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Against All Odds: The Top 10 Most Inspiring Athletes of the 2012 Olympic Games

Lopez Lomong with South Sudanese children he is helping through his foundation.

Sure, I enjoy the competition, the sweat, and the motivation to get up off the couch and go for a run — but the stories are what truly make the Olympics special for me.

The tales of personal sacrifice, of obstacles overcome, of dreams achieved through not just great genetics but through hours of hard work.

When the media calls these stories “Cinderella stories,” I always find that a little off-putting. Cinderella, essentially, did nothing but luck into having a fairy godmother. Cinderella couldn’t even keep her shoes on, for God’s sake.

There was no fairy godmother for Lopez Lomong, who ran from captivity in Sudan at age six, although he did end up with some pretty terrific foster parents. There are no glass slippers for Sarah Robles, who at 23 is the highest-ranked weight lifter in America (male or female) but can’t get a sponsorship deal because, apparently, strong women aren’t sexy or something stupid like that. And Evelyn Stevens doesn’t need a gilded coach and white horses, thankyouverymuch. She traded her rat-race job as an investment banker for road races, becoming a competitive bike racer all of four years ago.

Hard work. Not letting anything stop you. Not letting people tell you, “you can’t do that.”

These are the stories to tell our children, don’t you think?

Take a look at these ten Olympic athletes from all over the world. In a field crowded with talent and impossible dedication, these men and women stand out as truly inspirational human beings.

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  • American cyclist Evelyn Stevens, 29 1 of 10
    American cyclist Evelyn Stevens, 29

    When Evelyn Stevens was a cubicle-bound investment banker, she bought herself a brand-new, high-tech bike. She hung her purses on it. Then in 2008, her sister Angela convinced her to enter an off-track bike race, and she won. Which was fun.

    Ms. Stevens attended her first bike racing clinic a few months after that, and started entering races. In 2009, she chucked her New York apartment and rat-race job and focused solely on training.

    "So often, people want to put people in boxes. Just try. If you fail, you can fail and fail and fail, and that's how you learn to get better," she told ESPN.

    Photo Credit: Steve Ryan
  • Korean archer Im Dong-hyun, 25 2 of 10
    Korean archer Im Dong-hyun, 25

    Im Dong-hyun is legally blind. His vision began going as a teenager, when he had already fallen in love with the sport. Although the yellow center of the target now looks like little more than a fuzzy blob to him, he has learned to "feel" each shot. By training his muscles to be incredibly consistent, Mr. Im has become one of the best archers in the world, says UK's The Telegraph. He has two Olympic gold medals from Athens and Beijing, and he's aiming for a third in London.

    Photo Credit: YouTube/ArcheryTV
  • American hurdler Lolo Jones, 29 3 of 10
    American hurdler Lolo Jones, 29

    Lori Jones, more commonly known as Lolo, didn't have it easy growing up. Her mother juggled multiple jobs, struggling to feed her six kids while their father was in and out of prison. At one point, the family lived in the basement of a Salvation Army. Ms. Jones told HBO Sports that she used to shoplift TV dinners to help feed her family. (She also famously told HBO Sports that maintaining her virginity at age 29 has been harder than graduating college or training for the Olympics.)

    Ms. Jones is now a media darling and a brand unto herself. Despite a disappointing 2008 games, and needing surgery a year ago to repair a tethered spinal cord (OMG, ouch) Ms. Jones qualified for the 2012 team and is gunning for gold.

    "It's all about fighting," Ms. Jones wrote in her blog, Run Lolo Run, and for me it is about climbing all the way back to the top."

    Photo Credit: Erik van Leeuwen
  • Sudanese-American runner Lopez Lomong, 27 4 of 10
    Sudanese-American runner Lopez Lomong, 27

    Lopez Lomong has been running for a long time. When he was a 6-year-old boy in Sudan, he was taken captive by rebel soldiers during a civil war. With the help of friends on the outside, he escaped and ran. He ran for three days and three nights to reach a refugee camp in Kenya.

    Mr. Lomong lived in the refugee camp for ten years, finally coming to the US as one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" at age 15. He became a US citizen in 2007, and has been able to bring his two younger brothers to the U.S. He has also set up a charity, 4 South Sudan, to help Sudanese children. You can find out more about his foundation at his website, lopezlomong.com.

    Photo Credit: Paul Merca
  • Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, 29 5 of 10
    Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, 29

    Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will be 34 weeks pregnant when she takes aim with her rifle at the London Olympics. She's hoping her baby can stop kicking for a little bit. Ms. Taibi, who is due to give birth to her first child on Sept. 2, says she is planning on returning to Malaysia right after her competition, skipping out on the closing ceremony, because the Malaysian airlines don't recommend air travel after the 35-week mark.

    She hopes that her participation in London will help boost the profile of the sport among Malaysian women, and defeat the stereotype that shooting is a man's sport, she told Reuters recently.

    Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports
  • South African runner Oscar Pistorius, 25 6 of 10
    South African runner Oscar Pistorius, 25

    Amid tons of controversy and criticism, Oscar Pistorius is about to create history as the first double amputee runner to compete in the able-bodied Olympic games.

    There are critics who say that Oscar Pistorius' carbon fiber blades, called Flex-Foot Cheetahs, give him an advantage over able-bodied runners. The 2008 South African Olympic Committee declined to give him a slot, citing safety concerns for other runners. After threatening legal action, Mr. Pistorius was allowed to participate in the Olympic trials, but narrowly missed making the team. For the 2012 games, he made the team because his personal best is a qualifying time, but in the world of Olympic running, it's not considered stellar.

    Do I care about any of the controversy? Nope. I just love to watch the man run. Mr. Pistorius, who was born without tibias, whose legs were amputated at the shins at 11 months, has the sheer will, audacity, and talent to make people wonder if disabled runners have an advantage over runners' with feet. If that's not in the Olympic spirit, I don't know what is.

    Photo Credit: Erik van Leeuwen
  • American boxer Queen Underwood, 28 7 of 10
    American boxer Queen Underwood, 28

    Queen Underwood started boxing at age 19, and it helped lift her out of a dark depression. She had been horrifically abused —physically, sexually, and emotionally — by her father for years. Boxing gave her a feeling of control over her own body, and helped remove the feelings of helplessness she had endured through the trauma.

    Now at age 28, Ms. Underwood is considered one of the USA's best hopes for winning a medal in women's boxing. (2012 marks the first time that women's boxing is even an event.)

    She's also starting a foundation called Living Out the Dream. Ms. Underwood, along with her sister Hazzauna, has become an outspoken advocate for victims of child and sexual abuse.

    "My whole motto is 'Can't stop, won't stop,' " Underwood told USA Today. "I'm looking forward to reaching out and being a mentor and an idol to everyone who has been through the same situation or maybe just has had a hard life."

    Photo Credit: YouTube/FoxSports
  • American weightlifter Sarah Robles, 23 8 of 10
    American weightlifter Sarah Robles, 23

    Sarah Robles, is not just the strongest woman in America, but has out-lifted every man and woman in the country to become the highest-ranked lifter in the country. Despite this, she lives in poverty because there's no endorsement deals for incredibly strong women, apparently. Incredibly, Ms. Robles also suffers from a congenital deformity of the wrists and forearms called Madelung's Deformity, which causes pain in her wrists.

    By the way, while sponsoring companies may find Ms. Robles' appearance "nontraditional," she is, in fact, rather traditionally feminine. When she's not training, her hobbies are "old lady activities like cross-stitching and crocheting" she writes in her blog, Pretty Strong.

    Photo Credit: thinkprogress.org
  • Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar, 17 9 of 10
    Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar, 17

    Seventeen-year-old Sarah Attar is one of two female athletes competing for Saudi Arabia. Ms. Attar, who has spent most of her life outside Saudi Arabia and speaks with an American accent, trains in San Diego. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to vote or drive, and cannot take a job or even be admitted to a hospital without permission from a male. While there are no specific written laws that prohibit women from participating in sports, there is no physical education for girls, and no women's-only hours at swimming pools, reports ESPN. Ms. Attar and the other Saudi woman competing, judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, were invited to participate by the International Olympic Committee based on the quality of their athletics, the IOC said.

    Ms. Attar hopes her appearance in the Olympic games will encourage other women to participate in sports. "We all have the potential to get out there and get moving," she said in an IOC video.

    The 2012 Olympics marks the first time in history that female athletes will be competing from every nation.

    Photo Credit: IOC Video
  • Palestinian runner Woroud Sawalha, 20 10 of 10
    Palestinian runner Woroud Sawalha, 20

    Although the United Nations doesn't recognize a Palestinian state, the International Olympics Committee has allowed athletes to compete under the Palestine flag since 1996. That political controversy aside, Ms. Sawalha aims to improve the image of women in sports in her country when she runs the 800 meter.

    "Maybe the view of girls will change from practicing sports in a more professional way and more freely in front of people," she told CNN recently.

    Ms. Sawalha, who runs in a black head scarf, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, doesn't even have a track to train on. She runs on a road full of pot holes, cars, and horses.

    Photo Credit: muslimheroes.org

(Photo Credit: Lopez Lomong Foundation)

Read more from Joslyn at Babble Pets and at her blog, stark. raving. mad. mommy. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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