Chattanooga’s World-Class Athletes

By Lucy Morris
Photography by Rich Smith
Shot on location at Girls Preparatory School

From traveling and two-a-days to injuries, self-doubt, and exhaustion, athletic training at the highest level can be excruciating. But as they say, ‘No pain, no gain.’ The moment the game, match, or race ends, and you’re standing on that podium a winner, all that hard work makes sense. After all, there’s no greater feeling than that of well-earned success.
Over the years, Chattanooga has been home to a number of exceptional athletes who have not only competed with the best of the best, but come out victorious. We spoke to five world-class athletes who call Chattanooga home to hear what it takes to compete – and win – on the world’s stage.

John Disterdick
The Boxing Legend

10x Master Boxing World Champion [2007-2015]

 


When did you start participating in boxing?

After studying engineering at Purdue, I went into the service. My sergeant in the 82nd Airborne was a boxer, and this was during the Vietnam conflict, so I wanted him to teach me some skills should I ever need them. That was really the beginning of my boxing career. After the service, I went back to California and worked as an actor, but continued to hit the bag from time to time, even as I took up other sports. I never really expected to fully go back to boxing, but I was putting together a TV show where I would go out and participate in all types of events and interview people who had overcome major obstacles in life. I found out about the Master Boxing World Championship and thought, ‘I’ll just go out and compete!’ I thought if I could get in the top three at the biggest boxing event in the world, that would help the show. I ended up winning it and was hooked.

What’s the most memorable match you competed in?

Probably, because I was so surprised to win it, the one that impacted me the most was the first world championship win. I remember driving home from the match with that big belt, singing and jumping around. I was so excited that I actually won that world title.

What distinguishes a champion from other competitors?

Any sport is hugely mental. When I would step into the ring, I had a mentality that I had to win it. It wasn’t, ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ it was, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ Training and conditioning is also a huge part. I couldn’t always out-skill everyone, but I always out-conditioned them, and that made a difference. I also depend heavily on my faith. Isaiah 41:10 is the verse I always thought of when I entered the ring.

How are you involved with boxing today?

I’m retired from competition, but I’ve been training kids here in town for the last 10 years or so. Boxing helps give them an understanding of what it means to be dedicated and pursue something. It gives them life skills they can use forever.


Photo by Rob Mulligan Photography
www.robmulligan.com

Sue Bartlett
The Tennis Star

2009 International Tennis Federation (ITF) Senior World Team Champion

 


Can you put into words what your world championship win felt like?

That was my first year on the Great Britain national team. I had gone with a friend to a qualifying tournament that January, not knowing it was the qualifier, and we both did really well and made the team. We played the U.S. in the finals, and I knew the people on the U.S. team better than I knew my own teammates. It was a bit weird playing against my friends, but we were excited to win the gold!

Were there times you struggled in your sport?

I’m a selective perfectionist. I see a lot of people I coach struggle with the same thing. That’s why it’s helpful that I still play. I know what it feels like to be nervous, and just play awful, and just want to quit. It’s not easy to give 100% and still maybe lose a match. It’s about your effort, not your results. It’s a lifelong journey that I am still learning.

What goes into winning a championship?

For any major success, you need hard work and commitment from all of the team members. It’s very important that the players put the team first, above their own personal wishes. That’s difficult in tennis, because though we play in teams, it’s an individual sport.

What’s the most memorable match you competed in?

In 2000, when I was 42 years old, I played in a tournament against college athletes and played three University of Kentucky players in a row. My third match was against a girl in the top 30 national college rankings. I was down 5-3 in the third set, and all these people were hanging over the veranda cheering for me. I ended up winning 7-5! All week long, people were saying to me, “You did it for the old guys. We’re not done yet!” Another memorable match was winning the mother-daughter 2003 U.S. Nationals with my daughter, Claire. That was special to be able to win that with her.


Bartlett credits her “three musketeers” for helping her get to this point. “I have been wearing a prosthetic brace for 20 years. I can’t play tennis, even teach a lesson, without it. Dr. Alvarez diagnosed my injury, Andy Marini is my physical therapist, and Jim Rodgers is my prosthetist. I wouldn’t be doing anything without the three of them.”

Gordon Connell
The Winning Wrestler

2004 Veterans Wrestling World Champion

 


What did it take to make it to the Veterans World Championship?

I entered and won the national tournament in Vegas in 2001 but got hurt. But that win gave me the motivation to take it to the highest level. I worked for three years to recover from the injury and strengthen my joints, a recommendation from Bruce Burnett, [the USA national freestyle wrestling coach]. I also wanted to get my weight down so I could enter at a competitive weight class. I knew my best chance for a title was to enter the 56 & Up age bracket at age 56. Turns out everyone else had the same idea!

Tell me about your world championship match.

After my semifinal match, which was an overtime win against the defending world champ, I made it to the finals. I was up against a Russian wrestler who had won several times before. We’re in overtime and I’m thinking, ‘I put in a lot of time for this. I trained three years. I can’t give up.’ I don’t know if it was divine intervention, but I ended up doing a move I had never done before and didn’t plan – a risky throw – and it worked.

When did you start wrestling?

I started as a sophomore at Brainerd High School in 1963. I only weighed 98 pounds, so I couldn’t do any other sport, but I needed something to channel my energy. After that, I wrestled in college for a few years before graduating and becoming a coach. I’ve coached for 47 years now – three at Hixson, six at MTSU, and 38 at McCallie.

What goes into winning a championship?

Support. My wife has always been supportive of my wrestling career – both as a coach and a competitor. Good workout partners are also important. I practiced with UTC athletes and some other young guys. You also need to recognize where you need help. I knew what I was going to do on my feet, but I needed help on the mat and so I sought it out. The Lord also gave me a healthy, injury-free body to compete and train.

 




Robert Espeseth
The Renowned Rower

1986 World Rowing Champion – Coxless Four

 


What was your championship race like?

Going in, we knew we were a good boat. We weren’t the best, but we had the best race plan. Our biggest advantage was that we hadn’t raced together internationally, so no one knew what to expect from us. After starting with the lead in both the heat and semi-final, we let the Germans, the defending World Champions, row through us so they wouldn’t know how fast we were. Our ace in the hole was our sprint. We knew they had a great sprint, so we needed to surprise them during the final. We knew by the time we started our sprint we had to have at least a half a boat length on them to have a chance to win. We made the decision to start our sprint at 600 meters out, and we beat them by an inch. On the medal stand they were looking at us and at each other like, ‘What just happened?’ To this day, I think if they had known how fast we were, they would’ve beaten us.

What goes into winning a championship?

People say it’s 90% mental – it’s 110% pain! Can you withstand the pressure and physical discomfort of pushing your body to its limits? Can you have the determination to persist and perform under that physical and mental pressure, not knowing if your best is good enough to win, or even medal?

How did you get involved in rowing?

I started rowing when I was 17, as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin. My father had rowed there and had won the 1951 IRA [Intercollegiate Rowing Association] Championship. While I was there, we won four IRA Championships, which is pretty unheard of. I’m still close with my teammates today.

In Wisconsin, the cold weather doesn’t allow you to get on the water as early as everyone else. But we always knew we’d get faster as the season went along, and if we ever got even with the lead or ahead, the race was over.

After I graduated I kept rowing and made the Olympic team in ’76, ’80, ’84, and ’88. In ’89, I took a job coaching the UTC rowing team.

Were there times you struggled in your sport?

The hardest part for me was questioning the decision to put my life on hold to purse the Olympic dream. You’re doing two-a-day practices, just trying to get by, and you start to experience self-doubt. You think, ‘Is this really worth it? Am I being foolish?’ Sometimes you just wonder a bit. You have to remember why you’re doing it.

Elizabeth Baker
The Trailblazing Triathlete

2017 International Triathlon Union (ITU) World Paratriathlon Series Gold Medal Winner [Gold Coast, Australia]
2016 ITU World Paratriathlon Event Gold Medal Winner [Penrith, Australia]
2015 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships Open Division Gold Medal Winner [Chicago]

 


How did you get involved with Paratriathlons?

I’m visually impaired, but I didn’t tell anyone during the first triathlons I participated in. They didn’t go that well because I would crash. I always had a goal of completing an Ironman by age 40, so I asked the officials the best way for me to compete. They told me I would need to find a tandem bike and guide or I couldn’t compete. That’s how I was introduced to the concept. Shortly after, I found out Paratriathlon would debut in Rio for the 2016 Summer Paralympics, so I set out to see if I could make the U.S. team. When you compete as a visually impaired athlete in traditional races, you don’t have anyone to race against. I knew it would be fun to finally compete on an even playing field.

What’s the most memorable race you’ve competed in?

The most memorable would have to be my race in Rio for the 2016 Paralympic Games. My brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, husband, and two kids were there. I had climbed to 3rd place, but fell about 30 feet from the finish line and ended up placing 4th. Despite how it ended, it was an amazing event. I was new at the sport, so I hadn’t raced the best of the best yet. It was nice to see how I could compete against those ladies.

Are there times you struggled in your sport?

I struggle mentally before every race just with the nerves. I once asked a friend how they got rid of their nerves and was told, ‘If you’re not getting nervous, it’s time to retire.’ I also struggle at times to stay motivated considering everything else I have going on in my life as a mother, daughter, wife, and professional.

What distinguishes a champion from other competitors?

I think it takes that internal drive and motivation to keep going and push harder, even with no one looking over your shoulder telling you to do so. I’ve spent many a day on a lonely track or bike pushing my body to failure. That’s how you improve.