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Best of the Midwest

Olympians and Paralympians

By Debbie Elliot

​​The Paris 2024 Summer Olympics take place from July 26 to Aug. 11, with various temporary venues hosting events. The venues — among others — include a beach volleyball stadium by the Eiffel Tower; a court at the famed Esplanade des Invalides for archery, athletics and cycling competitions; as well as surfing in the Tahitian village of Teahupo’o, which is part of France’s overseas territory of French Polynesia.

2024 marks the sixth time France has hosted the Olympics, with the last being the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. This year’s Summer Games will feature 329 events across 32 sports, with 10,500 athletes from 206 nations competing. Following the Summer Olympics is the 2024 Paris Summer Paralympic Games, which occur from Aug. 28 to Sept. 8 and will feature 4,400 athletes from 184 countries, who will be competing in 22 sports across 549 events. (After a 32-year absence, both the Summer Games and the Summer Paralympics return stateside in 2028 to Los Angeles.)

Team USA is sending over 500 athletes to Paris, making it one of the largest delegations at the Summer Games, and a number of those competitors hail from the Chicago area and the Midwest.

Masters Cycling_Photo Credit Getty.heic

Oksana Masters
Credit: Getty

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Evita Griskenas
Credit: USA Gymnastics/Ricardo Bufolin

Marco De La Rosa
Credit: Brittany Nelson

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Evan Medell
Credit: USA Taekwondo

Evita Griskenas, Rhythm Gymnastics

Evita Griskenas, 23, was born in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Illinois to athlete parents who had immigrated from Lithuania. While they didn’t pressure her to compete, “I guess the genetics just kicked in,” she said.  From Griskenas’ early years, she said that her dad helped her nurture a spiritual side and described her mother as being a model for having a “go-getter attitude.”
 

When she was four, Griskenas began rhythm gymnastics and by 13, she was already competing in the U.S. Rhythmic Championships. At the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics (held in 2021 because of the pandemic), Griskenas was the highest-placing rhythmic gymnast from Team USA, finishing 12th in the qualification round for the individual all-around.
 

While her parents and brother couldn’t attend the Tokyo Games, they’ll be present in Paris. “I get to finally share my craft with them in a way that I haven’t before, because they’ve always looked at it from this external perspective,” she said. “And now they will be a part of it.”
 

Given her parents’ devotion to family, Griskenas is particularly proud of her accomplishments. They came to America with few resources. “We were sleeping on mattresses they found in the garbage,” she recalled about her younger years.
 

Now she is living in New York while studying psychology at Columbia University, yet she has made time to train in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield and visit her family in Orland Park. Griskenas is set to graduate from college before heading to the Paris Olympics, and in her words, will be “going straight from the graduation ceremony to the airport, changing outfits and walking the stage.” 

Marco De La Rosa, Paralympic Shooting

Chicago native Marco De La Rosa attended Roosevelt High School before joining the Marine Corps at 18. While stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, De La Rosa attempted to stop a robbery outside of the base and was shot in the back, injuring nerves in his thoracic spinal cord and forcing him to retire from military service with paraplegia. “I should have been dead,” he said, explaining that if the bullet had been a .45 instead of a 9 mm, it could have been fatal. “In a way, I got lucky.”
 

De La Rosa was introduced to competitive shooting by way of the Paralyzed Veterans of America in 2014 and rapidly excelled at the sport, competing at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympic Games two years later. Injuries are a huge concern for all athletes, and De La Rosa admits that he’s put himself at risk in the past by overtraining. “I think the biggest thing for injury prevention for rifle shooters is the suits that we wear,” he explained. “We’re in astronaut suits, as everyone calls them. They’re super-weird looking but are made of really stiff canvas, and we wear them for injury prevention. It protects our backs, hips and joints since many of us stand in the same solid position for hours.”
 

Along with the proper training balance (he alternates daily between air and sporting pistols), nutrition is essential for De La Rosa. “I eat two hours [before I compete], and I try to stay away from caffeine and sugar,” he said. “So, it’s toast, a protein bar and a lot of water because you need it for your eyes when you’re focusing.” When he’s not competing, De La Rosa lives in San Antonio and volunteers with veterans facing similar challenges. 

Steve Serio, Parabasketball

Steve Serio, 36, has had paraplegia since he was a baby, when he underwent surgery to remove a tumor compressing his spinal cord. “Growing up, I didn’t have an athlete who I could look up to that looked like me, who had similar experiences to me,” he recalled.
 

Serio’s experiences made him determined to be a role model for young people facing similar challenges. He would have the opportunity to do that in sports and academia, gaining a full-ride athletic scholarship to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and graduating with a degree in kinesiology. “Our power as athletes is not just on the field of play,” Serio said. “It’s off of it to inspire the next generation of adaptive sports athletes.”
 

His first Paralympics were in Beijing in 2008. “I wanted to meet every athlete in the cafeteria and hear about their journey,” he said, admitting that he should have been more focused on winning. However, he noted, “It was a launchpad moment for me to be accepted in this community. To wear those three letters across my chest, there’s no greater honor as an athlete.”
 

Serio was on the gold medal-winning USA team for the Tokyo Games, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented athletes’ families from attending. He promises 2024 will be different. “Paris is going to be our coming out party,” he said. “It will be the opportunity for us to chase down our athletic endeavors alongside our support group of loved ones, friends and families in the stands for an experience we missed in Tokyo.” 

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Steve Serio
Credit: Olympus Sports Group

Oksana Masters, Paracycling

Multisport athlete Oksana Masters is one of the best-known Paralympians in the U.S., and for good reason. The Champaign, Illinois resident has competed in rowing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and cycling — the latter of the events is her selected sport at the Paris Paralympics, her seventh Games.
 

Masters was born in 1989 in Ukraine, three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. While in utero, Masters was exposed to radiation effects still lingering in the surrounding area of Chernobyl, which resulted in multiple physical disabilities after her birth. Ultimately, both legs were amputated, and she would undergo surgeries to treat her hands. Masters was also abandoned by her birth family and suffered terrible hardships in a Ukrainian orphanage before being adopted by an American woman, with both settling in Louisville, Kentucky. “I was a child who was forgotten in Ukraine,” she said.
 

As a teenager, Masters took to sports, excelling at para-rowing before qualifying in the event at the 2012 London Paralympics, where she won a bronze medal. After a back injury following London, Masters took up cycling to help with her physical recovery. The sport would subsequently become her newest passion, which culminated in her winning two gold medals in para-cycling at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
 

Despite her success, Masters has not forgotten her home country, donating her winnings from the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics — where she won two gold medals and a silver medal in biathlon events — to aid those impacted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Masters plans to do the same if she wins in Paris.
 

“It’s no longer just about me chasing a gold medal,” said Masters, who also is a co-founder of the nonprofit organization Sisters in Sports. “I left Ukraine with no voice, and I’m going into Paris as an athlete for Team USA, representing the Ukrainian people.”

Evan Medell, Para Taekwondo

Grand Haven, Michigan native Evan Medell has dominated para-taekwondo’s most competitive division — 75Kg K44 — ever since he took up the sport. He became the first-ever U.S. Paralympic taekwondo medalist by taking home bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Medell, who is diagnosed with brachial plexus palsy (a paralysis that affects the arm), considers taekwondo to be both “very grinding” and “fast-paced.”
 

“It’s an exciting sport, and anything can happen,” Medell added. 
 

Growing up, Medell idolized MMA fighters like Chuck Liddell and dreamed of becoming a kickboxer. “But I’m from a smaller town,” Medell said. “We only had one martial arts store, which happened to be taekwondo. So, I started there and began taking classes. I loved the open fighting and the problem-solving aspect. You build a community over time because all your friends are there.”
 

The 2020 Tokyo Games marked para-taekwondo’s Olympic debut, bringing extra challenges for the athletes. Heading into his second Olympics, Medell’s mission, in his words, is, “to win!” 

“Honestly, I felt like last time, I didn’t fight my best,” he recalled about Tokyo, adding that he fought two matches with a broken foot. “I didn’t reach my full potential of fighting. That’s my goal now. I know if I do that, I should win.”

Abby Tamer
Credit: USA Field Hockey/World Sport Pics

Abby Tamer, Field Hockey

For 20-year-old Abby Tamer, hockey is literally in her blood. Her mom, Keely — who is the president of USA Field Hockey’s Michigan chapter — and sister, Emma, played field hockey for the University of Michigan. Tamer’s dad, Chris, gravitated toward ice hockey in his youth, and likewise attended the University of Michigan before going on to a 12-year NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers. “We’re a very athletic family,” she said. “I think the competitive spirit of all of us brought me to where I am today, because we were always competing in everything, no matter what it was.”
 

Tamer followed in her family’s athletic footsteps at Michigan while studying exercise science, before making her U.S. team debut in June 2023. She now has 20 international caps (which are appearances in games) and scored the game-winning goal at the 2023 Pan American Games in Chile to secure a spot in her first Olympics.
 

The sport of field hockey dates to 2000 BCE, and the modern game was developed in British public schools in the 19th century. Although field hockey made its Olympic debut in London at the 1908 Summer Games, Tamer says that the sport still prompts confusion. “I’ll get a lot of people asking, ‘Oh, is that lacrosse?’,” she laughs. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s field hockey. Different sport.’ It’s a really fun sport, and in America, there’s a lot of opportunity — if you pick it up in high school — to play in the NCAA.”
 

Men’s field hockey is popular in Europe, “but in the U.S., there really is only a prominent women’s side,” Tamer noted. “I think just more people knowing about it and helping to grow the game would be perfect for the sport.”
 

She believes that success in Paris would undoubtedly benefit the sport long-term in addition to helping her fulfill her own athletic dreams. “I have wanted to go to the Olympics for so long,” she said. “It’s something that I try to work towards every day.” 

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