By Brad Spencer
It seems several of Oak Park and River Forest's former Olympians have interesting side stories. Not since 1996 has an athlete from the area competed in the Summer Olympics. That will change in just a few months when wrestler Ellis Coleman takes to the mat in London.
OPRF High School graduate Dani Tyler, a product of River Forest, helped lead the U.S. Olympic softball team to a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, but it was a misstep a few games before when Tyler nearly became the target of an outpouring of sympathy.
With two outs in the fifth inning against Australia, she crushed a home run over the fence in straight-away center. It was surprising Tyler smashed that ball at all. She wasn't known for being a home run hitter, and it was the longest hit of her career. And Tyler failed to step on home plate after rounding the bases. The U.S. team ended up losing 2-1 in 10 innings.
But, thankfully, the misstep didn't get Bill Buckner bonehead status, since the team went on to finish 8-1 and win gold.
John Register had two strong legs when he graduated from OPRF High School in 1985 and went on to become a three-time All-American in track and field at the University of Arkansas. In 1994, he lost one of those legs in an accident. An outpouring of sympathy was on its way, but Register outswam and outran it, earning a spot on the U.S. Paralympic swim team in 1996. He went on to win silver in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney.
There have been other local Olympians. Rebecca Wilczak competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The 1998 OPRF grad tied the best finish by a U.S. female luger. At the time, her father had recently undergone a liver transplant. He was flown out to Salt Lake City on a private jet to see her final run.
In 2006 at the Torino, Italy Winter Games, Oak Park's Aaron Parchem, a 1995 graduate of OPRF, made history for being the first African-American male to represent the U.S. in Olympic figure skating.
There have been nine other Olympians from the area dating back to 1904, and soon Coleman will add his name to the distinguished list of athletes that have competed at the highest level on perhaps the largest stage.
So what's his story?
At 20 years old, Coleman will be the youngest wrestling competitor in London. He's overcome a great deal to get this far. His biological father and step-father have spent time in prison. He was raised by his mother, who gave birth to him as a teenager. His high school coach, Mike Powell, isn't shy about calling him a "ghetto kid who has battled his way out."
"Ellis has learned a lot through the discipline of wrestling," said Powell, who will head up a small Coleman entourage that will travel to London in July. "He's the toughest of any person I've ever met. It took a lot of personal development before he could focus on who he wanted to be as wrestler and as a person, and now he's there. He's a mature young man, and he deserves every bit of this."
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