Champions for Dogs

Meet three of the U.S. Olympic Team athletes and the dogs they love.

As you and your dog watch the most elite athletes in the world compete in the London 2012 Summer Olympics this July and August, you might wonder what kind of dogs those swimmers, gymnasts, cyclists, weight lifters, and tennis players have waiting for them at home.

They are dog lovers, champions for dogs and dog rescue, and one has even been saved by a dog. Meet three of them in this issue and four more in August. Then, as you’re tuning in to catch the latest, from archery and badminton to volleyball and the triathlon, think about the dogs behind the medalists. Because behind every great athlete, there might just be a really great dog.


Natalie Coughlin

When Natalie Coughlin married her longtime boyfriend, swim coach Ethan Hall, a little Border Terrier, now age 7, trotted down the aisle with the flower girl. The dog wore a silk pillow holding two wedding rings, and never barked once. “She’s a crazy little terrier, but she rose to the occasion,” Coughlin says. “She was perfect, and I was very proud of her.”

An unusual ring bearer, perhaps, for the most decorated female athlete at both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2004 Athens Olympics. Coughlin has won a medal in every single Olympic event she’s entered. That’s 11 medals in all, including three golds. Before all that, though, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with big dogs.

“I grew up with big, scary-looking dogs who are actually sweethearts,” Coughlin says. “When I was in Catholic school, we would all bring our dogs to school to be blessed on St. Francis day. All the kids were afraid of my dogs, and it made me proud. My secret was knowing how sweet and gentle they really were.”

Those childhood dogs — a Great Dane and a Doberman Pinscher named Duke and Dana, respectively, and a police-trained German Shepherd Dog named Radar — made Coughlin into a “big-dog person.”

Then she met a friend’s Border Terrier. “This dog was just the feistiest, toughest, most personality-filled dog I’d ever met,” she says. Coughlin started researching the breed, and as soon as she returned from the Athens Olympics with two gold medals, she and Hall brought home a Border Terrier puppy from a breeder. “I named her SheRa, after the Masters of the Universe character, because she’s my little Princess of Power,” Coughlin says.

 Later the couple added an American Bulldog puppy named Dozer. “We bought him at a young age knowing he would be very big and powerful, so we started training and socializing him right away,” she says. “We were really good about that.”

Dozer, who at age 3 now weighs 110 pounds, has become their lovable lug. “He’s not nearly as bright as SheRa, but he’s just so sweet,” Coughlin says. “He was smaller than SheRa when we got him, and even though he doubled in size within the first two weeks, he has always deferred to her. SheRa is definitely the boss, and he obediently follows her around.”

 Coughlin says she would have five dogs if she had the time and space at her home in Lafayette, Calif., but for now, two is perfect. “They keep each other company, and they really love each other,” she adds. “It’s so cute when they walk together on the split leash or wrestle.” The dogs stay with friends when Coughlin and her husband travel for competitions, and are the best part of coming home again. “There is just something so special about knowing that whether I leave the house for a minute or a month, the dogs are just as happy to see me each and every time,” Coughlin says. “Our bond is so unconditional, it amazes me. I can’t imagine my life without dogs.”


Tony Azevedo
Water polo

When Tony Azevedo, one of the top water polo players in the world, was training at the pool one day in Long Beach, Calif., his friend brought by a rambunctious pit bull-type puppy. “As soon as she got to the edge of the pool, she jumped in and started chasing the water polo ball. I fell in love with her immediately,” Azevedo says. “Pit bulls are known for not liking water, but she loves swimming more than anything.”

Azevedo’s friend gave him the puppy, and he named her Olympia. “She grew into an 80-pound ball of muscle,” Azevedo says. “She’s very loving. All she really wants out of life is as much human contact as possible, and a good swim.”

A member of the U.S. Olympic Teams at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as well as the 2004 and 2008 Olympics in Athens and Beijing, respectively, Azevedo was named the world’s seventh-best athlete in 2003 by Men’s Journal.
But dogs are Azevedo’s other passion.

A few years after adopting Olympia, who is now 12 years old, Azevedo found out about a 4-month-old puppy at the pound whose owner had thrown him from a car window. “He was this beautiful little Brazilian Fila,” Azevedo says. “I was born in Brazil, and I really wanted to adopt him, but then the owner came back and said he wanted the dog because he found out how much money it was worth. But the shelter didn’t want to give the dog back, and because he came back within minutes of the end of the waiting period, they did a raffle and we got to take him home. I named him Apollo.”

The Fila Brasileiro, now 7, quickly grew to over 220 pounds, but defers to Olympia. “She controls him. She runs him around and makes him do things for her,” Azevedo says. “But he always has the biggest smile on his face. He’s so lovable, he just wants to sit and stare at you, and he doesn’t understand that he’s too big to be a lap dog, or why he can’t quite seem to fit on the furniture.”

Azevedo and his wife, Sara, divide their time between Long Beach and Montenegro, where Azevedo’s professional Brazilian water polo team is based. While overseas, Olympia and Apollo stay with Azevedo’s parents, so it’s only natural that Azevedo and his wife would miss their dogs and want to help the local stray dogs they saw all over Montenegro. “I was upset by the stray-dog situation,” Azevedo says. “They don’t believe in neutering, and they get puppies, then kick them out when they get big. Kids don’t learn what it means to have an animal, how loving and special they are.”

The situation prompted Sara to begin fundraising for the local shelter. “They had no equipment to give the dogs shots, and 95 percent of the dogs that come in die of worms,” he says. “My wife raised 15,000 euros for them. Since I was a pro player over there, they started doing commercials to raise awareness about the situation, and they put me on the front page of the paper. But I give my wife all the credit. She made a big difference for the dogs.”


Kayla Harrison

At age 10, Kayla Harrison was climbing a tree in her front yard when she fell, dropped 30 feet, hurt her neck, and couldn’t move. “My aunt was inside babysitting my younger siblings,” Harrison says. “Thank goodness my dog Tess wouldn’t stop barking.” The fluffy Chow Chow mix barked and howled until Harrison’s aunt came outside, saw what had happened, and called an ambulance. “I guess you could say she kind of saved my life,” Harrison says.

If her childhood best friend hadn’t rescued her, Harrison, who lives in Marblehead, Mass., might never have achieved her current status as the No. 1 ranked Judo player in her weight class in the U.S., and No. 3 in the world.

She’s a favorite to win the gold in London this summer, having taken the gold at the World Championships in Tokyo in 2010. This February at the Paris Grand Slam, she defeated the No. 1 world-ranked judoka in her division, and at the Düsseldorf Grand Prix, Harrison became the first U.S. woman and only the third U.S. fighter ever to take the top spot on the podium.

When she’s not training or competing, Harrison spends a lot of time with dogs.

“I had a job in downtown Boston walking dogs, and then when I moved to Pennsylvania and rented a room in a home, I started walking [the family’s American Bulldog] Sarge,” she says. Harrison became very close with the family. The father, Pat O’Sullivan, does judo, and Harrison began to mentor and train the two daughters, Kaelin and Darcy. But her strongest bond was with the family’s 104-pound, 4-year-old American Bulldog.

“He’s like my baby now,” she says. “I always stay with him whenever they go out of town. I can’t have a dog where I live now, but I go over to see him almost every day. He’s such a big goofball. He’s a huge dog, his head is massive, and he looks like the toughest dog on the block, but he’s the biggest sissy.”

Sarge also lives with two cats, but the cats rule the roost, Harrison says. “He has no say in anything. If he wants to go upstairs, and one of the cats is at the top of the stairs, he’ll hug his body up the wall and climb the stairs very slowly, looking at the cat the whole time to make sure it’s OK.”

 When someone knocks on the door, Harrison says, Sarge lets loose a big, loud, deep bark. “But after we have our walks and I leave, he does this little yelp like a Chihuahua. I call it his crybaby bark. You wouldn’t believe that noise could come out of that dog, but it’s so cute because he doesn’t want me to leave.”

When Harrison and her fiancé go hiking in the mountains in New Hampshire, they take Sarge with them. “When we got to a creek of melted snow, not only would he refuse to drink it, but he wouldn’t walk across it,” she says. “My fiancé had to pick him up and carry him across the water.”

For Harrison, Sarge stands in for the dog she can’t actually have. “He means everything to me,” she says. “He’s not mine, but I think I’m his.” 

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