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Wisconsin has produced more than 400 Olympians

Just in time for the XXXI Olympiad, Milwaukee sportscaster and author Jessie Garcia has released her third book, Going for Wisconsin Gold: Stories of Our State Olympians.

Since pioneering Wisconsin hurdler Alvin Kraenzlein won four gold medals in 1900,Wisconsin has produced more than 400 Olympic athletes. They’ve competed in weightlifting, track, sailing, gymnastics, hockey, curling and of course, speedskating.

In 2014 alone, more than 35 of the 250 U.S. Olympic competitors had Badger connections.

Garcia’s book covers all of the state’s Olympians up to the 2014 Winter Games. In addition to photos from some of the athletes’ private collections, Garcia features 22 in-depth profiles of Badger Olympians. She chronicles their sacrifices, joys, pains and heartbreaks.

“It’s really important to me to not have this whole book be ‘U-rah-rah, look at all the medals we won,’” Garcia says. “This was really a story of real human beings. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. But that’s reality.”

Included in the book are the stories of weightlifter Oscar Osthoff, trailblazing runner George Coleman Poage, Jesse-Owens relay-mate Ralph Metcalfe, sailor Buddy Melges, hockey star Karyn Bye, skeleton racer Matt Antoine, and speed skaters Dan Jansen, Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair and Casey FitzRandolph.

As a journalist, Garcia has been covering athletics since 1992. She recently left WTMJ-TV to teach journalism at UWM. The Madison native was one of the first women in the nation to host an NFL coach’s show and she served as the Green Bay Packers’ sideline reporter. She’s also the author of My Life with the Green & Gold: Tales from 20 Years of Sportscasting.

The summer games take place in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5-21. Among Wisconsin participants are Greco-Roman wrestler Ben Provisor, a native of Stevens Point, and triathlete Gwen Jorgensen from Waukesha.

“She has a really good chance,” Garcia says. “I would really be watching out for Gwen Jorgenson.”

Stevens Point native Garrett Weber-Gale, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world record-holder in two events, is not expected in Rio this year. At the 2008 games in Beijing, he was part of the U.S. relay team that delivered a major upset to the French. His teammates included Michael Phelps, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak.

Garcia will appear with Wisconsin Olympians and their families at several upcoming events.

Ben Provisor
April 22, 2012; Iowa City, IA, USA; Ben Provisor (red) defends against Aaron Sieracki (blue) during the 63kg finals freestyle match at Carver Hawkeye Arena. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

WiG: Readers may be surprised to learn from your book how much the modern Olympics have changed since their founding in 1896.

One thing I wanted to do was to tell that story, as well as those of Wisconsinites; how the Olympics began, about the early years, and also little details. When were the first medals? When was the first Olympic village? The early Olympics were combined with world’s fairs. Some Olympic athletes didn’t even know they were competing in the Olympics, because they were so spread out or so haphazard!

Your book shares stories about fantastic wins — but also fantastic losses.

I did not want every chapter to be about somebody winning a gold medal. There are plenty of chapters about people who won nothing. They went to the Olympics and competed, and for whatever reason it just didn’t work out for them. One, for instance, said it was the worst race he’d ever run. Terrible weather and there was pouring rain that day. Some of the stories were just really, really interesting: A guy on a curling team whose kidney was failing. He had to get a transplant as soon as he got home.

You also share stories about what happens after the Games.

Yes. The limelight goes off and you are left with the rest of your life. I didn’t even really realize this until I started talking to Olympians — how difficult that is from a physical and a mental standpoint. You’re used to using your body so much, and it changes you physiologically, even chemically. There are some bigger issues here. Some were very honest about depression, anxiety, transitioning to life afterward. It’s not easy. A lot of them forego part or all of college to focus on their sport. So when they’re done, they’re however-many years behind their peers in the workforce.  Suddenly you need to get a job. Most Olympic athletes are not going to be superstars on the covers of Wheaties boxes.

Besides physical prowess, have Olympians changed over decades?

The athletes themselves, they’re really more similar than not. In learning about their stories — I was especially interested in the early Olympians and trying to dig up the details of their stories — to have these characters come off the page and become alive was so fascinating. Really, they’re the same people that we are today, with hopes and desires and successes and shattered desires. They’re people striving for greatness.

Wisconsin ties to the 2016 Olympics 

State Residents Representing the U.S.:
Annie Haeger (East Troy) SAILING
Gwen Jorgensen (Waukesha, UW) TRIATHLON
Ben Provisor (Stevens Point) WRESTLING
Michael McPhail (UW-Oshkosh) SHOOTING
Jimmy Butler (Marquette) BASKETBALL
Jesse Thielke (UW) WRESTLING
Cierra Runge (UW incoming) SWIMMING
Kelsey Card (UW) DISCUS
Zach Ziemek (UW) DECATHLON
Grace Latz (UW) ROWING
Megan Kalmoe (St. Croix Falls) ROWING
Beezie Madden (Milwaukee) EQUESTRIAN
Alev Kelter (UW-Eagle River) RUGBY

Jessie Garcia’s upcoming
appearances include:

Jessie Garcia
Going for Wisconsin Gold: Stories of Our State Olympians, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, is $19.95, paperback. An e-book edition is also available.

Aug. 2, 7 p.m. Madison Central Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., presents “An Olympic Evening with Jessie Garcia,” as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. The author will lead Wisconsin Olympians in a discussion about the Games and life afterward.

Athletes scheduled to appear include speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Casey FitzRandolph, Gold Medal sailor Buddy Melges and curler Mike Peplinski. Family members of other Wisconsin Olympians also will be on hand, including relatives of 1900 track star Alvin Kraenzlein, 1904 weightlifter Oscar Osthoff and 2014 skeleton racer Matt Antoine. A book signing will follow.

Aug. 4, 6:30 p.m. The Pewaukee Public Library, 210 Main St., hosts Garcia. She will give a book talk followed by a signing.

Aug. 10, 6:30 p.m. Village Center/Shorewood Public Library, 3920 N. Murray Ave., offers a program featuring Garcia and stories from Susanna Tvede, granddaughter of Wisconsin’s first Olympian — Milwaukee’s Alvin Kraenzlein. He won four gold medals in the 1900 Olympics and pioneered the modern hurdles. A book signing will be held afterward. The event is co-hosted by Boswell Books.

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