: Served as team manager at the 2012 Olympics, 2015 World Championships.
Paul Mokha, Miami Rowing Club, Rowing: Coaching Indian singles rower.
South Floridians competing for other countries
Marcelo Acosta, Azura Aquatics, swimming (El Salvador); Murielle Ahoure, UM, track and Field (Ivory Coast); Heather Arseth, UM, swimming (Mauritius); Alia Atkinson, Flanagan High, swimming (Jamaica); Adrian Carambula, Miami Beach High, beach volleyball (Italy); Dylan Carter, Plantation American Heritage High, swimming (Trinidad & Tobago).
Kali Davis-White, Boyd Anderson High, track and field (Jamaica); Fabian Florant, Pine Crest Prep, track and field (Netherlands); Tahesia Harrigan-Scott, Miami, track and field (British Virgin Islands); Antwon Hicks, Miami, track and field (Nigeria); Jeff Julmis, Miami, track and field (Haiti)
Marcela Maric, UM, diving 3-meter (Croatia); Jorge Murillo-Valdes, South Florida Aquatic Club, swimming (Colombia); Alysha Newman, UM, track and field pole vault (Canada); Catalina Perez, UM, women’s soccer (Colombia); Jhonny Perez, Azura Aquatics, swimming (Dominican Republic); Naomi Ruele, FIU, swimming (Botswana).
Khalifa St. Fort, St. Thomas Aquinas, track and field (Trinidad & Tobago); Renzo Tjon-A-Joe, Westlake Prep, swimming (Surinam); David Van der Colff, Nova, swimming (Botswana); Timothy Wynter, South Florida Aquatic Club, swimming (Jamaica)
Ronald Forbes, Track and Field 110 hurdles (Cayman Islands); Aubrey Smith, Track and Field long jump (Jamaica); Thaisa Moreno, Women's Soccer (Brazil); Yarimar Rosa and Natalie Valentin, Women's Volleyball (Puerto Rico)