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Justin Rodhe & the Olympic Spirit

What is the Olympic Spirit? We recognize it when we see it in an athlete who excels in his sport through sustained training, discipline and competition. When he experiences struggles and setbacks, he refuses to give up. He keeps striving.

While the back story of every Olympic athlete will likely exemplify these characteristics, this story focuses on one of our own: Justin Rodhe, age 27. His road to the 2012 London Olympics has been long, winding and improbable. But due to that tenacious Olympic spirit of his, Rodhe now finds himself representing Canada in the shot put.

Formerly a Bainbridge resident and a 2003 graduate of Kenston High School, Rodhe played football and threw discus and shot put in track and field, breaking the school record in discus. Rodhe went on to become an All-Star while throwing for Mount Union College.

Meanwhile, his mother, Diane, purchased 14 acres in Hiram Township, including the historic childhood home of President James A. Garfield’s wife, Lucretia Rudolph. While commuting between home and college, Rodhe (along with his younger siblings) devoted himself to helping his mother renovate the century home. After Justin completed the finish work, the Rodhes moved into their home on Wheeler Road in the Fall of 2007.

Instead of going on to graduate school after college, Rodhe decided instead to explore his full potential as a shot putter. He accepted an offer from famed coach Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk — gold medalist in hammer throw for the former Soviet Union at the 1972 Olympics — to train with him in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada. Rodhe set out on his Canadian adventure in February 2008.

There, at the Athletics Canada Throw Center, Rodhe became reacquainted with a female hammer thrower he had met in previous international competitions. By 2009, Justin and Megann Rodhe were a married couple. Shortly thereafter, Rodhe applied for Canadian residency and citizenship. While waiting for the paperwork to clear, Rodhe was prohibited from leaving Canada, or he’d forfeit his chances to return to the country, let alone represent it in international competition.

Someone else in the same set of circumstances might  have taken all the delays and closed doors as a signal to pursue a different vocation. But not Rodhe. He brings to mind why the French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, organized the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. He believed that ‘The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete.’ His sentiment was institutionalized in the Olympic motto which challenges each individual to become the best they possibly can: ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Faster, Higher, Stronger).

Unable to travel abroad for international competition, Rodhe simply trained harder, focusing on what he was able to control, which was to achieve A+ Standard for Olympic qualification. The thrower won a silver at the Canadian championships in 2010. He had proven he was an elite athlete.

Building upon that, Rodhe took the lead among all Canadian shot putters early this season and established a new indoor personal best of 20.95-meters. He also set a new outdoor personal best of 21.11-meters, surpassing the Olympic A+ standard for qualification to the Olympic Games team. All he needed now was citizenship so he could compete internationally, and to place in the top three at the Track and Field Trials by late June.

In November of 2011, Rodhe finally achieved his Canadian citizenship. Rodhe expected that he would now be allowed to compete internationally for Canada. However, the IAAF, the global governing body of track and field, imposed a rule stating that one had to wait for at least two years after achieving citizenship before competing in international competition. This rule prevented Rodhe from competing at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

In spite of the fact that Rodhe was literally about to board the plane to Istanbul when he received the message he wasn’t permitted to compete, “Justin took that negative and used it as fuel to focus even harder on his training,” said his proud mother, Diane. “It was a huge leap of faith to press on. He couldn’t count on anything working out except his own training. He also has been blessed with a partner who understands and supports him as only a fellow elite athlete truly can.”

Meanwhile, Athletics Canada continued to appeal to the IAAF on Rodhe’s behalf. In early May, IAAF waived their rule because Rodhe had lived in Canada for four years already, having moved there solely to pursue Olympic qualification with Coach Bondarchuk.

On June 30, at the Canadian Olympic Trials for Track and Field, Justin finished second with a throw of 20.77 meters. With this solid finish and by surpassing the Olympic A+ Standard, Justin finally qualified for the 2012 London Olympics for Canada.

In the months prior to the Games, the Olympic flame is lit in Olympia by the sun’s rays and travels through various countries. Along its route, the flame is passed between many torches and relay runners, conveying a message of peace and friendship. The highlight of the Olympic opening ceremony is the entry of the flame into the stadium where the final relay runner lights the cauldron. The flame in the cauldron, symbolizing friendship, remains lit for the duration of the Games.

In a way, Rodhe has been like that torch, passed along from the U.S. to Canada and international venues along the way, spreading mutual respect and camaraderie as he excels in his sport. As his mother puts it, “Justin has made a life in Canada. Canada is proud to have him, so it makes it easier for me to share him.” Diane went on to say, whether Justin represents the U.S. or Canada at the Games is not the point. He’s representing track and field on the world stage.

Rodhe has been training in  Portugal since mid-July for final preparations leading up to the London Games. He competes in shot put at the Olympics on August 3 with preliminary rounds taking place in the morning, followed by finals that night. NBC’s coverage, which begins with the Opening Ceremony at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT on Friday, July 27.