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St. Francis High School Celebrates Two Olympic Athletes Among Alumni

Thursday, August 4, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Megan Jamen
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As the world anticipates the upcoming Olympic Games, the St. Francis High School community is anxiously waiting to watch and celebrate one alum as she competes in Rio, while remembering another who was a two-time Olympian in the Mexico City and Munich games.

 “This is radical, it’s really radical!” exclaimed John Vande Velde ’67 when he returned to St. Francis High School to speak at the Senior Transition Day workshops last spring.  He was taking in all the changes he was seeing, most notably the fact that both boys and girls were in class together, and was amazed at how different it felt to be in a classroom like that.

Growing up, John swam competitively, but he grew tired of the chlorine burning his eyes.  His father, uncle and brother all were cyclists and were involved in racing.  After attending one race and a cycling meeting, John came home with an application to be a racer himself.  While his father hoped John would become an Olympic swimmer, he eventually supported John in his desire to follow in a family tradition that began in Belgium with his grandfather.

John started training when he was 13 and said there were no tracks for riding back then, so he trained along Route 53.  He rode from Glen Ellyn, where he lived, down to Lemont, and along Cass Avenue.  Oddly enough, he did not ride his bike to school.  After graduation, John moved to and went to school at the University of Albuquerque where he could also train and focus on making the Olympic team.  At age 19, John was the youngest cyclist on track in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he rode and earned a bronze medal at the 1971 Pan American Games, and at 23 he was the oldest cyclist at the 1972 Munich games. 

He said that the “best part about the Olympics is seeing other countries’ smiles and rubbing elbows with the best athletes in the world.”  All the athletes chosen to compete are the best, but John said 95% of their success at the Olympics is mental.  The Munich games were overshadowed by the horrific attacks in which Palestinian terrorists killed two Israeli athletes and kidnapped and eventually killed nine more.  John said he remembers seeing the police talking to the infamous “man with the white hat” outside his window.  While the games continued after this nightmare, as John called it, he said they wrecked the Olympics.  Athletes could not focus after the massacre of the Israelis and he felt it changed the competition for everyone.

Because all American athletes were required to compete as amateurs, John said it was difficult.  They could not accept endorsements or get paid, so they couldn’t make a living.  After the Munich games, John became a member of the first professional American road team and competed in six-day races in Europe, Canada and the US.  The Europeans didn’t like them, but they proved that Americans could ride.  This broke down barriers and opened the doors to future American racers, including his children Christian (two-time Olympic cyclist), Ian (Transplant Games medalist) and Marisa (US National Cycling Team).

After his professional riding career, John built a portable track called the Vandedrome which was used for training in America, he portrayed one of the Italian cyclists in the movie “Breaking Away”, he was inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame, and now he travels while marketing and speaking about his game SpeedTrak Cycling (

When reflecting back on his Olympic experience, he talked about having to give up everything to train and not know if he’d even make it.  Once he was there and walking behind the American flag, he teared up and said, “It’s really an unbelievable feeling.  It’s the greatest thing walking behind that flag and representing [it].”


When he learned Kelsey Robinson ’10 was heading to Rio, John said “I’m so happy for Kelsey to make it to the big show.”  His son Christian will be commenting on all of the cycling for NBC, so he said he’s “been glued to the coverage.”  Kelsey’s first game with the USA Women’s Volleyball Team is scheduled for Saturday, August 6 against Puerto Rico.


Kelsey’s Olympic journey began when she was in grade school playing basketball.  She introduced volleyball into her schedule as a way to cross train for basketball.  She used to pray that she could someday play in the Olympics and represent America (


As a sophomore at St. Francis, Kelsey made the decision to focus strictly on volleyball, as she enjoyed the competitive and team aspect of the game ( Coach Peg Kopec said Kelsey was always very competitive and serious, but she had the talent.  She knew Kelsey would go far.


After St. Francis, Kelsey attended and played volleyball for three years at the University of Tennessee before transferring to the University of Nebraska in 2013 where she was selected AVCA All-America First Team and named a Big Ten Player of the Year.  Following college, Kelsey joined Team USA and helped them to win the 2014 FIVB World Championship, a first for the American Team.  She was named the Second Best Outside Spiker of the 2015 FIVB World Grand Prix, she was the starting outside hitter in all of the matches in the NORCECA tournament qualifying the team for the Olympics, and she was named MVP in her Italian Club League’s playoffs (’s-Team).


Upon being named to the 2016 Olympic Team, Kelsey said she was honored to be one of the 12 athletes chosen. “When I got the email Monday night, I wasn’t expecting it,” she said.  “I was just plugging my phone into charge and go to bed and I saw it.  It was very overwhelming in that moment…I’m going to be an Olympian and no one can take that away from me, and that’s a moment that I’m never going to forget” (


Kelsey’s mom Sue has been holding her breath ever since the team won the NORCECA tournament and qualified for the Olympics.  She watched and waited as Kelsey competed for one of the 12 spots for Rio.  She said Kelsey has been so fortunate and had much support throughout the years from all of her teams and coaches and fans.  “I never thought I would be going to the Olympics in Rio to watch my daughter play volleyball. Kelsey never took the easy road, but in the end it was the struggle and determination she had to get to the next level that made it possible.  It’s going to be such a great experience to see her represent the USA playing the sport she loves.  It seems like only yesterday she was playing volleyball in her Spartan jersey.  She learned so many valuable lessons from Coach Kopec and her staff which helped her become the player and person she is today.”


Kelsey said she is in countdown mode for Rio and said “St. Francis provided me with the structure and support I needed to be resilient in work ethic and have the discipline needed to achieve my goals.  I was pushed to be a better student, person and athlete at St. Francis and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the lessons I learned and all the support.”


The St. Francis High School community will be on the edge of their seats watching Kelsey and all the athletes over the next few weeks.  John Vande Velde won’t be the only one with a tear in his eye as the athletes walk in behind those Stars and Stripes. 




(picture courtesy of USAV/Eric Francis)


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