Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 12, 2010

Olympic-bound

Female athletes with Pleasanton connections -- a bobsledder and an alpine skiier -- head to Vancouver

by Janet Pelletier

The Olympics are the holy grail for aspiring athletes, a chance to represent their home country on the world stage. And among the millions around the world watching the games live and in person will be a Pleasanton grandmother and an Amador Valley High School math teacher.

Connie Duke, who's lived in the Tri-Valley for over a half century, says her granddaughter Hailey Duke "skied in the womb." Next week, Hailey will be competing in slalom skiing as part of a powerhouse team that includes Lindsey Vonn.

Connie Duke will travel with her son, Larry and daughter-in-law Jane to watch Hailey, who will compete in the slalom event Feb. 26.

Just the sight of her granddaughter's name in lights gets her emotional, as when Hailey qualified for the Olympics at the World Cup recently.

"When I saw her up in Aspen for the World Cup event, they had the big TV screen on one side and on the other side they had the names," Connie Duke said. "It said Hailey Duke from U.S.A. and I thought, my granddaughter is representing the United States. It brought tears to my eyes."

"Both of my parents were ski instructors in Sun Valley and I started when I was about 2 and I've been skiing ever since," Hailey Duke said by phone from Idaho as she prepared to leave for Vancouver.

"Just being able to play in the snow and be outside is what I love. You can't really replace the feeling you get when you ski," the 23-year-old said, adding that the best word to describe her feelings about going to the Olympics is "stoked."

Though she had skied all her life, Duke's first athletic passion was tae kwon do, as her father created programs in the university system in Boise. After getting her black belt, she realized skiing was her true calling. Several awards later, she moved to Park City, Utah, where she was selected to ski for the U.S. ski team, which took her all over Europe. The team spends six weeks each year training in Austria.

Amber Azevedo is also pumped for the Olympic Games, where her sister will try for a medal in women's bobsledding. Azevedo, who teaches geometry and intermediate algebra at Amador, has been for weeks telling her students, which she considers family, about her headline-making sibling.

"As soon as I found out, I sent an email to all my students," she said. "They were thrilled. I would show them little clips of my sister and they would think that they knew her, too."

Emily Azevedo's foray into bobsledding is an interesting story of drive meeting opportunity. The 26-year-old had graduated from UC Davis with a degree in exercise biology, where she held the 100-hurdle record and was captain of the track and field team.

"When she graduated, it happened to be an Olympic year that year and she saw a bobsled girl who had a track background," Amber Azevedo said. "So, she filed her times and information to the Olympic Training Center and they told her to come out and try out."

She's spent the past few months in Europe as part of Team USA, where she made the all-important call to her family.

"She called us from her last race in Switzerland and she was bawling and was so excited to tell us," Amber Azevedo said. "All of the drama and effort and pain that she'd been going through -- she was just relieved that it had been worth it."

"You can't beat it. It's something that goes unappreciated by a lot of us athletes that you're doing what you do, and sometimes you forget you're doing it for your country," Emily Azevedo said of her Olympic pursuit. "I can't even imagine what it's going to be like walking during opening ceremonies."

While bobsledding isn't for the faint of heart -- they go 90 miles per hour down a narrow, icy track -- Azevedo said she was able to get over the fear factor and now relishes in the adrenaline rush.

"It takes a while to get used to just figuring out what the pressure's like to each corner, each curve," she said while on a break at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego County. "But once I got to know each track, I got a better feeling of what was to come and it was less scary."

She'll be competing alongside partner Bree Schaaf Feb. 23. In women's bobsled, which officially entered the Olympics in 2002, it's a two-person team consisting of a driver and a brakeman. Men compete in both two- and four-person disciplines.

The Azevedos are originally from Chico, where Emily and Amber's parents live. Azevedo trains in Lake Placid, N.Y. and Denver, in addition to Southern California.

"My whole family is going to Vancouver," Amber Azevedo said. "A couple of my cousins are coming from Livermore. We've already made hats and talked about making shirts, so we're going all out."

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