Hurrah! Hurrah! NC athletes shine at Olympics

From the pool and track to the hardwood and range, the Old North State was front and center during the 2½-week Tokyo Games

Paul Chelimo of the United States celebrates with his national flag after winning bronze in the final of the men's 5,000-meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in Tokyo. (Dylan Martinez/Pool Photo via AP)

Athletes with ties to North Carolina accounted for 30 medals during the Tokyo Olympics, a haul that included seven gold, 14 silver and nine bronze. It’s a total that would have ranked 11th among the countries participating in the Games, ahead of Canada, Brazil, Korea and many other of the 90 nations that won medals over the past 2½ weeks.

Among those that helped the U.S. top the medals table with 113 (including 39 gold) were five that attended UNC, five from Duke, two each from NC State and NC A&T, and one from UNC Greensboro along with two from the NC Courage and one member of the Durham Bulls.

The real winners, however, were all the athletes that endured the coronavirus pandemic, a one-year postponement and the lack of family and fans in the stands to deliver unforgettable Games unlike any other before them.

Here are some of the local highlights.

United States’ Bam Adebayo (13) drives to the basket during men’s basketball gold medal game against France at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Saitama, Japan. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Golden gang

NC A&T sprinters Trevor Stewart and Randolph Ross in the men’s 4×400 relay; UNC’s Allisha Gray in women’s 3-on-3 basketball; Duke’s Jayson Tatum and High Point’s Bam Adebayo in men’s basketball, Duke’s Quinn in women’s soccer; and Duke’s Chelsea Gray in women’s basketball.

Silver linings

Holly Springs resident Andrew Capobianco in men’s 3-meter synchronized diving;

Claire Curzan, of the United States, swims in a heat for the women’s 100-meter butterfly at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

swimmer Erika Brown of Charlotte and Claire Curzan of Cary in the women’s 4 x 100 medley relay; Clayton’s Keni Harrison in the women’s 110-meter hurdles; BMX freestyle cyclists Daniel Dhers and Hannah Roberts of Holly Springs, NC State’s Lucas Kozeniesky in the team 10-meter air rifle; Duke’s Jessica Springsteen in equestrian team jumping; Cary’s Katie Zaferes and Morgan Pearson, who attended Duke for a year before transferring to Colorado, in mixed triathlon; UNC alums Ryder Ryan and Tim Federowicz, and Durham Bulls pitcher Shane Baz in baseball; and women’s 4 x 400 relay team member Javianne Oliver, who spent a year at UNC before transferring to Kentucky.

Bronze brigade

Stewart in the 4×400 mixed relay; Zaferes in women’s individual triathlon; Brown in the 4×100 freestyle relay; incoming NC State freshman Noe Ponti in the men’s 100-meter butterfly; UNC Greensboro’s Paul Chelimo in the men’s 5,000-meter run; Holly Springs resident Nikita Ducarroz in BMX freestyle cycling; women’s soccer team members Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis of the NC Courage, and Tobin Heath of UNC.

Coaching contributions

While coaches don’t get medals their players win, they do share in the title of Olympic champion. Two with ties to state schools earned that distinction in Tokyo. Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson led the women’s 3-on-3 basketball team to gold in the Olympic debut of the sport, while NC State volleyball coach Luka Slabe helped guide the U.S. women’s volleyball team to its first title with a 3-0 victory against Brazil on the final day of the Games.

Most inspirational performances

Cary resident Katie Zaferes transitions in the rain from the bike to the running leg of the women’s individual triathlon at the 2020 Summer Olympics (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Zaferes wasn’t just swimming, cycling and running for the U.S. in the women’s triathlon on Day 4 of the Games. She was also competing for her father, Bill, who introduced her to the sport when she was just 17 and who died suddenly in April. Inspired by a rainbow that appeared in the Tokyo sky early in the race, Zaferes went on to win a bronze medal in the individual triathlon, the first of two medals she’s bringing home to Cary.

“I saw the rainbow sometime on the bike and I just gave a little, ‘Hi dad,’” Zaferes said during a postrace interview. “I just felt like that was him. I definitely feel like he’d just be so happy.”

Six days later, Harrison authored an equally emotional story when she earned personal redemption with a silver medal in the women’s 110-meter hurdles.

Harrison, the world record-holder in the event, was favored to win gold five years earlier in Rio de Janeiro before finishing a disappointing sixth at the U.S. trials and failing to make the team. Given a second chance in Tokyo, she made the most of her opportunity by edging out Megan Tapper of Jamaica to the finish line behind gold medalist Jasmine Camacho-Quinn of Puerto Rico.

The mighty Quinn

Duke graduate Quinn battles Sweden’s Fridolina Rolfo for the ball during Friday’s Olympic women’s soccer final (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Duke alumnus Quinn, one of three openly transgender athletes to compete in Tokyo, was a member of the Canadian women’s soccer team that upset the U.S. before beating Sweden in the final. The former Blue Devils midfielder became the first transgender athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.

“That’s such a huge thing for me, just making sure kids know that they have a place in this sport,” Quinn said in an interview after the gold medal game. “Sports bring me so much joy, so hopefully I can pass that message along and be a role model for younger folks, seeing that they can be themselves and they can also have a place here and they can be Olympic champions. So I think that’s really exciting.”

Strength in numbers

Daniel Dhers of Holly Springs makes a jump on his way to a sliver medal in the men’s BMX Freestyle event at the Tokyo Olympics (AP Photo/Ben Curtis

By far the greatest concentration of medal winners with North Carolina ties came in the first-time Olympic sport of BMX freestyle.

No fewer than three medalists all trained at the same facility in Holly Springs. It’s a group that includes the owner of Dhers Action Sports Complex, a 37,000-square-foot indoor bike park designed by five-time X Games gold medalist Daniel Dhers.

Competing for Venezuela, the country of his birth, naturalized U.S. citizen Dhers won silver in Tokyo. In the women’s competition, fellow Holly Springs residents DuCarroz (representing Switzerland) and Roberts of the U.S. won silver and bronze, respectively.

Prelude to Paris

Andrew Capobianco competes in men’s diving 3-meter springboard final in Tokyo on Tuesday (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The world got a glimpse of several young stars who, after getting their first taste of Olympic competition in Tokyo, are poised for even bigger and better things at the Paris Games in 2024. It’s a group headlined by a pair of 17-year-olds, Curzan and Evy Leibfarth, along with diver Capobianco.

Curzan won a silver medal by swimming the butterfly leg in the semifinal of the 4×100 medley relay. But she has just scratched the surface of her abilities in the pool. With three more years of strength and experience, the Cardinal Gibbons High senior could easily be among the next wave of American swimming stars.

Bryson City’s Evy Leibfarth competes in the Women’s C1 semfinal of the Canoe Slalom at the Tokyo Olympics (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Leibfarth gave a glimpse of her bright future just a few weeks before leaving for Tokyo when she won the world junior championship in slalom kayak. Not only did she compete in that event at the Olympics, but she also represented the U.S. in slalom canoe, an event in which she contended for a medal until missing a gate in her final race.

Capobianco, meanwhile, won a silver medal in synchronized diving with mentor and former Indiana University teammate Michael Hixon. If he can build on the confidence gained from that accomplishment, he can become a team leader in his own right and a contender for individual gold in the next Olympics.