Thankfully the Summer Olympics only occur once every four years. I am entranced by the athletic prowess and the back stories of notable participants.
The ongoing Rio Olympic Games have been no exception. The NBC coverage is almost addictive. Since the Aug. 5 opening ceremonies, I have turned off my TV for only a few hours nightly to sleep.
Two athletes who have caught my eye were both born in Ohio, experienced challenging childhoods, and found stability via adoption.
Gymnast Simone Biles was born in Columbus, while another touted Ohio Olympian is rugby star and Akron native Carlin Isles, known as “the fastest rugby player in the world.”
Ohio has a contingent of 18 athletes in Rio, who either reside in the state or are natives, according to USA Today. Locally, Dublin native, former Buckeye walk-on and now New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner joins Isles on the men’s Olympic rugby team, in addition to central Ohioan and Olympic diver Abby Johnston from Upper Arlington.
Two Cleveland-area fencers include Lee Kiefer and Jason Pryor, and Elyria-native track and field participant Tianna Bartoletta is being joined by her Ohio teammates, Amber Campbell from Cincinnati, Emily Infeld of University Heights, Clayton Murphy from New Paris and Erick Kynard of Toledo.
Many of these athletes have adoring parents seated in the Olympic venues, who have spent countless years shuttling their offspring to team practices, and receive acknowledgement from NBC commentators. Less noted are those athletes who have risen above adversity and overcome insurmountable odds to achieve glory. I always find these “underdogs” the more intriguing story line.
Biles was touted long before her Rio arrival as “the greatest gymnast of all time.”
Biles is a four-time U.S. National All-Round Champion and three-time World All-Round Champion. She also is the first African-American woman world champion, the first female gymnast to win three consecutive world championships, and is the most decorated American female gymnast in history with 14 total medals, 10 of them gold. Biles has accomplished all of this at age 19.
Despite her athletic talent, Biles’ persona on camera has an aloof, melancholy intensity that is unlike her bubbly, ever-smiling teammates.
Biles experienced hardship during her early life in nearby Columbus. She was born to a single mother, Shannon Biles, who reportedly battled alcohol and drug addiction and was unable to care for Simone and her three siblings.
After spending time in foster care, 3-year-old Simone and her younger sister began living in 2000 with Shannon’s father and his wife, Ronald and Nellie Biles, in Houston. The couple adopted the two girls in 2001, while the older two children resided with Ronald’s sister.
Biles’ extraordinary abilities should make all Buckeyes proud, especially after overcoming a problematic childhood.
A parallel story belongs to Olympian Carlin Isles. Born to a single mother, Isles and his twin sister, Tambra, were taken into protective custody and spent time in multiple foster homes.
Isles recounted in an Aug. 10 interview with Cleveland’s WKYC-Channel 3 of his early life: “running away, struggling in school, not celebrating birthdays, eating dog food when hungry, and having to fight off other kids to protect his sister.”
Isles and his sister finally gained stability when Starlett and Charles Isles adopted Carlin and Tambra at age 7, and moved them to Massillon. While at Jackson High School, Carlin became a track star, where many of his school track records remain unbroken.
Carlin attended Ashland University on a football scholarship. After walking away from preparation for the 2012 London Olympics as a track star, he was motivated by Miles Craigwell to try rugby, where he immediately became a known force on the U.S. national team.
During the WKYC interview, Carlin said: “The main thing was, I wanted to show people, it doesn’t matter where you come from, how much money you have, how many moms and dads you have. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Even though I know little about rugby, Isles’ story should be an inspiration to everyone and is just one of many reasons why the Olympics are worth watching.
Biles and Isles both exemplify the possibility that life does offer second chances.
Mariann Main is a Delaware native and undergraduate journalism major of Ohio State University. She has a master’s degree in community counseling from Georgia State University. She can be contacted via MariannMain@gmail.com