Cooper honors North Carolina Olympians and Paralympians

More than 50 athletes with ties to the Old North State competed in Tokyo, with many more representing their country at the equally prestigious Paralympics

Gov. Roy Cooper hosted a group of North Carolina Olympians and Paralympians at a ceremony in Raleigh on Tuesday (From left: Quanera Hayes, Emma Schieck, Hannah Aspden, Ashley Twitchell, David Kendziera, Perris Benegas, Gabbi Cunningham, Hanna Roberts and Tim Federowicz. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — If North Carolina was a country, its haul of 30 medals at this summer’s Olympics would have ranked 11th, ahead of Canada, Brazil, Korea and many other of the 90 nations that were represented at the Games.

In all, more than 50 athletes with ties to the Old North State competed in Tokyo, with many more representing their country at the equally prestigious Paralympics.

Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper hosted nine of those athletes and their families on the grounds of the Executive Mansion in Raleigh for a ceremony honoring North Carolina’s Olympic and Paralympic contingent.

“The purpose of this event was to recognize them for their outstanding achievement and let them know how proud we are of them here in North Carolina,” Cooper said. “I’ve grown up loving sports, loving to play sports and loving to watch sports, and to get to be among the best in your field like these athletes have done is a remarkable achievement.

“When you think about the dedication, the determination, the discipline, the pain and the never-give-up effort these athletes have had to undergo to be the best in the world is an amazing thing. I know they have been and will continue to be successes in other parts of their lives.”

Among the athletes attending the event were Paralympic gold medalists Hannah Aspden of Raleigh and Queens University (swimming) and Emma Schieck of Statesville and UNC (sitting volleyball), and Olympic silver medalists Hannah Roberts of Holly Springs (BMX freestyle) and Tim Federowicz of Chapel Hill and UNC (baseball).

The others were BMX freestyle cyclist Perris Benegas of Wilmington, sprinter Gabbi Cunningham of Charlotte and NC State, hurdler Quanera Hayes of Hope Mills and Livingstone College, hurdler David Kendziera of Chapel Hill and UNC, and open water swimmer Ashley Twitchell of Cary and Duke.

Gold medal sprinter Randolph Ross of NC A&T was also scheduled to attend.

“That hometown support is like no other support that you get anywhere else,” said Hayes, one of three American runners to qualify for the finals of the women’s 400-meter hurdles. “So it’s near and dear to my heart to come here and be recognized by the governor. It’s unreal to know he watched us compete and that he’s super proud of us.”

Unlike the Olympics, which were held in a quarantined bubble because of COVID-19, Tuesday’s event allowed the athletes’ families to share their excitement surrounded by family members.

“When you get home that high kind of ends and you’re like, ‘OK, what do I do next?’” Kendziera said. “Being here brings back some of that and allows our families to be part of it as well.” 

For Aspden, the recognition of being honored by her home state was especially meaningful since the accomplishments of Paralympians don’t always get the exposure they deserve. The 21-year old, who was born with a congenital hip disarticulation and has no left leg, won two golds this summer, in the 100-meter backstroke and as a member of the U.S. 4×100 medley relay team.

“This is a huge honor,” Aspden said, one of her medals draped proudly around her neck. “It’s an amazing feeling getting to meet (Cooper) and be here on the same platform alongside these amazing Olympic athletes because Paralympic athletes are just the same. We all have our unique challenges, whether we’re able-bodied or have a disability, so being here is a giant step forward not only for me, but for Paralympic athletes everywhere.”