Feature: Olympic Dreams
Meet 10 remarkable athletes with Central Florida ties whose goal is to reach the Tokyo Games—and win.
While her future classmates were gearing up for their final year in high school, Abnelis Yambo and her family were fleeing Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria bearing down on the island. Yambo enrolled at Osceola High School in Kissimmee as a senior and quickly made an impact on its wrestling program.
At first, the move was hard, with a new lifestyle, new school, and new friends, but that soon faded. “Osceola has one of the best wrestling programs,” she says. “When I started to train with them, I felt alone but then I got to know my teammates and it became a family. I’m very thankful for my coach because he helped me to keep wrestling at a high level.”
Jim Bird noticed her talent right away.
“Abnelis was a hard-working wrestler with no fear,” the coach explains. “She wanted to score at all times, especially with her favorite move, the ‘fireman’s carry.’ ”
“I’d describe my style as aggressive and smart,” says Yambo, 19. “I’m always trying to make something happen on the mat.”
Overcoming the daunting challenges a monster storm put in front of her made Yambo more determined than ever. Less than a year after fleeing Maria, she won her division in the Junior National women’s freestyle championship. Then she finished third at the 2019 Pan Am Championships in the 62kg (136 pound) weight class. Now she must qualify in one of two upcoming international competitions in order to compete in Tokyo, which she says would be “a dream come true.’’
“I want people to remember me as a person that never gave up and accomplished all of her goals,” she says.
TRACK & FIELD
Andres Arroyo always thought he’d be starting in center field in the World Series, not running on the world’s largest stages.
In middle school he decided to run track to improve his fitness for baseball—and was promptly rejected. “They told me I wasn’t talented enough,’’ Arroyo recalls. Two years later he made the track team. Then, as a junior at Orlando’s Colonial High School, he shifted his focus from baseball to track and field. Colleges took notice, and Arroyo went on to star on the oval at the University of Florida.
In Tokyo, Arroyo—originally from Bayamon, Puerto Rico— is hoping to make his second appearance for his native country. He reached the Olympic semifinal in the 800 meters four years ago in Rio.
“Being surrounded by the best athletes in the world changed the way I view my sport,” Arroyo, 24, says of his first Olympic experience. “I took it more seriously after that. It just brought another level of focus.”
Arroyo believed in himself more after those moments and saw just how far he had come. “My coach, Mike Holloway, always used to tell me, show them you belong there,” Arroyo says.
This time around, qualifying came easier. And he intends to make the most of his chance.
“It is extremely important to take seriously the little things like sleeping well, resting well, eating well and studying the race,” he says. “Before the race, I tell myself I belong with each and every runner on that track. I keep it imprinted in my mind that I will perform with every drop of energy I have and will win.”
Although he is representing Puerto Rico and trains there now, Arroyo holds a special place in his heart for the Orlando area.
“Every single time I have raced here I’ve always received a warm welcome to the track. I’ll always be grateful for the support I have received from the Central Florida community.”
TRACK & FIELD
Missing two Olympic teams has been hard for Jessica Beard. She won the prestigious Bowerman Award, track and field’s version of the Heisman Trophy, in 2011 after a fantastic collegiate career at Texas A&M. The 400-meter specialist trained in Orlando from 2015 to 2018 and returned to Central Florida this past fall after taking off a year of grad school to train for the Tokyo Games.
“I had my career-best season in 2018 before I left for grad school, so I wanted to come back for the Olympic year and give myself the best opportunity to get on the team and medal,” she says.
The road hasn’t been easy. In 2012, Beard missed the opportunity to compete for Team USA by one spot. Following the meet, she found out that she had a partial tear in her Achilles tendon.
“It took me some time to get back to the competitive and fearless nature I had, but eventually, it came in 2014 before I made my transition to Florida,” notes Beard, 30.
Four years later, she failed to make it out of the first round of the Olympic Trials for the first time in her career. Now, her focus is on being healthy and putting herself in the best possible position to make that elusive first team.
“My 2020 goals are to make my first Olympic team for the individual 400, to run under 50 seconds, and to win two medals (400 and 4×400 meter relay),” she says.
Beard says she draws inspiration from her mother, who told her she was the best and a champion at an early age. That and the potential impact she can have on today’s youth fuel her drive for success.
“There’s a world that’s bigger than your environment and I am glad I am able to show the future generation what consistency, work ethic and talent can do—but more importantly where character and a positive reputation can take you,” she says.
Last year, at age 17, Jody Brown suited up for Jamaica on the biggest stage in women’s soccer, the World Cup. This summer, the Montverde Academy standout will represent her country at the Tokyo Games.
Brown has been an integral part of the Montverde Eagles’ program that has recorded back-to-back state titles as well as top five national rankings. For Brown, her time at the school has been one of the most memorable of her life.
“Being here has changed me so much,” she says. “Having teammates who always look out for me if I ever need anything is awesome. It’s really amazing how the program is and the girls that we have here.”
Coach Robbie Aristodemo has high praise for the young superstar and is sure the best is yet to come.
“She has excellent speed and quickness, movement of the ball, and understanding of the game,” he says. “She is a game-changer and rises to the occasion.”
Brown has played at the international level since age 15 and has progressed all the way to Jamaica’s under-20 team. She admits that as the levels change, the game gets harder, but through hard work she has gained a wealth of much-needed experience, including the appearance in the World Cup.
“It was always my dream to be there and I finally accomplished that. It’s a forever story that I can share because growing up it was always my dream and I never thought I would have played there.”
After the Olympics, Brown will head to Florida State University to compete at the collegiate level. Aristodemo is confident she will “continually strive to be better and be a student of the game, always looking to improve on her weaknesses and continue to strengthen her strengths.”
Monique Rodriguez was pretty much born into the martial art of Taekwondo: She was crawling on mats before she could even walk, and by the time she reached age 4 she was training at her uncle’s Taekwondo academy. But even at that young age, he didn’t take it easy on her—because he recognized her talent.
“He actually was extra hard on me and I thank him for that now that I am older,” says Rodriguez, who went to school at Orlando’s Central Florida Christian Academy. “It made me a better person and an athlete. Some Saturdays my uncle would train us for six hours. There were times I wanted to quit and just be a teenager, but my family all had a part in that not happening.”
Her persistence has paid off, as well as her training: two hours in the morning, up to three in the afternoon. Now at age 20, she is hoping to make Team USA and her first Olympic Games. In 2019, she made her first Senior National Team, earned a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games and gold at the U.S. Senior Grand Slam, both in the under-49 kilograms (108 pounds), or Flyweight, division.
“Making the senior team and representing the USA is what I have worked so hard for,” she says. “It is not easy making the U.S. team. But if I do not get to go for 2020, I will make it to 2024,’’ with the continued support of her family, and more.
“My inspiration will always be God,’’ Rodriguez says, “because with God all things are possible.”
The road to Tokyo has been a journey of family and faith for Emily Carosone, who will represent Italy as softball returns as an Olympic sport after a hiatus of 12 years.
“My grandfather was from Italy, which is why I was able to get dual citizenship,” explains Carosone, who was born in Orlando and played high school softball for Pine Castle Christian Academy. “There was a lot of paperwork that had to be filled out. Once I got all of it figured out, I emailed the Italian team and they asked me to come up for their Olympic qualifier.”
Carosone didn’t waste any time making an impact. With Team Italy down 6-3 in the deciding game of the tournament, the former Auburn standout, who led the Tigers to two Women’s College World Series appearances, hit a game-tying home run.
“I remember thinking how were we going to come back from this deficit and hearing the words ‘trust me’ in my head,” she says. “I knew it was the Holy Spirit reminding me that God had something big planned for our team. Sure enough, our centerfielder and shortstop got on base. Not once in that at-bat did I think I would hit a home run.”
Team Italy went on to win 12-7 and qualify for the Olympics. The pressure never bothered Carosone and that’s no surprise. She started playing softball at age 9 and has been fascinated with the sport for as long as she can remember.
“I would study the rules so that I knew every part of the game as much as I could,” explains Carosone, now 26. “I always felt like I was an average player that knew the game well enough to be above average.”
Carosone prepares for in-game pressure situations during practice, using that time each week to hone her skills and mental fortitude. “That’s what prepares you for game time,” she says.
TRACK & FIELD
Growing up in Longwood, Sinclaire Johnson thought her future would be brightest in lacrosse. But she needed to keep fit during the off-season, so her mom had a suggestion: cross country.
“She suggested it would be a good way to stay in shape for lacrosse, which was in the spring,” Johnson recalls. “I ran with the team over the summer and I kid you not, I was barely able to run two miles without stopping. And those were a slow two miles.”
She would go on to qualify for the high school cross country finals, which made her realize it was time to hang up the lacrosse stick and see what she could achieve on the track.
Johnson won five state titles during her time at Lake Brantley High. She continued her running career at Oklahoma State University. Last year the fierce competitor went into the outdoor season with a goal of winning a national title in the 1,500 meters, and she did just that.
“I felt really confident and ready to showcase all the work I’ve put into this sport thus far and when I crossed the line as a national champion I couldn’t help but feel a sense of validation,” says Johnson, 21.
Not only did she claim her first NCAA title, but Johnson did so in 4:05.98, the second-fastest time in collegiate history behind only Oviedo native and Olympic bronze medalist Jenny Simpson. The next race was the USA Championships, where Johnson just missed out on a spot on Team USA and her first World Championships with a fourth-place finish. Initially, she was disappointed, but after turning professional in the weeks following, she knows she put herself in a better position as she looks forward to the Tokyo Olympics.
“I think it’s obvious every professional track and field athlete wants to wear USA across their chest and represent their country at the highest stage,” she says.
TRACK & FIELD
Stevie Gardiner is one of numerous international track and field athletes who call Central Florida home. The 24-year-old Bahamian sprinter is a member of Gary Evans’ Empire Athletic group that trains in Orlando. Gardiner joined the team after his first Olympics in 2016, where he finished 11th in the 400 meters and won a bronze medal in the 4×400 meter relay.
“2016 was a very frustrating year for me going into my first Olympics,” he says. “I wanted to do great in the individual 400, but things didn’t really go as I wanted. Nevertheless, I left the Games with a bronze in the 4×4 and a whole lot of experience.”
That experience carried over to 2017, where Gardiner won silver in the 400 meters at the World Championships in London and followed it up with a gold in the same event last fall at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Those long days at practice paid dividends over the past four years.
“Being here with the group there are more quality workouts,” he explains. “At the same time we tend to have fun, and that’s what makes the workouts much easier. I believe that is one of the main reasons for my success and growth in the sport.”
With the Tokyo Olympics approaching, the reigning world champion says he’s focusing on “staying healthy and having fun with the sport,” he says. “The pressure is always there, but it all depends on how you take things. I won’t change my mindset, but rather just work harder on my weaknesses.”
Gardiner draws inspiration from his family and friends and hopes he can make them proud in a matter of months.
“I’m from a small island in the Bahamas and there are people who’ve watched me grow up and become who I am today,” he explains. “My goals for Tokyo are to be on top of the podium and to do what I didn’t get to do in 2016, making myself and my country proud. I just want to keep on going because when I win, we all win.”
Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser traces his beach volleyball roots to his days at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach—and the persistence of an instructor. His 11th-grade math teacher, who doubled as the boys’ volleyball coach, kept at the teenager to try out for the team. Finally, in his senior year, Dalhausser did.
Everything came naturally to me,” he recalls. “It was like I was meant to play the game. Sometimes we would practice at the beach and that’s where I became obsessed with beach volleyball.” Dalhausser honed his skills as a member of UCF’s volleyball team, then in 2008 teamed up with Todd Rogers to win gold at the Beijing Olympics.
“You have a lot of time to think about your next match, which drove me a little crazy,” Dalhausser, now 40, says of Olympic competition. “However, winning gold is an incredible feeling. The best way I can describe it is to think of the best feeling and multiply it by a thousand.”
The past two Olympics, however, were a struggle. In 2012, Dalhausser and Rogers were defeated in the round of 16. In Rio four years later, he and new partner Nick Lucena fell in the quarterfinals. Worn out from traveling and wanting to spend more time with his wife and kids, Dalhausser considered calling it quits in 2018.
“I was reading a lot of spiritual books trying to figure out why I wasn’t happy,” he says. “One day I was in the kitchen thinking out loud wondering what my purpose in life is. My wife overheard me talking to myself and said you’re an idiot if you don’t think playing beach volleyball isn’t your purpose.”
Newly inspired, Dalhausser and Lucena still have to qualify. They can compete in up to 40 tournaments, but only the best 12 count. What would it mean for him to make his exit from the sport with a medal draped around his neck?
“I would love to go out winning a gold medal in Tokyo,” Dalhausser says. “That would be so sweet.”
Games or not, Dalhausser will keep his focus on the sport: He and his wife recently opened a beach volleyball academy at Boxi Park near their home in Lake Nona. “I love the sport and the area so it makes sense to grow a beach volleyball community in Central Florida,” he says. Check out the Dalhaussers’ website at pdbva.com
TRACK & FIELD
High school national championships, state titles, Junior Olympic records, and even an age-group world record—Tamari Davis has a track and field resume that would make other athletes envious. And she’s only a junior in high school.
“My brother got me started in track and field when I was six years old,” she explains. “I wanted to be like him and win medals.”
Davis grew up in Gainesville but recently moved to Clermont so she could train with Empire Athletics and coach Gary Evans. He trains a plethora of professional athletes, including 400-meter world champion Stevie Gardiner and U.S. 400-meter specialist Jessica Beard. It’s all part of the plan to position Davis as one of the youngest athletes ever to represent Team USA in track and field at the Olympic Games.
“It would mean everything to me to make the Olympic team at the age of 17 and represent the USA,” she says. “The road to Tokyo is going to be very tough, but I know the result is going to be amazing.”
When looking for inspiration, Davis points to Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who turned pro right out of high school and went on to win nine Olympic medals (six gold and three silver) as well as 18 World Championship medals (13 gold) in her storied career.
“She has dominated almost every Olympics and has done incredible things at such a young age,’’ Davis notes.
The East Ridge High junior’s personal best times of 11.13 in the 100-meter dash and 22.48 in the 200-meter dash would have placed sixth and third respectively at this year’s World Championships. Whether it’s Tokyo or the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, Davis hopes her story is written much the same as that of Felix.
“I want to be remembered as the youngest athlete in American track and field history to accomplish big things,” she says.