It’s easy to think of gifted athletes as preternaturally blessed. But success depends on not just physical but mental endurance—the ability to persevere in the face of challenges. These five Atlanta athletes represent a range of disciplines and abilities, but they’ve all got one thing in common—a staggering amount of determination, something that even the most casual exerciser could probably use more of.
25, track and field
Aleec Harris will be the first person to tell you that track and field saved his life—literally.
As a high schooler in Duluth, he fell in with a rough crew who exposed him to gangs and drugs. His father, a former track team member at South Gwinnett High School, insisted Harris take up an extracurricular sport as a path away from his old crowd.
The 17-year-old had never run track before, but when he showed up for tryouts, a hurdle caught his eye. “I just wanted to see if I could jump over it,” he says. When his coach saw him clear it, he pulled Harris aside and told him, “This is what you’re going to do!” At his first race, where he competed against other students who had been training for years, he won—and still holds the 110-meter and 400-meter Gwinnett County high school hurdling records. “I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, but something just clicked,” he says.
Now in his second year as a professional, he’s the U.S. champion in the indoor 60-meter hurdles and a hopeful for Rio in the 110-meter hurdles. Growing up, he says, “I didn’t even realize that professional track and field [existed], and now I have a chance to go to the Olympics. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime dream.”
In 2012 peng-yu Chen was performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker when something went excruciatingly wrong. “As a dancer, your pain tolerance is really high,” she says. “I’d been hurt before, but I’d never had to run off stage like that.” Backstage, medics cut off her tights and brought her to the ER. She later discovered she had torn her ACL and two parts of her meniscus.
Chen grew up dancing as a child in Taiwan, but came to ballet late, at age 12, and didn’t start pointe work until college. But she proved a quick study. After moving to the U.S. to study dance at SUNY Purchase, Chen landed a spot at the Atlanta Ballet in 2007. “This is a real classical company, but I’m more of a jumper than a white-swan type,” she says. “I’d never even worn a tutu before [coming to Atlanta]. The first time I walked out in that Nutcracker costume, I had a moment like, Wow. I never thought I’d be doing this.”
After her injury, Chen rehabbed for more than a year. “I had to learn to walk, to do everything.” Her parents and brother flew in from Taiwan to help her through. Then, the following spring, as she was preparing to take the stage again for the first time, Chen got word that her mother had been hit by a scooter. She passed away a few days later. “I knew that I would dance again—for her and for myself,” says Chen. Two years later, she still feels thankful for the ability she has worked so hard to regain. “I’ve always learned quickly, and I used to take it for granted. Now, when I master a move, it means so much more.”
“I’ve had an interesting early career,” admits Atlanta Falcons linebacker Nate Stupar. Since being drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2012 and cut from the team two weeks in, he bounced among three other franchises before securing a spot in Atlanta in 2014. “In the NFL [nothing is] guaranteed, unless you’re a first-, second-round guy, a huge deal, which I’m not,” he says. Still, those early years “really created a fire in me to push myself and to not let the opportunity go to waste.”
Stupar grew up in a big, athletic family in State College, Pennsylvania. Three of his four siblings played college or professional sports. His uncle is a retired NFL quarterback. “We’re a competitive bunch,” he says. “We were always in each other’s faces, pushing each other, but also having fun.”
That mix of ambition and enjoyment continues to drive Stupar today. “I’m an all-in kind of guy. You’ve got to go out doing what you love,” he says. “I’m going to go and go until they say I’m not good enough.” That likely won’t be anytime soon. Last year the Falcons signed him to a one-year extension, though Stupar knows better than most that nothing is ever certain. “I work every week like my job’s on the line,” he says. “Which it is.”
He is more motivated than ever after the birth of his daughter, Mya, last spring. “I come home to a little baby who smiles and doesn’t care about the mistakes that you’ve made [that] day or all the coaches who yelled at you,” he says. “Now it’s about using football to bless my wife and daughter for the future.”
41, wheelchair tennis
In 1995 Jennifer Speer was on the way to an NCAA basketball tournament, along with her teammates from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, when the van she was riding in was struck by a dump truck. The accident broke her back and permanently damaged her spinal cord.
“There was never a doubt that I would go back to school,” says Speer. But she assumed sports would never be part of her life again. “I just kind of shut down that part of myself.” Instead she threw herself into her studies, earning a master’s degree in speech-language pathology.
Then, in 2012, Speer took a job at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a hospital focused on patients with spinal cord and brain injuries. She began working out at the center’s adaptive gym after work and discovered that a coed wheelchair basketball team practiced there. One of the players coaxed her into joining.
“The first practice, it was like, Ahhh, I’m part of a team again!” But it was humbling, she says, trying to relearn the sport that she’d played for so many years. “Before the accident, I was always the scrappy one, and now I can’t even reach up and grab the ball with one hand.” Still, she played on the team for three years before switching her focus to tennis after a neck injury a year ago.
“Just figuring out how to push the chair with the racket in your hand takes a lot of getting used to,” says Speer. But she no longer constantly compares her performance to what she could do before the accident. “I’ve learned to accept what I can’t do and improve on what I can. There are people I play with who are 70 years old and still going. I hope to be one of them someday.”
Justin Holiday and his younger brother, Jrue, are just 14 months apart. “It was always the two of us. We did everything together,” says Holiday. That included sports, from soccer to football to basketball, which the pair took up in the footsteps of their parents, who were both college basketball players. “When I was a kid, our dad was always playing in leagues or with his buddies in the park,” says the 6-foot-6 Holiday. “We just wanted to be able to play with him one day.”
After high school, Holiday went on to play for the University of Washington, and a year later Jrue joined the basketball team at UCLA. But while his brother became a first-round draft pick after his freshman year (and in 2013 an NBA All-Star), Holiday finished out four years at Washington without being drafted. Instead he played in Europe and the NBA D-League before working his way into a place with the Golden State Warriors, and now as a guard for the Hawks.
“I can’t say that if I’d had my brother’s journey that I wouldn’t work hard,” says Holiday. “But having to work my way up, that fueled me. It made me stronger.” Even after winning a 2015 NBA championship with the Warriors and getting an opportunity to start in games with the Hawks this season, Holiday still feels the need to prove to his peers—and to himself—that he’s good enough.
“My push is just as strong now as it was when I was in Belgium or the D-League,” he says. “I always joke that God gave me this long, skinny body for a reason, but I have to give myself a chance to succeed by giving 100 percent. I feel like I still have a lot to do.”
Want more articles like this delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our LiveFitATL emails: