Adriene Clark, 10
Student, Craig Elementary
Career Highlights: First St. Louisan to qualify for the climbing nationals at any level
Adriene Clark pointed proudly to the logo on her tank top, black on acid green: Team ULI. “I love being part of a team,” she said. Not only is Clark a member of the group that represents our area’s two Upper Limits Rock Climbing Gyms, at age 10 she’s a leader.
Clark’s family searched long and hard for an activity that clicked and provided a sense of belonging. Ballet and gymnastics didn’t suit her, though she enjoyed doing what her mom, Nicole, called, “this Spiderman thing down the bedroom hall.”
And then, on a trip to REI, she refused to get off the climbing wall. “The second we took her off the ground, she was a natural,” said her dad, Stephen.
The staff at Upper Limits met Clark at age 4 but trained her for nearly three years before putting her on the team. She qualified for the USA Climbing SCS National Championship less than a year later, finishing 33rd in 2013, seventh in bouldering in February and ninth in sport climbing in July.
“It’s just fun,” Clark explained. “I like the competition and the challenge. And I like the sponsorship.”
Her swag from sponsor Five Ten includes shoes, the better to blaze a trail for other area climbers. After traveling to nationals alone in 2013, two teammates qualified with her in February and seven made divisionals.
Clark said she hopes to be the area’s first pro climber, “so I can travel everywhere.” At the top of her destination list? “Spain. You can climb and then hit the beach.”
Other nominees: Alex Hill, Julia de la Paz
Aaron Fanetti, 40
Assistant Vice President, Protective Life Corp.
Career Highlights: Completed the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 3 days, 10 hours, 33 minutes
Aaron Fanetti’s dad had one of those page-a-day calendars on his desk. On one was a paraphrase of Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never quit.”
Dad never turned the page. Neither did Fanetti.
He laid the foundation for the Iditarod as a philosophy student at Auburn University, where he took the occasional backcountry trek. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’ve tapped into the existential and asked myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’” he said.
The 350-mile race that follows a portion of the famed dog route requires competitors to ride a mountain bike. And carry it. And befriend it. And hate it. After finishing in 2010 in nine days, Fanetti’s hands were numb for six weeks. But he came back for more, finishing in five days in 2013, then three days and change in March.
The last time his hands were numb for two months. A small price to pay. “A 17-year-old thinks he’s got another race,” Fanetti said. “I approached it as if this might be my last.”
The Iditarod is unique on Fanetti’s annual calendar, which also has included trail runs, adventure racing and kayaking. With the birth of his daughter, Winter, in December, 300-mile training rides have been tougher to schedule.
He took Winter on her first hike, though, when she was four days old. “I’m chilling out,” he said. “I want to take it a little easier for a while and think about how to get her to enjoy all this, too.”
Other nominees: JD Peiffer
Sunny Gilbert, 36
Research Scientist, Monsanto
Career Highlights: 2014 U.S. National Masters 35+ Cyclocross Champion
Running is in Sunny Gilbert’s blood. Her father and grandmother were marathoners, and she ran track and cross country in high school and at Mizzou.
“But biking is my new soul,” she said.
Gilbert inadvertently launched her spiritual quest while earning both a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Colorado and a pro card from the International Triathlon Union, then continued it in Corvallis, Ore., where she worked on a postdoc.
“I just fell in with triathletes and cyclists,” she said. “So you do what your friends do.”
She gave cyclocross a try in Oregon “and was terrible. I didn’t know how to jump on and off the bike.”
When she moved back to St. Louis, she temporarily fell victim to the coastal bias of the Midwest as an endurance sport backwater. “Then I learned that Big Shark organized 10 cyclocross races a year and that there are a ton of big events all within driving distance. So, I got myself a coach and worked my way up in the ranks. Having the local events was huge, and every weekend I could work on skills.”
Gilbert said she plans to enter cyclocross events in Belgium before and after Christmas. “It’s logistics. I have the money and the time, but how to get my bike over there, where to stay…I’m working on that.”
Which could launch her next vision quest: “I expect to spend my late 40s and early 50s traveling. But for now I’m a cyclist, and I’ll be one for a while.”
Other nominees: Scott Moninger, Connor Brown
Austin Hindman, 16
Student, Lafayette High School
Career Highlights: First place, Junior Pan Am Championships
Austin Hindman used to be that cute little guy at triathlons. He entered his first one at age 5 and competed in the Escape from Alcatraz at 9.
“Back then, it was all for fun,” he said. “I always wanted to be the youngest kid there. Over the years I started to take the sport more seriously — to race pros rather than age group, and to win.”
Hindman earned a pro card in March at the International Triathlon Union (ITU) event in Clermont, Fla., and could make a career of the pro circuit in a couple of years. Or, he could follow a more traditional path and run at the NCAA level; UCLA, Navy, Stanford, Harvard, Cornell and Tulsa have all expressed interest, for good reason. He finished third last fall at the Missouri Class 4 Cross Country Championships and won the 2-mile event at the state track and field championships in the spring. As a sophomore. He most recently won the USA Triathlon Flatland Junior Elite Cup Race in July.
“Doing well as a junior is great, but my ultimate goal is to become a pro and make the Olympic team,” he said. “I’ve got time.”
Hindman will be 22 in 2020, which is young by triathlon standards, but will be entering the prime of his career for the 2024 games. “I think I can do any one of the three sports and be happy, but it’s nice when you have a rough day in the pool to come back with a good run. It’s a confidence booster.”
Other nominees: Christian Espinosa
Emily Korsch, 31
Program Coordinator, Alpine Shop
Career Highlights: Co-captain of Team Alpine Shop, ranked No. 2 by the USARA
Emily Korsch has evolved athletically and professionally since arriving from Duluth, Minn., to play soccer at Washington University. Hired at Alberici Constructors after earning an engineering degree, she took up cycling because her boss was into it and “it looked cool.”
While training for the MS 150, she met some triathletes and gave that a go. Then, one of her triathlon pals needed a girl for an adventure race. “He was the cutest guy, so, of course I said yes, even though I didn’t even own a mountain bike,” Korsch said.
He moved away, but the sport won her heart, in all its forms: from an 8-hour solo race to a 30-hour, 4-person event that can include trail running, paddling, mountain biking and orienteering.
“It combines my background in running and endurance sports with the team aspect that I loved about soccer,” she said. “We have fun. You’d be surprised how much screaming you hear from other teams when something goes wrong. I feel sorry for them.”
She left Alberici last year to organize events for the Alpine Shop and to focus on competition. The team’s next goal is the U.S. Adventure Racing Association (USARA) 24-Hour Nationals, set for Pine Mountain, Ky., in October.
“I said to myself, ‘If you don’t do it now, you’re always going to wonder,’” she said, acknowledging that she’s something of a local spokesmodel. “I like being that person. We have a lot of people trying trail running, and I enjoy the challenge of giving them a positive experience that will make them come back.”
Other nominees: Jeff Sona, David Frei, Doug Nishimura
Matt O’Connor, 28
Therapist, Logos School
Career Highlights: Qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials
Matt O’Connor put aside water polo and swimming after graduating from Chaminade in 2005, knowing he couldn’t be competitive in college. And he was miserable.
“I was a little lost,” he said. “I had to find something to feel better about myself.”
He bided his time by running the same route daily as a student at Creighton University in Nebraska, then tried triathlon, which led him to speed sessions at Big River Running. There he met co-owner Ben Rosario, who qualified for the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, and Adam MacDowell, who qualified in 2012.
“I idolized them and wanted to do what they did,” he said. “They let me run with them and kicked my ass for a while. But triathlon become secondary pretty quickly.”
Under the guidance of Big River and coach Ryan Bak, O’Connor won the 2012, 2014 and 2015 GO! St. Louis All-American 5K; 2013 and 2014 Freedom 4 Miler; 2014 and 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade Run and qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials with a 1:04:30 in the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Houston in January.
The trials, scheduled for February in Los Angeles, will be his first marathon. But what the heck?
“This is uncharted territory. I feel like I’ll be most prepared by not running a full. I had a long buildup to Houston, and it worked. So, we’ll see,” he said. “Getting there and being in the elite category was the goal. I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Other nominees: Jackie Pirtle-Hall, John Cash
Levi Rhodes, 21
Student, Mineral Area College
Career Highlights: K1 Men’s Downriver Champion, 2015 Missouri Whitewater Championships
Too small for BMX, too unconventional for track or soccer, Levi Rhodes plotted his course after seeing photos of whitewater kayaking in the office of his high school science teacher in Cape Girardeau.
“I found a kayak on Craig’s List, then mowed a bunch of lawns to make money to buy it,” he said. Rhodes started with a wooden paddle but for the past five years has worked summers as a guide on the New River Gorge near Fayetteville, W.Va.
“It’s hard to develop the passion being from where I’m from. You’re not as exposed to it, and there’s not a lot of people to share it with.”
But Rhodes has found a way to share the love on his YouTube channel with a series of well-crafted videos. (See youtube.com/channel/UCCncqSBuAqrfyDd_m08trSg.)
“It’s the unlimited possibilities that I love,” he said. “You’re on a course that’s not defined, like it is at a skate park. You decide how to approach a rapid, but the next time you can try something different. You’re so focused you forget about everything.”
Rhodes’ victory at the Missouri Whitewater Championships in March was “kind of neat because I’d never gotten first in anything before.”
Winning isn’t the end game, though. “I want to have fun, to figure out where I can have a job where I can paddle every evening,” he said. “I have a lot of different ideas for goals in the industry, but I’ll have to see which door will open.”
Other nominees: Danielle Sartori, Shane Perrin
How We Chose the Athletes
Picking the men and women (and boys and girls) for this article wasn’t easy, and nor was it something we wanted to dictate. Instead we asked a panel of experts from local sporting goods stores, outfitters and organizations for their nominations. From there, we looked for athletes who have turned heads nationally with their feats and who represent a cross section of our community — young to old, veteran to newcomer, and coached to self taught. Still, we’re sure to have missed some qualified folks. Let us know your top athlete selections by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine