2010 Olympic Athlete Emily Azevedo Reflects Upon Her Recent Successes and the Chico Coaches That Helped Her
Submitted by Ed Booth on Tue, 04/06/2010 - 1:40pm.
From the gymnastics floor to high school hurdles to the Olympic bobsled track… Emily Azevedo could never have foretold such an odyssey.
Yet that’s exactly the path the 2001 Chico High School graduate has followed, culminating with an appearance at the recent Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
And while she and bobsled teammate Bree Schaaf didn’t earn any medals, Azevedo embodied the philosophy set forth more than a century ago by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
That has certainly never been a problem for Azevedo, who before 2006 hadn’t given a thought to bobsledding, much less competing in the sport and vying for an Olympic medal. For it was that year that she and her roommates at UC Davis were watching televised action of the Torino Games that Azevedo became fascinated with the event.
“I listened to some of the backgrounds of some of the girls who competed,” Azevedo explained. “I joked about it for a good while how I was going to bobsled and make the Olympics. It was a running joke, especially since I seemed to be changing my plans for the future often.
“When I told my parents I wanted to be an Olympic bobsledder, they were like, ‘Okay…’ They casually went along with it.”
Azevedo kept it in the back of her mind, however, and “on a whim,” as she described it, she sent her athletic resume to the United States national bobsled coaches.
“Sure enough, I got an e-mail inviting me to camp in Lake Placid,” Azevedo said. “I paid for my plane ticket to camp. It cost $500, $600 to go to camp. There was lots of testing – power testing. I sprinted well, and did okay overall. Then I got invited back to their national team trials in Lake Placid.
“I got the e-mail about a month before the team trials and wasn’t really prepared. I didn’t think anything would really come of it, but I quit my job and bought myself a one-way ticket to Lake Placid. A month later I was in Europe.”
It was a remarkable path for someone who spent the better part of her life as a gymnast. In fact, Azevedo hadn’t competed in any sport except gymnastics until she was a 16-year-old junior at Chico High School.
“I didn’t start running track until my junior year,” she said. “I got a little taller, a little bigger, and realized that gymnastics wasn’t the path for me to collegiate athletics. I knew I still wanted to compete in something, but I had to move in a different direction.
“When I first came out for track I tried a couple of events. My sister (Amber, Class of 2000) ran track as well and was a successful hurdler her first year.”
Azevedo said gymnastics is “similar but different” compared to track, making the transition a bit easier.
Trying out for track also brought her in contact with longtime Chico girls track and field coach Dale Edson, who turned out to be a remarkable influence on Azevedo’s life.
Right away, Edson recognized she had a potential champion on her roster.
“She had – and still has – great strength and coordination, but mostly she came to our program with a super work ethic,” Edson recalled.
“A lot of kids have desire, but not the abilities or tools to be successful. On the other hand, a lot of kids have the skills but lack the desire and work ethic. Emily has the whole package.”
With that in mind, it’s no surprise Azevedo earned a track scholarship to UCD. As a junior at Chico, she’d won the Northern Section championship in the 100 hurdles and lost on a photo finish in the 300. Her senior year wasn’t a problem as Azevedo swept both, then posted respectable performances at the state meet.
It was a sensational finish to a brief two-year stint on the track. Edson said Azevedo showed exceptional promise right away.
“When kids come out for track at Chico High, we usually just let them try what they think they’d like to do,” Edson said, “and adjust the events they do as time goes by.
“Her older sister, Amber, had been a sprinter and hurdler, and at the time was Chico High’s 100-meter hurdles record holder. I would bet that is why Emily chose to work at that event.”
Azevedo agreed. “A lot was based on my sister’s decision,” she said. “I didn’t want to do the 100 hurdles originally – I wanted to do the 300 originally.
“My sister had more speed; I was better at longer distances. The coaches decided I needed to work on my form and that was a good way to do it. In my first race I did well and improved rapidly from then on.”
Azevedo supplemented hurdles by being a part of a winning relay team, both at 400 and 1,600 meters. She credits all of her coaches for guiding her to success – Edson, the head coach, but also Chuck Sheley and Pam Jackson.
“Chuck Sheley’s first year back in coaching was my senior year,” Azevedo said. “He helped me a lot in terms of technique. Pam Jackson was my main coach on the endurance side of things; Chuck was the technical side of it. Pam worked us to the bone – she was the punisher.”
Azevedo said of Edson: “She has a laid-back attitude but inspires you to work hard as well. She’s very intelligent, and knew exactly which points we needed in every race. She pushed athletes in the direction they need. She was responsible for getting people out and pushing them to their potential.”
Fast-forward to 2005, and Azevedo has wrapped up her successful collegiate competition – which included a trip to the NCAA Division I nationals – and was feeling a bit out of sorts.
“In the spring of that year I was done running. I was sad and kind of excited ... I wasn’t sure how I felt about it,” she recalled. “It was kind of a weird feeling being done after competing for so long, so I took some time off. I was working as a personal trainer and had one more quarter of school. I was trying to figure out where to go not just athletically, but also in life.”
Those feelings prevailed until that fateful time in front of the tube the following February, as Azevedo realized she might have another competitive push still inside her – albeit in an entirely new discipline.
When Edson heard of Azevedo’s decision to compete as a bobsledder, it surprised her… though not for long.
“At first I was a little surprised. I know nothing about bobsledding,” Edson said. “However, when I saw her perform, it appears to be an event that is made for her— requiring strength, quickness, some size, good balance and kinesthetic awareness.
“Those requirements are true for both hurdling and bobsledding.”
The translation into bobsledding success was relatively easy for Azevedo.
“Being a hurdler and a gymnast, you learn a lot about body awareness and biomechanics,” she said, “and especially being a gymnast from a young age, you learn about all of that. That carried into hurdling. I’ve learned how to make adjustments – it’s easier for me to compute what needs to be done.”
In bobsledding: “There is a lot of technique involved— not just sprinting with the sled. It’s pushing 500 pounds successfully and fast… and knowing how to make adjustments and fix things technically.
“Hurdling is a technical event – I loved it. It’s not just sprinting and running. Running is not as exciting as hurdling. It’s the same kind of thing in bobsledding. Loading into the sled – throwing your body in – it takes practice.”
Azevedo’s trip to Vancouver, as one might expect, proved to be the experience of a lifetime – though she’s still struggling to grasp the enormity of it all.
“I really wanted to experience everything I could,” she said. “I had to stay focused on what I was there to do. The opening ceremonies were awesome – I wish I could remember more. I tried so hard to take as many mental pictures as I could. I needed another two minutes out there to appreciate it. It was pretty incredible.”
Her most impressive moment?
“Watching the flame get lit and seeing the Olympic rings around us. It still hasn’t hit me, everything that has happened. For me that was normal in some weird way. It has been difficult for me to see it as a big deal.
“That has been my norm the last four years. I’ve been working toward that goal. Every day was a new kind of fun thing, never a dull moment. I got to meet lots of people from different countries in the cafeteria ... and enjoyed being in the lounge watching the events with other athletes. I will remember it forever.”
Wherever she travels, however, and wherever she might settle, Azevedo still proclaims her pride for being from Chico. That spirit has buoyed her, especially during her Olympic efforts.
“I want to thank everyone in our community for the support. Everyone at Chico High has been supportive— ladies in the front office, the teachers, principals. People are thanking me for inspiring them and giving them entertainment.
“That is odd, because I think I should be thanking them. Chico is close-knit community. I’ve felt the love. I want people to know I never forget where I’ve come from. I was born and raised here and it carry it with me every place I go. I always tell people where I’m from.”
Edson’s impressions are indelible as well – of the entire Azevedo family. Emily has two younger sisters as well: Chelsea, Class of 2005, and Geneva, Class of 2009.
“Her parents (Dr. Alan Azevedo, a local orthopedic surgeon, and Wendy) have really played an important role in the success of all four of their girls,” Edson said. “Although they’re super-busy, I can count on one hand the number of meets either of them has missed, and that is true for all their kids.
“We had 12 successive years of having ‘an Azevedo’ on our track team. They have been so supportive of their kids which, I think, inspires the confidence to be successful… including success on the world stage.”
True to that ethic, Emily Azevedo isn’t satisfied with competing at a high level and then giving it up. For now, she’s taking some time off, as well as visiting local schools in hopes of inspiring kids in sports and encouraging them to set goals.
She said she wants to be a “positive role model— especially for female athletes” and encourages them to follow their goals and dreams.
In the meantime, Azevedo just got back from a trip to Russia, and is going to Florida next week to watch the space shuttle launch. Soon, she and other Olympians will visit Washington, D.C. to meet President Obama.
Then she’ll start the whole cycle again in May, to train for a bobsled season that begins in October.
There are seasons in our lives when people help us to become more than we are. For many of us it was a high school coach we had along the way, whose inspiration and encouragement lasted long after high school is over.
Join The Chico High Foundation Board, On Saturday, August 21, 2010, at the Elk's Club on Manzanita Avenue for the first ever Chico High School Sports Reunion.
Social hour begins at 5:30 p.m. followed by a BBQ dinner at 7:00 p.m. Varsity Coaches from the last 60 years will be there as well as the former athletes from those golden years.