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Mazzei family heads west for Olympic chase

by Anthony Hanshew

SPORTS EDITOR

Each morning he's greeted by a crisp, cool breeze, brilliant blue sky and Pike's Peak. He's being introduced to new thrills such as the velodrome and the company of world champions.

He's just 15 years old, but Rocky Mazzei is taking an adult approach to his Olympic dream. Mazzei's parents are right behind him -- literally.

The dream was born a few years back on the steep grades of West Virginia mountain sides. Surprisingly stout and strong for his age, Mazzei quickly began dominating competition in the West Virginia Mountain Biking Association.

Gradually he's graduated to more sophisticated training. First, he earned sponsorships which brought elite equipment and training opportunities. Next came the tutelage of some of the nation's top cycling coaches.

Things really picked up this summer.

Mazzei participated in a week-long competition in Mount Snow, Vt., where a top-5 finish earned him an invitation to attend USA Cycling's Junior Development Camp in Park City, Utah.

The top 25 from that July camp were then picked to train full-time at USA Cycling's facilities in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of the United States Olympic Committee.

Traveling cross country as the youngest member of a group of elite athletes certainly could be daunting. It helps, however, to have your mom.

In a family decision, Jill Mazzei would join her son in Colorado Springs. Rocky's father, Rocco, remains in Clarksburg, but flies west monthly.

"We figured if the door was open, this would be the thing to do," Jill said. "The timing for him seemed right with the national camp."

Indeed, everything seems to be falling into place.

Jill got a job at Carmel Middle School as an eighth grade teacher on her first phone inquiry. Instead of teaching his budding star from across the country, USA Cycling coach Jim Lehman can work hands on from his office in Colorado Springs.

In addition, Mazzei rides on weekends with three-time world champion Mari Holden.

Leaving family and friends certainly is a sacrifice, but the good is outweighing nostalgia.

"It's great," said Rocky, who transferred from Robert C. Byrd to Cheyenne Mountain High School (Peggy Fleming's alma mater). "Moving out here has been better than I ever imagined. School is incredible. Cycling's been incredible."

It's also been an adjustment. Mazzei previously had competed solely on mountain biking; now he's learning road racing and the velodrome -- a steep, circular track which serves as one of the Olympic's more unique venues.

"Right now, I'm not a roadie. I'm not a trackie. Right now, I'm a junior cyclist," Rocky said. "There's something for me in cycling. I've never raced on a track, but I will when the weather breaks.

"Right now, it's wide open, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity when I find it."

Those opportunities started when Ed Evans, who owns a cycling shop in Morgantown, first backed Mazzei. Now, it's leading to talk of competing in the Pan Am Games and/or the Junior World Championships within the next year.

"We love that boy so much," Rocco said from his Johnstown home. "We're going to support him all the way. It's actually a pleasure to help him reach his dream. It's a sacrifice, but it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"If you can help him achieve an Olympic dream, what more can you do for a child?"

The Mazzei family echo each other in crediting their religious faith for Rocky's path. Jill, in particular, refers to getting a job on her first call, "a miracle."

Apartment hunting didn't turn out quite as successful early. The Mazzeis scoured the Internet and made repeated phone calls, only to hear that there was nothing available near Cheyenne Mountain. The area is referred to as "Silicon Mountain" due to its booming computer industry, and people are moving in in droves.

Finally, Jill gets a call back from a rentor with an odd story.

It seems that a man who had rented the last unit couldn't move it. The reason -- his furniture wouldn't fit through the front door.

Jill pounced and she and Rocky "got the last apartment" in Cheyenne Mountain.

Maybe this whole Olympic thing is meant to be.

Sports editor Anthony Hanshew can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at ahanshew@exponent-telegram.com.

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