RIO DE JANIERO — The sport that carried Jared Ward to the Olympics is something of a family tradition and his life-long pursuit.
Devery Karz and Jake Gibb, on the other hand, didn’t pursue the sports that earned them a trip to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil until they’d left high school.
And for Provo native Maka Unufe, the sport in which he will compete next week was a way to support his young family.
Karz, Gibb, Ward and Unufe are the only native Utahns competing in the Summer Games for Team USA in Rio de Janeiro, which begin Aug. 5.
Utah may be better known for its winter sports athletes, thanks to the legacy of hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, but the Beehive State’s affection for the games doesn’t wane in the summer, despite producing just a handful of home-grown athletes each quadrennial.
If television ratings are any indication, then Utah’s affection for the Olympics knows no season. According to NBC, Salt Lake was the top metered market for the games for seven straight Olympics until Sochi. Utah finished second in the 2014 Winter Games rankings, with Milwaukee earning the most viewers.
This summer’s games in Rio will bring together more than 10,000 athletes from approximately 200 countries who are expected to compete in 40 sports in the first version of the Olympic Games to be hosted in South America.
Among those 10,000 athletes will be Karz, Unufe, Ward and Gibb, as well as nearly 20 athletes with Utah connections. They will compete in very different sports — rowing, rugby sevens, marathon and beach volleyball — but they also share more than a home state.
Each of them found a way to excel in sports they loved, eventually pursuing a dream to represent their country on the world’s largest stage — the Olympics. It’s a dream many have but few realize.
JARED WARD, marathon
Jared Ward walked into BYU cross-country coach Ed Eyestone’s office his freshman year intent on quitting.
“I’d been struggling with motivation,” said the Kaysville native who will represent Team USA in the Rio Olympics in August as a marathon competitor. “It wasn’t fun to me. … I’d just gotten married, and I loved spending time with my wife. I’m a nerd, and I loved my nerd school (statistics), there were so many things I loved that I thought, ‘Why do I drag myself through running if it’s not fun?’”
Eyestone asked him to sit down and they went through the aspects of distance running that were difficult and contrasted that with the aspects that were still intriguing.
“I was so grateful that he didn’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s a ridiculous idea. You’re on the varsity team; you’re running great; why would you want to quit?’ He just asked me to think about it, and then said, ‘Let’s make this fun again.’”
That conversation began a shift in how Ward viewed competition while also renewing his passion for the sport.
Ward grew up running. His cousins were high school and collegiate standouts, and from the time he was in elementary school, he was looking to make his own mark on the sport. Everyday he got up on his own to run a two-mile loop in the family’s Kaysville neighborhood.
“I think I was probably trying to get fit for soccer,” he said. “But I would keep track of my time, and every day I would try to run it faster than I had the day before.”
He smiles as he recalls the day he broke his first family record. His mother, who was a tennis and volleyball player, told him that she’d run two miles in 13 and a half minutes.
“I still remember the morning when I ran faster than 13 and a half minutes,” he said. “I ran back to the house, threw open the door and ran inside. I was like, “everyone is still asleep, but I’ve got to tell her.’ So I walked into my parents' room … and said, ‘Mom, I just ran faster for two miles than you ran in high school.’”
His mother offered some praise, he said laughing. But it was how he felt that lit a fire that would put him on the path that helped him qualify for the 2016 games as a U.S. marathon runner. “I still remember that thrill,” he said. “I had this goal of running faster every day. But I had this big goal to beat my mom’s high school time. I think that’s what kept the ball rolling with running, what kept me excited.”
Ward steadily improved throughout high school until he was among the top runners in the state. He earned a scholarship to BYU, but then struggled after returning from his mission and marrying his high school sweetheart.
It was Eyestone’s patience that helped him rekindle that youthful enthusiasm he had for distance running. It was also Eyestone who suggested he run a marathon when the NCAA ruled him ineligible for a season of cross-country because he ran a 5K after his mission but before he enrolled in school.
“It became a huge blessing in disguise,” Ward said. “If I hadn’t run the Chicago Marathon, I don’t think I would have had the experience necessary to run the trials. The trials (in February) was my fourth marathon, and Chicago taught me a lot of things about running a marathon.”
He still can’t quite believe he will represent his country in the Olympic Games in August.
“I had a long-standing goal to make the U.S. team,” Ward said. “But I’m not sure making the Olympics was a goal until about 10 months before the trials.”
DEVERY KARZ, lightweight doubles rowing
Devery Karz grew up competing in endurance sports with her favorites being mountain biking and running.
But when the Park City native left Utah to attend Oregon State, she decided she didn’t want to participate in athletics.
“I’d chosen not to run or play a sport,” said the 28-year-old rower. “I found myself to be pretty miserable without athletics in my life.”
She gained weight and found it hard to find a group of friends because most of the student body came to Oregon State with the same kids they’d attended high school with.
“I didn’t have a real sense of belonging,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not so sure about this school.’ But I stuck it out, and then I saw a flier about tryouts for the rowing team.”
At the beginning of her sophomore year, she went to an information meeting where she sat with about 150 other women interested in the sport.
“The next day, there were about 100 of us who showed up for the first day of practice,” she said. “After about a month and a half, the team was cut to 60 girls.” Only 14 of those young women returned the following year, something Karz said she understands because the sport was unlike any other she’d tried.
“I found it more demanding, more grueling than anything I’d done,” she said. “It’s a very repetitive sport, a very technical sport. There is nothing to take your mind off the pain. When you are in the race, and you hit that pain cave, there is nothing to distract you. You just have to keep your eyes fixated on the person in front of you. The only thing you can think about when you hit the pain cave is the pain you are in.”
Karz eventually earned an athletic scholarship, which allowed her to earn a degree in communication with minors in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. It was her junior year that her coach suggested she might want to try to compete as a lightweight rower.
“I applied for some camps,” she said. “We won the U-23 silver in the quad … and at that point, I knew I could be good. I didn’t know I could make the Olympics or even the senior team. But once a seed is planted, you can let it grow undisturbed, even if it’s subconscious.” Karz qualified for the Olympics in April, and she said she feels like she and her partner are still improving, even as the games approach.
“We are both still learning so much, still making huge improvements in our technique and still really fired up,” she said. “A lot of people will get burned out because it’s hard to put your body through that every day. It’s pretty exciting that we are still finding new speed and still improving at what we do.”
JAKE GIBB, beach volleyball
Despite representing the United States in his third Olympic Games, Bountiful native Jake Gibb understands why some might see him as an underdog.
“I’m not sure anybody is placing bets on us,” he said. “To be honest, I’ve been everywhere along the gamut, so (how others see them) isn’t very important to me.”
Gibb has dealt with much tougher challenges than being underestimated. A two-time cancer survivor, Gibb started playing volleyball after he didn’t make the basketball team.
“Somebody from Davis High asked me to play for their (club) team,” said the Bountiful alum. “I looked at it as a girls sport because there wasn’t much for men.”
He didn’t play the sport again until returning from his two-year LDS mission. That’s when he started playing beach volleyball while attending the University of Utah. He just entered weekend tournaments and slowly moved from one division to the next.
“In Utah, we’d be playing for a couple hundred dollars, but it felt big-time,” Gibb said. “I thought, ‘I’m kind of good at this.’”
So when he graduated from the U. in 2002, he decided to put his planned business career on hold to see just how far he could go in the sport.
“I just had this itch to go play professional beach volleyball,” he said. “I talked to my wife, and she said, ‘You’re crazy, but let’s do this.’ We moved to California and she took two jobs.”
They decided to give their experiment two years. In 2004, he won his first AVP professional volleyball tournament and ended up the top-ranked U.S. team.
Still, he never imagined he’d be heading to his third Olympics as the country’s oldest volleyball player — and one of its oldest athletes at 40.
“No, I didn’t imagine this,” he said of his thoughts when he first began his beach volleyball career. “I just liked competing. … There was no reason for me to think that I could do this, but to (my wife’s) credit, she believed in me.”
He and Patterson, who played volleyball for BYU 2002-2005, teamed up after he and Sean Rosenthal split following the London Olympics in 2012.
Gibb said he and Patterson had a lot in common — including being raised LDS.
“We have a lot of similarities,” Gibb said. “I knew him because he’d been playing AVP, and I just saw a competitor and somebody who was a really special talent.”
Patterson said he jumped at the chance to play with Gibb.
“I had a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I felt like this was absolutely my chance to show everyone that I could do this, that I could play this sport at a high level.”
While there isn’t really a way for Gibb to prepare Patterson for the unique pressure of the Olympics, Patterson said he relishes a big stage.
“For me, I’m an entertainer,” he said. “I love playing in front of people. When the crowd is involved and giving me as much as they can, it turns the nerves into energy. It’s 100 percent what I look forward to when I play.”
The first six days of beach volleyball are pool play. Gibb and Patterson are seeded No. 6 and will open against Qatar on Aug. 6 at 3:30 p.m.
MAKA UNUFE, rugby sevens
There was only one sport Leslie Unufe asked her sons to avoid — rugby.
“I’ve never been a fan,” she said, admitting that the fact that it’s such a physical sport played without pads or helmets scares her. “It worked all the way up until right after high school. Then he started playing. It’s the one thing I told them not to do. I didn’t know he was going to be so good at it.”
Maka Unufe’s first taste of rugby came when he went to Tonga at age 12 to visit his late father. The 24-year-old father of three had grown up playing football, but on the island of his ancestors, there was only rugby.
When Unufe returned home to Provo a few months later, he also returned to the football field where his athletic ability was so impressive, he attracted scholarship offers from nearly every Utah college with just one season of eligibility.
“I timed him in the 40, and I couldn’t believe how fast he was,” said his high school football coach and family friend, Saia Pope. “I made him run it four times and every time he ran it under 4.3 (seconds).”
In the team’s first game of the 2009 season, he scored the first three times “he touched the ball,” Pope said. “He had five touchdowns by halftime, so I took him out of the game.”
As easily as athletics came to Unufe, he struggled in the classroom.
“He wasn’t a student,” Pope said. “He didn’t like to go to class.”
Unufe finally became eligible his senior year, which is when colleges noticed his potential. But Pope said remediating the classes he needed to graduate became too daunting and he dropped out of high school, essentially ending his football career.
“For him, it was just too overwhelming,” Pope said. “Once he figured he wasn’t going to play college football, one of the rugby clubs wanted him to come play. And he just took off from there.”
Unufe started playing rugby in 2011 with the Utah Warriors. At 19, he earned a spot on the U.S. national team and competed in the 2011 Pan American Games, helping the team to earn a bronze medal. In 106 matches, Unufe has earned 40 tries and is one of the fastest players on the team.
Rugby sevens is making its debut at the Summer Games, although rugby was last played in the 1924 Olympics. The men will begin pool play Tuesday, Aug. 9, against Argentina and then later that day against the host country, Brazil.
The other athletes with Utah connections are:
Casey Patterson, a California native who played volleyball for BYU and will compete in beach volleyball with Bountiful’s Jake Gibb.
Taylor Sander, played for BYU and is a member of the U.S. men’s volleyball team.
MyKayla Skinner, an Arizona gymnast who will compete for the University of Utah this season. She is an alternate for the women’s gymnastics team.
Emily Infeld, Cleveland track and field athlete, who trains in Park City and will be competing in the 10,000-meter race.
UTAH-CONNECTED ATHLETES COMPETING FOR OTHER COUNTRIES:
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz, who will play basketball for France.
Boris Diaw, Utah Jazz, who will play basketball for France.
Raul Neto, Utah Jazz, who will play basketball for Brazil.
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz, who will play basketball for Australia.
Andrew Bogut, University of Utah alum, who plays for the Golden State Warriors, will play basketball for Australia.
Tatenda Tsumba, ran track at BYU and will represent Zimbabwe in the 200 meter race.
Long Gutierrez, Brighton High alum, who will swim for Mexico.
Kim Tillie, former Utah men's basketball player, who will play for France with Diaw and Gobert.
Kim Smith Gaucher, Utah alum who will play for the Canadian women’s basketball team.
Michelle Plouffe, Utah alum who will play for the Canadian women’s basketball team.
Shona Thorburn, Utah alum who will play for the Canadian women’s basketball team.
Leilani Mitchell, Utah alum who will play for the Australian women’s basketball team.
Chirine Njeim, former Utah skier will run in the marathon for Lebanon.