MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll close out today's "Against the Odds" show with a woman who's been defying the odds her entire life. After graduating from American University, Anne Abernathy became a professional singer and performed all over the country. Then, she moved over to sports. And now, when many people her age are thinking about retirement, Abernathy is taking on a big new challenge. Lauren Ober has her story.
MS. LAUREN OBER
On a recent weekday afternoon, Anne Abernathy is navigating a set of stairs at the Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Centreville, Virginia. With one hand on the railing and the other on a cane, Abernathy slowly picks her way down the steps leading to the subterranean archery range. This isn't exactly what you expect to witness when you're meeting an Olympic hopeful. But then, the Virginia woman isn't your average athlete.
MS. ANNE ABERNATHY
I'm 60-years-old. I'm not a young pup at this.
There's another detail that might prove even more of an issue than her age, and the fact that she's hobbling around after a recent knee operation. See, Abernathy is a total beginner at this sport. She picked up archery only 14 months ago.
I only know how to train for the Olympics. I don't know how to do something just recreational.
And so it is that Abernathy, a sexagenarian archery novice, has her sights set on the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. If she makes it, she will likely be the oldest competitor in the games. But it won't be the first time. Abernathy is a six-time Olympian. She represented the US Virgin Islands in the sliding sport of luge and wears a gold necklace featuring the Olympic rings as proof. At the time of her first Olympics, the 1988 Calgary games, Abernathy was 34. She went on to compete in Albertville, Lillehammer, Naganok, Salt Lake City and Torino.
When I first started, I didn’t' think Olympics. I just thought I really enjoy doing this sport. But luge takes a toll on the body. And although I really loved the sport, my body had had enough.
She's not kidding about that. Since taking up luge in the 80s, Abernathy has had 19 knee operations and a smattering of other surgeries. She's broken her back and had her share of head injuries. With that in mind, archery seems like a way safer option.
Here's one of the problems that I have, and it's from the back injury. I shoot 144 in a day, the elbow bends more and more and more when it needs to be straight out.
To understand Abernathy's obsession with the Olympics and with sport in general, you have to know a little something about her upbringing. She was born in Florida to a father in the Air Force and a mother who didn't think it was appropriate for girls to play sports.
Well, I loved playing softball and my mom wouldn't let me. I wasn't allowed to do any sports in school. My mom wouldn't let me. I could swim. I was allowed to swim and play tennis.
But nothing else. Decades later, Abernathy discovered luge during a trip to Lake Placid. At the 1980 Winter Olympic venue, Abernathy and some friends watched the sliders fly down the track. Soon, a luge coach sidled up to them.
And he said, anybody that wants to try it, take a step forward. And immediately, 18 people took a step back. And I was a little slower than the others. And I was there, and I turned to the guy next to me, and we look at each other, and I said, why not?
And so began Anne Abernathy's 20 year luge career. Over the years, she picked up a nickname, "Grandma Luge." At the Bull Run shooting range in Centreville, Abernathy is working with a fellow Olympian to hone her newfound archery skills. Ruth Rowe competed in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles as a member of the US archery team, and the pair make a perfect combo. They bicker and tease like an old married couple. And they have their own way of communicating.
Ruth will see me across a room and she'll say, steer. And everybody goes, what? And what she means is use the same muscles that I use to steer with. So, we have our own language that we were able to pick up by combining both of the sports. It got me to World Cup last year, within my first 12 months.
Rowe, who is 66, seems to understand her athlete's particular set of challenges.
MS. RUTH ROWE
She has the discipline to train. She's had the experience in high-level competition. She knows how to handle herself mentally.
But what might make Abernathy's march toward Rio even harder than it already is is the fact that she's low on cash. Unlike many other Olympic hopefuls who ink sponsorship deals with shoe or car or yogurt companies, Abernathy has to find the money to compete herself. This endeavor is not cheap.
It's a massive expense. And I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to get there. I'm getting there on a shoestring right now. And I'm hoping that somebody will jump onboard and help me get there. When I got to my last Olympics in luge, I literally got there one T-shirt at a time.
To that end, Abernathy was, until recently, couch surfing at a friend's house in Falls Church to cut down on expenses. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a family in Vienna adopted the Olympian, allowing her to stay in their house rent free while she trains with Ruth Rowe at Bull Run. It's just one of many sacrifices Abernathy is making to hit the bulls eye on this dream.
What happens if you don't make it?
I don't even think that way. That's not -- my brain doesn't even -- I don't know how to answer that question. There is no not making it.
Anne Abernathy intends to get to Rio. Odds be damned. I'm Lauren Ober.
Want to see Anne Abernathy training for the 2016 Rio games? We have photos on our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Jonathan Wilson, Jacob Fenston, Kavitha Cardoza and Lauren Ober, along with reporter Matthew Schwartz. WAMU's Managing Editor of News is Memo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" Managing Producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our Editorial Assistant. Our intern is Tyler Daniels. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU Engineering and Digital Media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
Our theme song, "Every Little Bit Hurts," is from the album, "Title Tracks," by John Davis, and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. You can find all the music we use each week on metroconnection.org. You can also hear the entire show on our website by clicking the "This Week On Metro Connection" link. You can also subscribe to our podcast there, or find us on iTunes, Stitcher and the NPR News app.
We hope you can join us next week when we'll defy this long winter and its accompanying cabin fever with some of our favorite "Metro Connection" stories set in the great outdoors. We'll head back to the Appalachian Trail, where hikers are rebuilding a historic cabin, log by log. We'll tour the ruins of Maryland's Seneca Quarry and we'll swing by Rock Creek Park to meet D.C.'s Birdman.
There are disappointing days, a lot of those, but there are very exciting days, and that's what brings you out every time.
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 News.
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