It is more than 4,000 miles from Cullowhee, USA to London, England, host city for the 2012 Summer Olympics – or about 6,575 kilometers, as our friends on the other side of the pond would put it. But that daunting distance has not dissuaded a select few members of the Western Carolina University family from dreaming Olympic dreams. Among them are world-class athletes who have experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, a sports physiologist advising competitors in their strength and conditioning, and a May graduate who will help broadcast the games to viewers back in the United States.

Try Try Again
At age 38, David Hepp ’98 had a full life even before he attempted an athletic comeback that some might describe as quixotic and others as admirable. Once a world-class paddler, Hepp retired from competition in 2004. He and partner Scott McCleskey of Sylva missed making the U.S. Olympic team in two-man canoe by a single spot in both 2000 and 2004. Frustrated with those near-misses and that even the best whitewater paddlers in the U.S. make hardly any money, Hepp “quit with a vengeance,” as he said.

David Hepp ’98 decided on another shot at competition. Photo by Todd Sumlin, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

In 2006, Hepp moved to Charlotte with his wife and three daughters to help run the U.S. National Whitewater Center, where every day he saw paddlers training for a shot at the Olympics just like he once did. The lure of the water – and of the thrill of competition, and of those five Olympic rings he never quite got to try on – eventually became too great. Hepp is starting over one last time in the sport, trying to make a comeback and finally earn the U.S. Olympic spot that eluded him.

“It’s actually a lot more fun this time around,” said Hepp, before competing at a U.S. Olympic Trials event this spring with McCleskey. “We don’t have the pressure. We’re not supposed to win.”

Hepp thought he was done with competitive paddling when he moved his family from Western North Carolina to take the whitewater center job. But Hepp still would get in the water for recreational paddling, and he remained very good. Then in 2011, Hepp and McCleskey reunited to try out a new course setup in Charlotte for race organizers. “For not being in the water for seven or eight years together, we were not bad,” Hepp said.

McCleskey, 33, didn’t need much convincing to return for another run. “To have someone as good as Hepp in the boat with me, it’s just insane,” he said. In October, on the Nantahala River in Western North Carolina, Hepp and McCleskey sprung an upset over several higher-profile teams and won the U.S. national championship for 2011. Then at the event in April, they earned the chance to compete at the World Cup in June for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Whether they make it, Hepp has been surprised at how much he loves the “pit-of-your-stomach” nervousness that comes with competition.

“I had missed that feeling,” said Hepp. “I wanted it one more time.”

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Charlotte Observer.

Gold Standard
Flying home from Istanbul, Turkey, Manteo Mitchell ’09 cradled the gold medal he’d helped the United States’ 4×400 relay team win in March at the IAAF World Indoor Championships. The former Western Carolina sprinter looked at the shiny prize. He pinched himself. He had someone else pinch him. But somehow, nothing quite made it feel real. Perhaps that’s because it took three years after completing his college career to get where he is today. Or maybe it had something to do with how close he came to having the gold medal taken away.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Mitchell said after arriving back at WCU, where he’s training and serving as a graduate assistant for the Catamounts’ track team while completing his master’s degree. “I’ve worked so hard,” he added, his voice cracking a bit, “and it’s finally coming together now.”

In the gold-medal race, the U.S. trailed the team representing Great Britain and Northern Ireland when Mitchell got the baton for the third leg and found himself chasing a familiar foe: former Wake Forest standout Michael Bingham. “He always beat me (in college),” Mitchell recalled. “I’d always run his race and not mine.”

But immediately after taking the exchange from teammate Calvin Smith, Mitchell started closing the gap with his old rival. Heading toward the final turn, he made his move to the outside of Bingham. “I feel like I’m the strongest guy in the world over the last 100 meters, and with 50 meters to go, I was going to run beside him,” Mitchell recalled. “But I felt the energy from the crowd, and that pushed me past him.”

Team USA Coach John Moon said he timed Mitchell’s split at 45.6 – fastest among the Americans. “He’s the one that busted the race open,” Moon said. “He’s the one who put it away.” Gil Roberts took the baton from Mitchell and held the lead to the finish line, and the team celebrated its title with a victory lap.

Danny Williamson ’84 MAEd ’86, Mitchell’s coach at WCU, said the world championship is a tremendous honor for Mitchell and his teammates. “It’s great that they were able to go accomplish that because they are basically a new group of guys. For them to be able to go and continue the strong tradition the U.S. has had in that particular relay just speaks volumes about them and their abilities,” Williamson said.

Besides achieving a lifelong dream of representing the United States and winning a gold medal, Mitchell’s found more doors opening for him. More than one lucrative sponsorship offer is on the table, and he hopes to soon sign with an agent to help him make the best professional decisions going forward. He’s qualified to run the 400 meters at the Olympic trials this summer, and there’s also a chance at making the relay team for the London Olympics.

“Nothing is set in stone,” he said. “But my chances (for making the Olympics) are very good now. They know who this Manteo kid is now.”

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Live From London
The first live television broadcast Jarrett Frazier ’12 was involved in happened when he was an elementary school student and his parents, Tom Frazier ’79 and Vickey Frazier ’75, were volunteering in the concession stand during basketball games at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva. While his parents were selling drinks and snacks to the fans, the younger Frazier was upstairs in the school gym shooting game footage for the school’s coaches. Realizing that the fans and concession workers a floor below were missing out on the action, father and son installed a cable to connect the courtside camera to a monitor in the concession area, allowing everybody there to keep up with the games.

Jarrett Frazier ’12, in a WCU television studio, will use skills he learned as general manager of WCU’s TV62 to help broadcast the Olympic Games to the nation.

Jarrett Frazier has added a considerable amount of TV broadcast experience to his resume since then, and he’ll be padding it even more this summer as he works on the production team for NBC during broadcast of the Summer Olympics from London. In mid-July, two months after receiving his communication degree at WCU, Frazier will depart for London to work as an ingest assistant for the network. “I’ll be in an area where broadcast feeds from every Olympics venue are coming in and I’ll help make sure all the events are being recorded on schedule,” Frazier said. He’ll be on duty at a computer for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for four weeks. Frazier’s mentor and teacher at WCU, assistant professor of communication Gabe Nucci, will be working his fifth Olympics for NBC and helped Frazier get the job in London. Nucci said Frazier’s work will involve “long periods of boredom interspersed with periods of abject terror” but that he has “the focus and the ability to do the job right.” On the other side of the coin, Frazier will be living in a four-star London hotel and grazing at the NBC commissary just down the hall. “He might come back home five pounds heavier,” Nucci said.

Darryl Jefferson, director of post-production operations for NBC, said Frazier will be working alongside two veterans in TV production. “It’s just an awesome experience working at the Olympic Games,” he said. “Jarrett is going to have a great time learning from two guys who’ve seen a lot.”

Tom Frazier, director of print and mail services at WCU, said his son has had “a camera in his hands most of his life.” Jarrett Frazier graduated from Smoky Mountain in 2008 and enrolled at WCU, concentrating his studies in broadcasting and journalism. He joined the Honors College beginning with his second semester and worked as a photographer in WCU’s Public Relations Office during his four years as a student. The younger Frazier said his career interests shifted from still photography to live television production during his senior year at WCU as he served as station manager for the student-run media service, TV62, and as he has been involved in several campus video projects, including shooting the installation of Chancellor David O. Belcher. “Live TV production is what I love to do,” he said. “You do it and it’s done. There’s no going back to change it. I like the rush of making something happen when you’ve got one shot at it.”

Frazier said he’s hoping the professional connections he makes in London will translate to further work in the TV broadcasting arena. “I know I’ll have to work my way up,” he said. “I’m prepared to take my chances wherever they come up.” Nucci said Frazier is “one of the stars” of WCU’s broadcasting program. “He knows what he wants and he’s going to pursue it. He’s doing all the right things,” Nucci said.

Tom Frazier said he believes the extensive practical experience in broadcasting that his son has accumulated at WCU will serve him well in London. “I don’t think he’ll have a problem,” he said. “My advice would be to enjoy it, work hard and stay busy.”

Body of Work
When Elana Meyers, a bronze medal-winning bobsledder at the 2010 Winter Olympics, met the man who was to become her new performance coach, Brad DeWeese ’97 MHS ’03, the first thought that came to her mind was, “This man is skinny!” A month later, in May 2011, the less-than-burly DeWeese began his new job at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he directs the physical preparation of Meyers and other current and up-and-coming Olympic athletes. “He definitely doesn’t look like your typical strength and conditioning coach, but after talking to him I knew he was legit,” Meyers said of that first meeting. “He knows his stuff.”

Strength and conditioning coach Brad DeWeese ’97 MHS ’03 (right) works with Olympic athletes including gold medal bobsledder Steve Holcomb.

While some boys dream of becoming astronauts or firemen, DeWeese has always wanted to be a coach. “I guess we can blame that on my family,” said DeWeese, whose father coached a variety of levels in baseball, from Babe Ruth League to semi-professional, and who has an uncle and aunt who coached at the high-school level. A native of Asheville, DeWeese graduated from T.C. Roberson High School in 1993 and enrolled at WCU as a sport management major. He got his bachelor’s degree and immediately began work on a master’s in nutrition and dietetics. “Even though I initially wanted to coach baseball, while I was a student at WCU I found that my interests were more in line with strength and conditioning and maximizing human development,” he said. “I’ll always be thankful to David Jolly, a former strength and conditioning coach at WCU, for giving me a chance to begin honing my skills as a graduate assistant coach on his staff.”

DeWeese went to work at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 2001. He was serving as UNCA’s director of exercise and sport science, and head strength and conditioning coach, when he got the nod to join the staff at the Olympic Training Center as head sports physiologist for the winter division. DeWeese already had been regularly rubbing elbows with Olympic-level athletes while serving for a year as strength and conditioning coach for the national canoe and kayak slalom team, which is based in Charlotte.

Now living at Lake Placid with his wife, Jenny Lind Warfford DeWeese ’00 MAEd ’06, and their two young daughters, Addalyn Grace and Brinley Rose, DeWeese works with more than 50 athletes training to compete in bobsled, skeleton, luge, freestyle skiing, biathlon or canoe/kayak. He also supervises the training center’s sport science/athlete monitoring department, where modern technology is used to ensure the athletes are responding positively to their training programs. Another aspect of his work is assisting in coaching education programs for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

DeWeese, who recently received his doctoral degree in elite athletic development and training theory from North Carolina State University, recalls watching the 2010 Winter Olympics on television as Steve Holcomb led a team of Americans to the gold medal in the four-man bobsled. Working in his self-described “dream job,” DeWeese now oversees the physical training for Holcomb, current world champion in three divisions of bobsled racing. He also works with about a dozen other athletes ranked in the top 10 in the world in their respective sports, including Scott Parsons, who will be competing in slalom kayak at the Summer Olympics in London. “What makes my job special is the simple fact that I’m surrounded by excellence,” DeWeese said. “Every athlete who resides at the OTC is extremely motivated and sacrifices a great deal to represent this great country. Even more, these people are not only genetically gifted athletes, but have high levels of character. You would be hard-pressed to find a nicer group of athletes.”

Meyers said DeWeese has helped her attain a higher level of athletic performance, but his influence extends beyond physical development. “He’s made me a better athlete and a better person,” she said. “Here I thought I was just getting a coach to make me stronger, but I got a coach who makes me better inside and out every day. Brad’s passion makes him good at his job. I couldn’t imagine training for the Olympics without him on my team.”