Swimmer inspires sisters to shoot for Beijing
By Katie Thomas
Published: August 8, 2008
There was something about the Fong sisters that caught Dara Torres's eye at a camp for aspiring swimmers at Stanford University in 2000.
Torres had recently broken the American record in the 50 meters at the Santa Clara International Invitational. Sandra and Danielle Fong were 10 and 8 years old, and dreamed of one day becoming Olympic athletes.
Torres had brought the Santa Clara medal to show the children at camp, but her plan changed when she met the Fong sisters from New York.
"My heart melted around them, so I just went ahead and gave it to them," Torres recalled Thursday in an e-mail message. "I remember Danielle in particular, she just had such a sweet face."
The sisters returned to their family's apartment in New York City, and Danielle Fong hung the medal on her wall."It inspired me to try to work harder in swimming and try to be an inspiration to others," Danielle said.
Swimming did not stick, but the inspiration did. Now 18, Sandra made the United States shooting team after finishing second in three-position rifle. Danielle, who is 17 and has cerebral palsy, will represent the United States next month as a member of the Paralympic shooting team.
Their mother, Nicole Fong, said she believed Torres influenced their future.
"It was just a sign of something to them that you could reach for the stars," Nicole Fong said in a telephone interview Thursday before leaving for the first of back-to-back trips to Beijing. "They weren't meeting a movie star with glasses. She could be a normal person and still have that level of achievement."
The athletes' village is full of brothers and sisters who have followed each other into the elite world of Olympic sports. On the United States team alone, there are the three Lopez siblings in tae kwon do, Keeth and Erinn Smart in fencing, and of course Venus and Serena Williams. The team boasts two sets of twins — not including Paul and Morgan Hamm, who each had to withdraw from gymnastics because of injury.
For the Fongs, the urge to compete originated with their father, Yuman Fong, who encouraged his three daughters — Abigail, 20, is the eldest — to purse sports from a young age.
A surgeon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, he started his daughters in swimming, but when it became clear that none of them would grow taller than 5 feet 3 inches, he said, they looked elsewhere. Around the same time, Yuman Fong got the urge to dust off his rifle and started shooting in local competitions. Before long, the whole family was spending weekend afternoons at a rifle range in Ridgewood, New Jersey
"It turned out he was a good teacher, and they were good students," Nicole Fong said.
Last year, Abigail and Sandra were named to USA Shooting's national team. Danielle attained similar success in Paralympic competition, placing ninth at the European Paralympic Championships last year.
For a while, Yuman and Nicole thought all three sisters could make it to the Beijing Games. "You know, that would have been perfect," Nicole said.
But at the Olympic shooting trials earlier this year, Sandra edged out Abigail, coming in second while her older sister placed fourth. Both sisters had a chance to make the team, explained David Johnson, the national coach for rifle shooting.
"In that age group, they're both world-class," Johnson said.
Yuman Fong said: "Everybody expected that Abby was going to make the team. But that's the way Sandy is, she rises to the occasion."
Sandra was training with the shooting team in South Korea a few days ago when she checked her e-mail and noticed a message from an unknown sender who turned out to be Torres, wishing the Fongs luck in the weeks to come. An NBC crew recently asked Torres about the sisters, refreshing her memory of the 2000 encounter.
"I don't know if you'll remember me," the e-mail message began.
Sandra had to laugh.
"Do I remember her?" she said Thursday afternoon, after completing practice at the Olympic shooting range.
Does she ever.