Hokie Olympians Share Their Past Experiences

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Kristi Castlin was the first female from Virginia Tech to win an Olympic medal, taking bronze in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2016 Summer Games, and she was recognized for that accomplishment at a Virginia Tech football game later that fall. (Photos by Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Athletics)

Reliving their past Olympic experiences and discussing Virginia Tech’s impact on their lives served as the main topics of discussion at the “Road to Reunion: Hokie Olympian Panel” held virtually on May 4.

Kristi Castlin, Bimbo Coles, Queen Harrison, Marcel Lomnicky, and Darrell Wesh — all former Virginia Tech student-athletes — participated in the panel discussion. The event served as preview to the type of programming Hokies can expect at the university’s Reunion Weekend.

This year’s reunion will be held virtually June 8-11. Hokies can sign now up now to participate. Registration inclues all online events and participants can opt to score a box of Hokie swag.

Mike Burnop, a former Virginia Tech football player and a member of the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, served as the moderator for the hour-long Road to Reunion event. Burnop, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health and physical education from Virginia Tech, asked questions for approximately 45 minutes. Those who registered for the event then received time to ask any of their questions.

Below are some of the topics highlighted during the discussion. You can also watch the replay online.

Experience of a lifetime

As expected, all of the panelists agreed that participating in an Olympic Games represented the experience of a lifetime. Coles became the first Virginia Tech athlete to compete in the Olympics when he made the U.S. men’s basketball team that competed at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Castlin, Lomnicky, and Wesh — all track and field athletes — competed in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Harrison, a three-time track and field national champion at Virginia Tech, participated in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

“My experience was great,” said Castlin, who earned her political science degree in 2010. “It took me quite some time to make my first team — eight years. So, when I finally crossed the line and made it [at the Olympic trials], I was just so happy and ecstatic just to go to the Olympics … It was a great experience for me, as it was my first Olympics and just going and my friends and family being there to celebrate and just doing great things. The other two ladies [Brianna Rollins and Nia Ali, who finished first and second ahead of Castlin in the 100-meter hurdles] and then celebrating with Queen after, it just made a great experience for me and kind of brought things full circle.”

“For Haiti, it’s a little different than the U.S.,” said Wesh (Human Development ’15), who has dual citizenship with the U.S. and Haiti, but competed for Haiti in the 100-meter race in Rio. “We don’t have the trials because our country is so small, so all you really have to do is get the Olympic ‘A’ standard. So, I remember getting that Olympic ‘A’ standard, and I was crying to my mom and crying to my dad. It was like, ‘I did it.’ I was set to go.

“The whole [Olympic] experience was surreal,” Wesh continued. “I couldn’t believe I was actually getting to do this. I did get to go to the opening ceremony. My country flew me out the first day, so I got to experience the opening ceremony where we got to go through the tunnel and mingle with all the other Olympians. I took so many photos of so many people.”

Lomnicky (Management ’13), who competed in the hammer throw for his native Slovakia, is one of two Virginia Tech athletes to compete in two Olympics. The other is Kaan Tayla, a swimmer, who competed for Turkey. Lomnicky competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London and then again in 2016 in Rio.

“The Olympic experience was nice,” the two-time national champion at Virginia Tech said. “In London, I was scared. I was young. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t make the finals. In Rio, I learned from the first one. I had a lot more experience. In Rio, I made the finals and almost got a medal — I got fifth. It was amazing. I really loved it.”

Diverging opinions on food

The Olympians talked extensively of their time in the Olympic Village, the location where nearly all of the athletes from all the countries stay while in a host city. Most of their discussions centered on the food.

Castlin and Lomnicky found McDonald’s much more to their liking than the food options offered within the village in Rio.

“They had a McDonald’s that stayed open fairly late, and the line for McDonald’s was like 25 or 30 meters long — no exaggeration,” Castlin said. “I found myself getting tired of eating the same food that they were providing [in the Olympic Village]. I found myself going to McDonald’s more often … I literally fueled an Olympic medal off of McDonald’s.”

“The only difference [between Rio and London] was that, in London, the McDonald’s was located right in the dining hall,” Lomnicky said. “You walked straight to the dining hall and the McDonald’s was right there. People were not waiting in line. It was quicker. It was amazing.

“The food there, they tried to satisfy all the athletes,” Lomnicky said. “They had a Europe section and an Asia section and all the different styles of cooking, but the food, in my experience, was tasteless … That’s why a lot of people went to McDonald’s to get cheeseburgers.”

Harrison, who earned her sociology degree in 2010, said she loved staying in the Olympic Village, where she got to know her U.S. teammates and tried all the various food options. As a member of the U.S. men’s basketball team, Coles and his teammates enjoyed the best of accommodations in Seoul.

“Our accommodations were great,” said Coles, who earned his degree in apparel, housing, and resource management in 1990. “We pretty much did everything first class. The food was terrific. They had so many different foods from every country in the food court. Just a great area. My experience was terrific.”

Castlin and Coles bring home medals

Coles became the first Virginia Tech athlete to win a medal at an Olympic Games when the U.S. men’s basketball team earned a bronze in Seoul. The American team, composed of collegiate players back then, won its first six games rather convincingly, but fell to the Russians in the semifinals. The Americans then beat Australia to win the bronze.

The loss, though, marked the first time ever that the U.S. had not advanced to the gold medal game.

“A lot of people say, ‘You won a bronze medal. You should be extremely proud of that,’ but we weren’t supposed to lose, and it was frowned upon if we lost, so we did have some pressure,” Coles said. “We played extremely well and had one bad game and lost to the Russians. We were the reason the Dream Team [a team of U.S. professionals] came in 1992 because losing in the Olympics and winning the bronze medal was unacceptable for our basketball fans and everybody across the country.

“So that was extremely tough … I’m still grateful and thankful for the bronze medal, but we were expected to win the gold.”

At Rio 2016, Castlin won a bronze medal in the 100-meter hurdles for the U.S. team and was part of a 1-2-3 sweep in the event by the Americans. In fact, the trio of Rollins, Ali, and Castlin enabled the U.S. to become the first country ever to sweep the event at the Olympics.

Queen Harrison (second from the left) returns to Virginia Tech periodically and always takes time to speak to the Virginia Tech track and field teams about her Olympic experiences and her life as a professional.

“I was literally cramping walking out to the line,” Castlin said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to complete this race at this point.’ Really just coming across that line and there was 10 seconds like, ‘I think I’ve got it, but I don’t want to be the one that doesn’t get the job done.’ When I saw my name, I was like, ‘Thank you, God.’ Because it wasn’t me.”

The future

Four of the five Olympians on the panel continue to train to varying degrees, with the 53-year-old Coles involved in various business ventures. All of them take an athlete’s mindset and approach to their interests outside of sports, and that has helped them advance in various professional careers.

“Once you get into an elite mindset and this competitive nature that we all have, you can’t help but put it into the next career path,” Harrison said.

Below is a list of the plans for all five of the Virginia Tech Olympians:

Castlin — Castlin plans on competing at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June in hopes of earning a spot on the team that will compete at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo later this year. The 32-year-old recently started her own real estate development company, Castlin Homes, in Atlanta, and she’s started a social club for female athletes called The Athletic Girls Club, which helps girls and women figure out their next steps after sports.

Coles — Coles, who spent 14 seasons in the NBA after departing from Virginia Tech, recently resigned as the head basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, where he coached his son for four years. He just bought a house in Naples, Florida, and plans to live there with his family for at least six months out of the year. He’s involved in a new business that involves video surveillance. He said he hopes to continue his part-time role as an ambassador for Virginia Tech Athletics.

Harrison — Like Castlin, the 32-year-old Harrison plans on competing at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in June in hopes of going to Tokyo. She refuses to put a “finish line” on her running career, but whenever it ends, she wants to move into the beauty and wellness space. She plans to start a cosmetics line in the near future. Harrison and husband Will Claye, a three-time Olympic medalist, may start a family once their track careers end.

Lomnicky — Lomnicky, 33, has been in San Diego for the past three months training for the Olympics and plans to return to Slovakia soon. In Slovakia, he has two sons, a three-year-old and a four-month old, and he owns a donut shop. He’s also a part owner of a Crossfit gym. He wants to participate in two more Olympic games before calling it a career.

Wesh — Wesh, 29, works for a mental health services company in Blacksburg. He still works out, but said he will not try to reach the qualifying standard to compete for Haiti in Tokyo. At the same time, he hasn’t closed the door on his track career just yet and may try to compete at the World Championships in 2022.

— Written by Jimmy Robertson