By Ryan Menzie
For The Signal
With the 2021 Tokyo Olympics getting underway, the final rosters are set and athletes across the country are ready to begin competition and represent the USA at today’s Opening Ceremony — including some of the Santa Clarita Valley’s own elite athletes.
Whether they’re competing for a spot among the world’s most decorated Olympians of all time, like SCV native Allyson Felix, or competing in their first Olympics, like volleyball player and Valencia High School graduate Kyle Ensing, each athlete had their own unique path to Tokyo this summer. While it might be difficult to watch all of the competitions live due to a 16-hour time difference, streaming apps and websites will be able to make coverage available.
Here’s a bit about each local athlete’s journey to Japan:
Five-time Olympian Allyson Felix (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2021) is seeking a 10th medal this summer. Felix grew up in Santa Clarita, which is where she found her love for track, before attending L.A. Baptist High School in North Hills.
Felix, now one of the most well-known and decorated Olympic athletes of all time, has earned nine medals (six gold, three silver) in her previous Olympic Games. Along with her love for competing, she has also sought to use her fame and the attention she’s received to bring focus on causes important to her and have an impact outside the sports world.
Felix has used the respect she has in the athletic community to promote a platform that helps clean athletes go beyond the normal drug-testing program with Project Believe, which she helped unveil in along with former world decathlon champion Brian Clay in 2008. It was part of an effort to help promote the sport’s reputation at a time when many were questioning the sport after a series of doping scandals, according to a 2008 report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
She also became a highly visible advocate for maternity rights following a controversy with Nike. In an op-ed published in the New York Times, Felix shared her struggle with the global sporting giant during her pregnancy with her daughter Camryn. Felix’s efforts ultimately resulted in the brand changing its maternity policies and even creating a commercial about pregnancy in sports that was released in March, called “The Toughest Athletes.” (In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Felix did not respond to multiple requests for an interview that were made through her representatives, an email address listed on her website and several phone calls.)
In an interview with World Athletics, Felix continues to fight and raise awareness for women athletes all around the world as she looks to compete in her fifth and final Olympics in Tokyo.
“I just thought it wasn’t right,” said Felix, when asked about choosing between racing or her daughter. “In this sport it’s been this way for so long. Sometimes you just say that’s the way it is and I just (have to) roll with it; but I don’t think that has to be the case. It was really scary (to bring it up), but it was totally worth it.”
Felix previously won a silver medal in the 200 meters at the Athens Games in 2004; a silver medal in the 200 and a gold medal in the 4×400 relay in Beijing in 2008; gold medals in the 200, 4×100 and 4×400 in 2012 in London in 2012; and a silver medal in the 400 and gold medals in 4×100 and 4×400 in Rio in 2016.
Olympic swimmer Abbey Weitzeil will be competing in her second Olympics in Tokyo after winning a gold and silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Weitzeil was born in Valencia and went to Saugus High School. She previously competed in the World Championships in 2014 and 2015, winning gold, silver and bronze medals, as well.
Weitzeil’s career began as a sprinter before breaking her first swimming world record after swimming for just six years. At Saugus High School, she set national high school records as a junior and was an eight-time CIF Southern California Swimming Division 1 Champion, winning two titles each year in high school. Weitzeil would go on to commit to the University of California, Berkeley, but would choose to defer her enrollment for a year for a chance to compete in her first Olympics in Rio in 2016.
“When you have the flag on your cap, you get stuff done. I’m confident in this relay and I’m confident in Team USA,” said Weitzeil in a news conference interview published by SwimSwam. “We have our work cut out for us. It’s tough, but it’s fun. When you have the flag on your cap there is something else that comes out of you. I’m confident in these girls next to me. It will be hard, but it will be fun, and we’ll keep challenging them.”
Weitzeil is seeking her third medal this summer, having won a silver medal in the 4×100 freestyle and a gold medal in the 4×100 medley in Rio in 2016.
The SCV will be represented by two volleyball players, first-time Olympian Kyle Ensing and three-time Olympian David Smith.
Ensing went to Valencia High School, played at Long Beach State with his brother Eric and has World Championship experience, also.
While at Long Beach, Ensing won two national titles and was a four-time first-team All-American. Ensing’s World Championship experience came in 2015 and 2017, when he competed at Fédération Internationale de Volleyball 19-under and 21-under competition. Ensing would finish in fifth place with his 19-under Boys Youth National Team.
“(Ensing’s) improvement has been impressive. You can tell he was fully committed to maximizing his full potential this year, which made a huge difference for the team,” said John Speraw, Team USA Men’s National Team and four-time Olympic head coach. “He came back significantly better and he’s a really wonderful player to coach. He works hard and is easy to communicate with. He’s going to do anything you ask. He’s always positive and competitive and has some really great skill sets to make him a valuable piece for our team.”
“It was really cool because there were two guys representing the Santa Clarita Valley on an Olympic team,” said Ensing, who joins USA Volleyball veteran and fellow SCV alum Smith for the Tokyo games.
Before joining the team, Ensing and Smith had no idea they shared a hometown. Despite competing in tournaments together, they made the realization after a group Whatsapp conversation where they noticed the 661-area code connection.
Ensing has been part of the USA Volleyball program since 2013, and his mother, Jeanne, who died earlier this year, always envisioned that he would one day play in the Olympics.
Ensing and his brother Eric were always taught to be pushed to their limits, but everyone in the family knew it was always Jeanne who pushed them to be their best, according to the family.
“She was my biggest inspiration in all this,” said Ensing. “She played volleyball in high school and college and kind of got Eric into it.”
Ensing is seeking his first medal this summer.
Smith graduated from Saugus High, and would eventually play at UC Irvine, where he would win the NCAA National Championship and was named as a first-team All-American in 2007. Smith has been a member of the men’s U.S. National Team since 2009, and was named the USA Men’s Volleyball Indoor Player of the Year after leading the team in blocking and earning a starting position.
Coach Speraw is still humbled despite coaching the Olympics four times, and looks forward to competing in the Olympics with players like Ensing and Smith.
“I’ve worked with (Smith) since 2003. He is an exceptional human being. I’ve been really grateful to work with someone for so long that I really like,” said Speraw. “He’s really a competitive player who gives tremendous energy to this group. He has seen a lot of volleyball and is a huge contributor to this team with video sessions and knowing opposing players. He is a tremendous asset to team USA.”
With a mix of seasoned veterans and up-and-coming talent, the men’s volleyball team is looking to be a group to watch in Tokyo and improve upon their finish five years ago.
“There’s a lot of good young guys and, obviously, (Ensing) is a perfect example of that,” said Smith, complimenting his teammate from the SCV.
Smith is seeking his second medal this summer, having won a bronze medal in Rio in 2016. (USA Men’s Volleyball lost in the quarterfinals in 2012.)
— Signal Staff Writer Caleb Lunetta contributed to this report.