By Sen. John Cornyn
This year’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea broke multiple records, hosting an unprecedented 2,920 athletes from 92 countries. The United States took home 23 medals in all, 9 of them gold.
While during the Summer Olympics Texans consistently shine as bright as the medals they bring home, the Winter Games have proven more challenging for Lone Star athletes. After all, while Texas boasts a beautifully diverse geographic landscape, we don’t have the consistently snow-capped mountains of Colorado or the ice rinks of Minnesota.
This year, Texas sent three exceptional athletes to South Korea: Jonathan Garcia of Houston raced as a speedskater, and Sam McGuffie of Cypress and Justin Olsen of San Antonio competed side-by-side on the U.S. bobsled team. All three have impressive stories to tell.
Jonathan, who grew up in Katy, started inline skating when he was just seven years old. At 19, the U.S. Olympic Committee recruited him to switch to ice skating, and since then he’s had an impressive career on the ice, placing in the top 25 at this year’s Winter Games.
Sam, who coaches at Cy-Fair High School, joined the U.S. bobsled team both as a push athlete who sparks momentum off the starting line and as a brakeman who stops that momentum after the run. For those of us who haven’t yet travelled by bobsled, Sam described it as “like being put in a dumpster and then pushed off a double black ski slope.” As a former NFL athlete, Sam is no stranger to competition, and this year he took 9th place in the four-man event.
His teammate Justin began his bobsled career as a push athlete, bringing home the first gold medal for a U.S. four-man bobsled since 1948 when he won at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. After the 2014 games in Sochi, Justin lost 35 pounds to become a bobsled driver. This year, he drove his two-man bobsled to 14th place.
I think I speak for all Texans when I say that Sam, Justin, and Jonathan have made us proud.
As we all know, the magnetic pull of Texas is strong, and so as proud Texans, we’ll also claim a share of the success of the many other athletes who may not live in Texas, but have a tie to the Lone Star State.
For instance, although U.S. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender claims Breckenridge, Colorado as her hometown, she began her athletic career on McGregor High School’s track and baseball teams in central Texas. Figure skater Aimee Buchanan, whose spins and jumps helped Israel place 8th in the Team Event, first trained on the ice at the Dr. Pepper StarCenter in Euless.
And although ice dancer Gabriella Papadakis skated for France this year, her proud father Emmanuel lives in Austin, where he owns and operates a Greek food truck on Rainey Street. When Gabriella won a silver medal, Emmanuel gushed with pride: “It is phenomenal. It’s the highest honor we can get from our kids. I hope all of the parents experience something like that in their life.”
Still, perhaps the most unlikely Texas Olympic success lies within the Nigerian bobsled team. The first-ever African bobsled team was created at the University of Houston (UH) by track coach Seun Adigun. Seun had competed as a hurdler for Nigeria in the 2012 London Summer Olympics before she traded in her running shoes for something a little faster. In September 2016, she recruited two of her UH Cougar runners who had never even heard of bobsledding – including Ngozi Onwumere, who grew up in Mesquite and served as Nigeria’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony — to join her in the new venture. She picked up some wood at a local Home Depot to build her first sled just fifteen months before they would compete on the world stage.
The three UH Cougars finished just seven seconds behind the gold medalists, but their placement wasn’t the most important takeaway for Seun. She shared, “across the board we pretty much all agree that the biggest thing that we hope people take from this is that fear factor — that ability to conquer the fear of the unknown.”
Congratulations to all the phenomenal athletes who competed in the Winter Olympics, Texan or not. And to those competing in the Paralympics, including Texas’ own wheelchair curler Kirk Black of Lockhart, Nordic skier Andy Soule of Kerrville, and snowboarder Michael Spivey of Abilene: Good Luck!