South Florida has become a hotbed for athletes when it comes to training for the Olympics.READ MORE: 3 Million Pounds Of Dead Fish Cleaned Up Off Pinellas County In Red Tide Fish Kill
The ideal training ground for athletes, many from local high schools and colleges, has produced 54 (29 men and 25 women) Olympians and medal hopefuls for the Aug. 5-21 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
A combination of weather, facilities, coaching, history and sponsors has made South Florida a major player on the Olympic stage.
The lure of earning a college scholarship while training for an Olympic berth is another contributing factor.
From Miami Northwestern to Western High School, fifteen 2016 Olympians attended and competed at local high schools including track star Brianna Rollins of Miami Northwestern and beach volleyball player Nick Lucena of Western, both first-timers in the Summer Games.
Ten other Olympians are current or former collegiate athletes from University of Miami and Florida International University including Canadian pole vaulter Alysha Newman of University of Miami.
Twenty-nine other Olympians are training full-time in South Florida while working part or full-time jobs including Pine Crest jumps coaches Aubrey Smith of Jamaica and Fabian Florant of the Netherlands.
The veteran of the group is four-time Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson, a Flanagan alum, who made her Olympic debut at 15 and is a medal favorite.
“You don’t have to look very far for role models or world-class athletes,” Atkinson said. “This is the greatest place in the world to train and compete. This is paradise for an athlete.”
“The opportunity in this country is so much greater than anywhere else,” Atkinson said. “I started when I was 11 and just worked myself up to the Olympics. My path to the Olympics started here in South Florida.”
Foreign athletes, many of them competing in high schools, have also made a great impact in the South Florida amateur sports scene.
“Most people believe that the education and opportunities that are here are better than in their home country,” Pine Crest veteran swim coach Jay Fitzgerald said.
“What makes the United States…South Florida great is that we accept everyone and try to give everyone an equal chance,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s what the American Dream is all about.”
St. Thomas Aquinas alum and recently-retired track star Sanya Richards-Ross will make her Olympic debut for NBC Sports during its track and field coverage. She will be joined by veteran commentator Ato Boldon, coach of another St. Thomas alum, Khalifa St. Fort, who will compete for Trinidad and Tobago at age 18.
It will be the first time the Olympics will be held in South America at a cost of $7.4 billion. Approximately 10,500 athletes from 206 countries are expected to compete for 306 medals over 17 days. The Games will feature 136 women’s medal events, 161 men’s events and nine mixed events.
Rugby and golf are the two new sports added to this summer’s Games. The last time golf was included was 112 years ago. Rugby was last included in 1924 and the U.S. won gold that year.
The only sports that have been included in every Summer Olympics are swimming, track and field, cycling, fencing and gymnastics.
Nine different venues will comprise Olympic Park, seven of which will be maintained after the Games. The most popular tickets sold have been soccer, basketball, volleyball, swimming and handball.READ MORE: ‘This Is Our Fight’: From Miami To Hialeah, Crowds Gather To Support Cuba
While Rio Olympics publicity has focused on raw sewage, dirty water, Zika virus, political unrest and building delays, the Games’ main focus will always be the athletes, including South Florida’s large contingent.
SOUTH FLORIDA OLYMPIANS
Athlete, High School, College or Resides/Country
Sylvia Fowles, Edison/Gulliver Prep, USA
Nick Lucena, Western, USA
Randy Ableman, University of Miami, USA coach
Sam Dorman, University of Miami, USA
Marcela Maric, University of Miami, Croatia
Allison Brock, Loxahatchee, USA
Kent Farrington, Wellington, USA
Shelly Francis, Loxahatchee, USA
Laura Kraut, Royal Palm Beach, USA
FOOT VOLLEY (Demonstration sport)
Sergio Menezes, Miami, USA
Melony Poviones, Miami Lakes, USA
Lucas Roque, Deerfield Beach, USA
Lexi Thompson, Coral Springs, USA
Danell Leyva, Miami, USA
Foluke Akinradewo, St. Thomas Aquinas, USA
Angelica Delgado, Miami, USA
Nick Delpopolo, Davie, USA
Jose Rodriguez, St. Thomas Aquinas, USA Judo Executive Director
Robin Prendes, Miami, USA
Dave Hughes, Miami, USA
Pedro Pascual, Boca Raton, USA
Catalina Perez, University of Miami, Colombia
Marcelo Acosta, Azura Aquatics, El Salvador
Gianluca Alberani, Azura Aquatics, El Salvador, coach
Chris Anderson, South Florida Aquatic Club, Jamaica coach
Heather Arseth, University of Miami, Mauritius
Alia Atkinson, Flanagan, Jamaica
Dylan Carter, Plantation American Heritage, Trinidad & Tobago
Randy Horner, Florida International, Botswana, coach
Jorge Murillo-Valdes, South Florida Aquatic Club, Colombia
Jhonny Perez, Azura Florida Aquatics, Dominican Republic
Naomi Ruele, Florida International, Botswana
Jay Thomas, Plantation, USA Swimming official
Renzo Tjon-A-Joe, Westlake Prep, Surinam
David Van Der Colff, Nova Southeastern, Botswana
Timothy Wynter, South Florida Aquatic Club, Jamaica
Madison Keys, Boca Raton, USA
Sloane Stephens, Coral Springs, USA
Serena and Venus Williams, Palm Beach Gardens, USA
TRACK AND FIELD
Murielle Ahoure, University of Miami, Ivory Coast
Kali Davis-White, Boyd Anderson, Jamaica
Fabian Florant, Pine Crest, The Netherlands
Ronald Forbes, Miami, Cayman Islands
Tahesia Harrigan-Scott, Miami, British Virgin Islands
Antwon Hicks, Miami, Nigeria
Jeff Julmis, Miami, Haiti
Alysha Newman, University of Miami, Canada
Brianna Rollins, Miami Northwestern, USA
Joey Scott, Belen Jesuit, coach
Khalifa St. Fort, St. Thomas Aquinas, Trindad & Tobago
Aubrey Smith, Pine Crest, Florida International University, Jamaica
Arman (Geno) Williams, St. Thomas Aquinas, Florida, USA
Ashleigh Johnson, Miami Ransom Everglades, USA