Rocco Mazzei left Clarksburg for Colorado Springs, Colo., in August of 2000 to chase a dream. He hopes to find it in five years on the other side of the world.
Mazzei is a 17-year-old track cyclist and resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He has his sights set on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. What he's accomplished already echoes throughout the state of West Virginia.
On May 17, Mazzei was presented the state's Distinguished Mountaineer Award by Governor Bob Wise in Charleston. In 2002, he made competition stops in Indianapolis and Havana City, Cuba. His next challenge will come in the first week of July at the Junior Nationals in Houston.
There, he'll try to qualify for the Junior World Championships, held in Moscow in August. If things go exceedingly well, there's a chance, albeit slim, at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But Mazzei concedes that's not likely.
"Anything can happen," he said. "But realistically, I'll be 19 years old, which is awfully young."
Mazzei's improvement since moving to Colorado Springs is evident, according to his national coach, Des Dickey.
"I'm really impressed," Dickey said. "The junior age is really difficult to measure the results and objectives. But potentially, he has the chance to represent the U.S. (in the Olympics). He's a talented athlete, and he's very motivated to be successful in what he's doing. That's half the battle."
Mazzei's mother bought his father a mountain bike as a Christmas present. Mazzei "stole" the bike from his dad and started riding.
At age 10, he competed in the American Mountain Bike Challenge in Snowshoe and had his first big accident. After going downhill too fast, he wound up in the emergency room with bumps and bruises and an eye swollen shut.
"I got super-competitive," he said. "It's just in my blood. It was pretty intense."
He left Clarksburg just prior to his sophomore year at Robert C. Byrd High School. Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, he had access to the same facilities as every Olympic athlete.
The Olympic Training Center offers free food and lodging and full medical coverage. It houses 200 of the top athletes in training for both summer and winter sports.
The center also requires all athletes to either hold a job or go to school. Mazzei will take classes part time at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with a major in sociology and a minor in philosophy.
But he has missed out on the average teenager's lifestyle, forced to skip his graduation from Cheyenne Mountain High School and his school's prom.
"We sacrifice a lot of what some would consider to be a normal lifestyle," Mazzei said. "Those are sacrifices that also have benefits. It all evens out. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'm happy with what I'm doing."
Overall, the move was nothing drastic, according to Dickey, who's also removed from his native Toronto. Perhaps the biggest deal for Mazzei was a considerable benefit -- getting to hang out with Olympic medalists like wrestler Rulon Gardner.
"It's more of a learning process than a culture shock," Dickey said.
Mazzei has a chance to watch and learn from those already on the Olympic team to improve his chances of making it in 2008. As long as he as the patience and vision to wait, he should have a fighting chance.
"A big problem is patience, because he wants to do everything now," Dickey said. "Everything is done with the focus on 2008. It takes four years to make a really good cyclist, and I think Rocco is doing that."
Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at email@example.com.