From Tokyo to Lexington: The Olympic experience of four Wildcats


Devynne Charlton poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, at the Nutter Field House in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Sarah Michels

Mary Tucker: No pressure

The bullet-pointed list of Mary Tucker’s accomplishments during her first two years at UK is long enough to fill several pages. But while it’s doubtful that many people outside of the relatively small sport of rifle would understand the significance of Tucker’s plethora of awards, everyone can appreciate the silver Olympic medal she came home with this summer.

Tucker competed in three events in Tokyo for Team USA — women’s air rifle, smallbore and mixed team air rifle, the event that earned her and her partner a silver medal. For Tucker, who has extensive experience competing at international rifle events, the Olympics seemed like just another competition.

“I actually often tell people that that was one of the easiest matches I’ve ever shot, and I didn’t really feel any pressure,” Tucker said. “I don’t know if it was just because of COVID that made it so chill, but there really wasn’t any pressure at all.”

When Tucker decided to attend Sarasota Military Academy for high school, her mother told her she had to pick a sport to play — any sport but rifle. Naturally, Tucker joined the rifle team. She was only on the team for one semester, though, before quitting and finding a personal coach.

Her shooting improved rapidly; upon Tucker’s graduation at 16, she moved out to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to train. She competed in her first World Cup in May 2018 and began working toward a kinesiology degree at UK in fall 2019.

More people and events generally make the World Cups more difficult than the Olympics, although this cycle’s level of competition was pretty high, Tucker said. The same competitors are at both — Tucker said there were only about five people she’d never seen before — and the goal is the same: to win.

With COVID restrictions in place, the main difference was the number of rules and the intensity of media presence in Tokyo. While she’s grateful for the experience she did have, Tucker feels a little ripped off after watching the 2022 Winter Olympics. Unlike in Tokyo, the athletes in Beijing had a media day, could pick out their own uniform to make sure it fit and could watch each other compete.

“They’re having such a dramatically different experience than we did. And I’m very happy for them because they’re pretty much having a normal Olympic experience. Nothing is changed for them,” Tucker said. “We weren’t allowed to go see anything else. We weren’t allowed to go do anything. So, I definitely feel like we missed out a little bit.”

Now that she’s back in Lexington, Tucker is almost exclusively focused on Paris 2024, where she hopes to medal in all three of her events. The selection process for Paris 2024 began the first week of January with a competition to decide the World Cup qualifiers. In between the collegiate conference championships and NCAAs, Tucker will compete in the World Cup, whose results typically determine who makes the Olympic roster.

“There’s a lot of things that I would like to do differently, just leading up because obviously in Tokyo I didn’t have necessarily the results that I wanted,” she said. “So, I think there’s a lot to prepare for Paris.”

Tucker hasn’t outgrown the NCAA. She said that the U.S. competition has risen with the tide, and she’s not completely dominating like she has during her collegiate career. But her focus is still definitely more international, she said, and the added weight of an Olympic medal hasn’t added any pressure.

“Nothing’s changed. I mean, it’s the same sport, the same people, same department and everything,” Tucker said. “So, I mean, I’ve gone the last … five years of expecting to get a medal. So then when I came back, it was like, ‘Okay, well, she did what she said she was going to do.’”

Devynne Charlton: The Olympian from the Bahamas

Devynne Charlton was supposed to hurdle at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Instead, she studied her competitors. She watched their process, preparation and performances to learn as much as possible for the next cycle.

After qualifying to represent the Bahamas in the 100-meter hurdles in 2016, Charlton got a stress fracture in her lower back that prevented her from competing. She still went to Rio with the access of an Olympic athlete, but the experience was bittersweet, she said.

Her recovery wasn’t linear, or as straightforward as she would have liked, Charlton said. She eventually found her way to Lexington, to Lonnie Greene, who coached her at Purdue University before taking a job as the University of Kentucky head track and field coach.

Greene helped Charlton return to an Olympic level of competition. To qualify for Tokyo, Charlton had to meet the Olympic standard — 12.84 — and be one of the three fastest 100-meter hurdlers from the Bahamas.

She did it just two months before the Games’ opening ceremonies, on May 9, 2021, with a Bahamian record of 12.16 (She also holds the Bahamian indoor 60-meter hurdle record).

“I think at that point, that was the fastest time I’d run in maybe two or three years,” Charlton said. “It was at a point where I thought I had already hit my peak and then just to realize I’ve still got some fight left in me felt really good.”

In Tokyo, Charlton’s Rio study session paid off. She made it to the final round after automatically advancing from the first round with “subpar” time and finishing second in her semi-final heat.

Only the top two in each of the three semi-final heats automatically advance to the Olympic final. The remaining two spots are determined by the next two fastest times across heats, so placing third is a huge gamble. In Charlton’s semi-final, it took the officials a while to distinguish between the second and third place finishers.

“It took maybe two or three minutes for it to come up on the board. I felt the world stop in that time,” Charlton said. “Seeing my name flash on the board for second place was the best feeling.”

In the final, Charlton placed sixth with a time of 12.74, the same time she ran as runner-up at the 2018 NCAA championships. But the time didn’t really matter — Charlton had reached the top of the sport, the “pinnacle of any athlete’s career,” she said.

Charlton hasn’t experienced a post-Olympics slump, she said. If anything, the experience ignited a fire to want more, to work hard to perform even better the next time around. There’s always room for improvement, and every year, Charlton said she can get better by doing small things that add up, like eating right, sleeping enough and tightening up her technique.

“None of those things happen overnight,” she said. “And sometimes it takes years to achieve, and so I think with more experience, I’ll definitely be that much better next time around.”

Finding motivation between now and the Paris Games won’t be too difficult for Charlton, with a major international competition every year in between — the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, delayed from their scheduled 2021 date, and the 2023 edition of the same event in Budapest, Hungary.

Charlton said breaking the seasons and years up to focus on one competition at a time makes the gap between Olympics seemingly close faster. But despite her focus on the present, Charlton can’t help but be excited to have a true, COVID-free Olympic experience in Paris, as opposed to Tokyo’s toned down “business trip.”

In the meantime, Charlton is training every day in the same facilities where the Tokyo’s 100-meter hurdles gold and silver medalists, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn and Kendra Harrison, used to train as UK athletes. And when she competes, she’s now announced as Devynne Charlton, the Olympian from the Bahamas.

“I like that title,” Charlton said. “It commands a little bit more respect.”

Alexia Lacatena: First, the Olympics. Then, college

A month after pitching softball for Team Italy at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, Alexia Lacatena entered her freshman year at UK.

Lacatena, 18, said the quick transition was difficult, but competition keeps moving. So far, she’s loving the UK softball experience.

“I love the whole team, the whole environment,” she said. “It’s constantly a good time, especially now that we get to play. I’m just super excited to be on the field.”

Softball has always been part of Lacatena’s life. She grew up watching her older sisters play and joined a T-ball team at 8. Lacatena was only 15 when she committed to play softball for UK, which is no longer allowed under the current NCAA rules. Although it was early, Lacatena knew UK was right for her, she said. That same year, Lacatena’s sister Maria made the Italian softball national team.

Her sister’s success inspired Lacatena to try out for Italy’s junior national team, which includes athletes 19 and younger. While the sisters are from New Jersey, their mother was born in Italy, giving them eligibility to represent the nation in international competitions. Lacatena made the squad, but her stint on the junior national team was short.

Less than two years later, Lacatena was called up to the senior national team, intended for athletes 22 or older. Lacatena was 17.

“That was kind of a big deal,” she said. “It’s definitely different — I will say that. It’s actually kind of one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, because everyone has more experience than you, and if you ever need any help, you have someone there to guide you.”

Team Italy was the sixth and final team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. Lacatena was one of its two pitchers. She said her first time pitching at the Games, against Team USA, was surreal. Her entire softball life had been about getting to that moment, that peak. She was competing against players she’d grown up watching, including Team Mexico’s Brittany Cervantes, who she later got to know as the director of softball operations at UK.

“Being able to play on the same field as them was absolutely amazing,” Lacatena said.

The only hindrance to Lacatena’s Olympic experience was the inability of her family to come watch due to COVID restrictions. She said the lack of fans made for a strange environment. Unfortunately, Lacatena won’t have a chance for a full Olympics experience until at least 2028.

Softball was introduced as a Summer Olympics sport in 1996 and continued to appear on the program until 2012. It was added for the 2020 Olympics, where Team Italy made its first appearance, but it will not return for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. Its status beyond 2024 is currently unknown.

Despite the uncertainty of softball’s Olympic future, Lacatena plans to continue training as long and far as her body will take her. After all, she’s still young, she’s never experienced burnout, and there are other goals beyond the Olympics, like this summer’s World Series in Oklahoma City.

But Lacatena is hopeful. She thinks that since the 2028 Games are in Los Angeles, which has a strong softball and baseball culture, it will likely make a return then. If so, she plans to be there.

“I want to try to go to as many as I can,” she said. “It’s just something that I want to do.”

Will Shaner: Not a dream

Being back on UK’s campus feels pretty normal to Will Shaner, a senior economics and finance major. That is, until someone on his walk to class recognizes him as an Olympic gold medalist, and he realizes it wasn’t all some weird dream.

Last summer, Shaner not only became the first American to win gold in the men’s 10-meter air rifle, but he also broke an Olympic record in the process. He said it was a “finally” moment, after growing up watching Team USA consistently struggle in the Olympic air rifle competition. Finally, U.S. men were performing well on the international stage.

Since then, the American competition has grown even stronger, Shaner said. He just happened to be the man who got the ball rolling.

Going to the Olympics has always been a dream of Shaner’s, in the same way it is for millions of young kids competing in their respective sports — just a dream. Until it suddenly became a reality, when Shaner won the final qualifier to make Team USA. Going into the competition, he hadn’t set any expectations for himself.

“The realization that you’re actually going is much different than wanting to go because you always want to go, but you never feel like it’s really going to happen,” he said.

The gravity of representing Team USA set in during the Olympics opening ceremony, which was a highlight for Shaner.

“It’s always built up in your mind. You have opening ceremonies, it’s all these great athletes moving around, then you kind of get there and realize that they’re all just people too,” Shaner said. “And they go through the same stuff and they’re all just trying to do their best too.”

The actual competition was similar to the World Cups in which Shaner has competed, except that the pressure was up a notch. COVID restrictions also replaced fans with filtered crowd noise and speakers and halved the number of U.S. athletes walking in the opening ceremony.

“[COVID] kind of put a damper on things, but at the end of the day, we’re there to compete,” Shaner said. “We’re not there for all the fame and glory.”

Shaner said he’s felt a bit of the infamous post-Olympics slump, but he is taking it day by day. He was lucky enough to have a few competitions to distract him immediately after his return from Tokyo before decompressing at home during winter break.

While Paris 2024 is the main goal, Shaner’s secondary focus is this season’s NCAA championships. As much as his gold medal means, he said there is always someone to push him on the collegiate level. Right now, there are three or four teams going back and forth in the rankings each week.

Shaner has also been trying to elevate his teammates, so that they might have some of the same experiences he’s had, as well as searching for sources of motivation outside of the Olympics.

“It is tough trying to find that motivation again and get back into it and keep going with it because you’ve already won like the highest competition you can,” Shaner said. “Finding new ways to motivate yourself is really key.”