East Tennessee is well represented at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  They join dozens of former Olympians with ties to the state.  For some of those athletes, the excitement of the games never gets old, even though they have not competed in years. Their Olympic experiences have shaped their careers, and their roles now as spectators.

UT Head Women’s Basketball Coach Holly Warlick and pole vaulting super-star Tim Mack had very different Olympic experiences.  As the 2012 games get under way, they know they are forever part of a world-wide community of elite athletes now shaping the future of their sports.

“So that’s why its important to be really focused and give as much as you can on every jump,” said Mack as he was working out Friday afternoon with post-collegiate pole vaulter Jennifer Clendenning.

Mack coaches pole vaulting; he knows how it feels to be a champion.

“I started focusing on making the team and then eventually got to the point where I was like, I’m going to focus on gold,” said Mack.

He was a member of the U.S. Track and Field team that competed in Athens, Greece in 2004.  He came home with a gold medal in pole vaulting, after he set a new Olympic record.

As the London games are set to begin, Mack said he understands how the athletes are feeling.

“You couldn’t think about the gravity of the situation, and the whole reason I did that is because I wanted to do the best I possibly could,” Mack explained.

Mack’s Olympic dreams took shape during his time pole vaulting for UT in the mid-1990s.  Now he trains athletes, like Clendenning and Lynda Cooper, to someday follow in his footsteps.  Clendenning moved to Knoxville from Virginia a month ago to work with Mack; Cooper moved to Knoxville from Alabama in 2010 for the same reason.

Both women said they have an Olympic dream.  Training with Mack inspires them to practice, work hard, and improve.  They also said they look forward to watching other athletes in the Olympic Games.

“I think about how hard they have to train,” said Cooper.

“The dedication they put in. How long they’ve been working, and watch technique,” are what Clendenning said she will be focused on as she watches Olympic pole vaulters on television over the next two weeks.

“They respect me, what I’m saying is more than they would if I hadn’t won gold,” said Mack about training the Olympic hopefuls.

Warlick gets respect too.  She was named to the 1980 women’s basketball team; she never set foot on the court  tough.  That was the year the United States boycotted the Moscow Games.

“When you think about competing in basketball, outside of winning a National Championship, that’s the ultimate goal, to win a gold medal at the Olympics,” Warlick said.

This year, Warlick is cheering for two former Lady Vols, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker, to bring home the gold.

“Those two make us extremely proud to be from Tennessee, to represent our country,” said Warlick.

There has been a Lady Vol on every Olympic women’s basketball team.  Former Head Coach Pat Summit won a silver medal as a player in the 1976 Olympics held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  She won a gold medal as the head coach of the women’s team in the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles, CA.

Warlick and Mack, both working with aspiring Olympians here at home, said the East Tennessee athletes in London aren’t far from their minds.

“I’ll be watching swimming. I’ll be watching all that stuff. It’s like family,” Mack said.

By Hillary Lake


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