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MARK CARDWELL/AFP/Getty Images
MARK CARDWELL/AFP/Getty Images

10 Tales of Warm-Weather Winter Olympians

MARK CARDWELL/AFP/Getty Images
MARK CARDWELL/AFP/Getty Images

The Winter Olympics are traditionally dominated by athletes from countries where winter brings freezing temperatures and snow, but that fact hasn't stopped a number of athletes from more tropical climates from infiltrating the ranks of the (c)old guard. From the Jamaican bobsled team to an Indian luger, here are 10 stories of warm-weather Winter Olympians.

1. THE JAMAICAN BOBSLED TEAM

Perhaps the most famous of all warm-weather Winter Olympians, the Jamaican bobsled team that inspired the 1993 film Cool Runnings made its debut in Calgary in 1988. Republican politician George Fitch, a former U.S. government attaché in Kingston who passed away in 2014, founded the original team. Three team members were in the military and had unsuccessfully tried out for the Jamaican national track and field team.

"Jamaica has great athletes, and bobsled is the winter sport that best coincides with the athletic skills you find there," Fitch told the Sun-Sentinel in 1988. "I only wanted to do this if we could be competitive and respectable. This is not a joke."

To offset the cost of its training and travel, the team sold copies of its official reggae song, "Hobbin' and A-Bobbin'," as well as T-shirts and sweatshirts. Jamaica's four-man team crashed and finished last in Calgary and didn't fare much better in 1992. The team showed dramatic improvement in later years and big things are expected of the women's team that will compete in this year's Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea; the team came in seventh at December's Winterberg World Cup.

2. THE SNOW LEOPARD

Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong celebrates finishing after the men's slalom race of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at the Whistler Creek side Alpine skiing venue on February 27, 2010.
MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, skier Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong—nicknamed the Snow Leopard—became the first Ghanaian to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Born in Scotland in 1974, while his father was teaching geography at Glasgow University, Nkrumah-Acheampong grew up in West Africa, where his only exposure to snow was on television.

After moving to the UK in 2000, the then-26-year-old learned to ski on an artificial slope after taking a job as a receptionist at an indoor skiing center in England. The Snow Leopard set his sights on the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, but crashed in his final qualifying race and narrowly missed the cut. He dedicated himself to improving his skills in the years that followed and that perseverance paid off when he officially qualified for the Vancouver Olympics in March 2009.

Yet Nkrumah-Acheampong had no delusions about competing for a medal. "I am a very realistic person and I know there is virtually no chance of that," he told the Vancouver Sun at the time. "I rather want to show people that you can do something when you come from a zero skier to qualifying for the Olympics in six years." Nkrumah-Acheampong took part in the men's slalom and finished in 53rd place (only 54 of the event's 102 competitors finished the race). Still, he was successful in making his intended point.

3. GRANDMA LUGE

Anne Abernathy of the Virgin Islands in action in the women's luge event during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, Utah
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Anne Abernathy graduated from American University in 1975 with a degree in theater arts and performed as a singer at nightclubs for several years before discovering luge on a trip to Lake Placid, New York in 1983. Twenty-three years and six trips to the Winter Olympics later, she retired as the oldest female athlete to compete in the Winter Games.

Abernathy, who lived in Florida but had dual-citizenship in the Virgin Islands, overcame lymphatic carcinoma to finish 16th at her first Winter Olympics in 1988. At 34, Abernathy was older than most of her competition in Calgary, and was given the nickname "Grandma Luge" during the early 1990s.

During a 2001 World Cup race in Germany, Abernathy suffered brain damage in a crash that split her helmet open and left her unconscious for 20 minutes. Thanks to innovative brain biofeedback therapy, Abernathy recovered in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Abernathy was prepared to make her sixth Winter Olympics appearance in Turin, but broke her wrist during a training run. While she was unable to start her event, she filed an application with the Court of Arbitration for Sport to be reinstated on the Olympic starters list. The committee agreed to include Abernathy's name on the starters list, making her women's record for Winter Olympic appearances official.

4. "THE NIKE PROJECT"

A crowd of spectators cheer as Kenyan Philip Boit finishes last during the men's 10km cross country event at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Philip Boit was a middle distance runner with no skiing experience when Nike approached him and one of his countrymen, Henry Bitok, in 1996 with an interesting proposal: move to Finland and train for the 1998 Winter Olympics on the shoe company's dime. Nike reportedly paid $200,000 for Boit and Bitok's lodging and a Finnish coach. Boit ultimately represented Kenya in Nagano, with Bitok serving as the alternate. He finished last in the 10-kilometer classic race, but was involved in one of the more memorable scenes of the 1998 Games. Norwegian Bjorn Daehlie won the race and waited 20 minutes for Boit to cross the finish line, greeting him with a hug. "Keep up what you're doing," Daehlie told Boit. "You're a champion, too."

While some criticized Nike for making a mockery of the Olympics in the name of stealth marketing, Boit—whose hat, collar, and sweater all bore the ubiquitous Nike swoosh—was moved by the experience, even naming one of his sons Daehlie.

Nike terminated its sponsorship of Boit after the 1999 Nordic skiing World Championships, but Boit, whose uncle Mike Boit won the bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, continued to dry train in Kenya. He participated in the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, finishing ahead of three competitors, and competed again at the 2006 Games in Turin. 

5. THE UNDERDOG ADVOCATE

8 Feb 1992: Lamine Gueye of Senegal skis down hill during the men''s downhill during the Olympic Games in Albertville, France
Mike Powell /Allsport/Getty Images

Lamine Guèye was enjoying a career as a model and actor, having landed a small role in the James Bond film Moonraker, when he founded the Senegalese Ski Federation in 1979. Five years later, Guèye became the first Winter Olympian from Senegal when he competed in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. After his first run, Guèye told reporters, "We have no word for downhill in Senegalese because we have no mountains. I was so afraid I almost threw up. I have fully tested the safety measures and can tell you that they work."

Guèye competed at the 1992 and 1994 Games as well, and has been critical of the International Olympic Committee's decision to make qualifying standards stricter after 1992—an effort to weed out some of the less polished athletes from countries without a rich history of winter sports. "The Olympic philosophy is that the whole world takes part," Guèye told Reuters in 2008. "You have the best in the world but you also have representatives from the lesser countries."

6. THE LUGER WHO DRIPPED BLOOD

Guèye wasn't the only competitor who seemed out of place in Sarajevo. Physicist George Tucker, a doctoral student at Wesleyan University, competed in luge as the only representative from his native Puerto Rico. Tucker, who lost a lot of skin bouncing off of the track walls, later described himself as "the luger who dripped blood." He finished last at his first Winter Olympics, but was wildly popular with the media and fans. Tucker, who was larger than the average luger, once recalled a story during his training prior to the 1984 Winter Olympics when a track worker accused him of being a "fat guy trying to pass himself off as an Olympic athlete."

7. THE PROFESSOR

Prawat Nagvajara of Thailand (L) competes at the men's 15km classical of the 2006 Winter Olympics' cross country in Pragelato, 17 February 2006.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Prawat Nagvajara stood a better chance of becoming an international rock star than an Olympic cross-country skier. But against all odds, the professor of engineering at Drexel University became the first athlete to represent Thailand at the Winter Olympics at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Nagvajara played keyboard in a teenage rock band while growing up in Thailand and didn't see snow until he was 18. He said he was inspired to take up cross-country skiing and compete in the Olympics after watching Boit compete in 1998. Nagvajara qualified for Salt Lake City by competing at internationally sanctioned races and earning the blessing of the Thai Olympic Committee. He was disqualified in the 30-kilometer race after being lapped and finished 68th out of 71 racers in the 1.5-kilometer sprint. Nagvajara competed again in 2006.

8. THE MESSENGER

Isaac Menyoli of Cameroon competes in the Men's 10 km classical cross country skiing event at the XIX Olympic Winter Games at Soldier Hollow Utah
DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Menyoli took up cross-country skiing in 1997 when he moved from his native Cameroon to the United States to study architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Menyoli became the first Cameroonian to compete in the Winter Olympics when he took part in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, where he finished last in the 15-kilometer race. Menyoli didn't care much about his time, however. He competed in the necessary five Olympic qualifying races and spent $15,000 of his own money on training in order to use the Olympic platform to spread an important message to Cameroonian TV and radio stations about the AIDS epidemic affecting his country. "I want to ski for a reason," he told TIME in 2002. "I want to tell people that they really have to watch out, that AIDS is serious."

9. THE CHOSEN ONE OF 1.1 BILLION

India's Keshavan Shiva prepares to start in the men's singles luge training session at the Whistler sliding centre on February 13, 2010 during the 21st Vancouver Winter Olympics
OLIVER LANG/AFP/Getty Images

When members of the International Luge Federation were recruiting potential athletes from warm-weather countries to train to compete at the 1998 Nagano Games, one of the young men they chose was India's Shiva Keshavan. The ILF was looking to grow its sport and they saw potential in Keshavan. After all, he was familiar with snow. Keshavan, who had learned to ski while growing up at the foot of the Himalayas, was flown to Austria, where he and several other athletes recruited by the ILF were introduced to luge.

Keshavan was the first Indian to compete at the Winter Olympics and finished 28th in Nagano. He finished 33rd in Salt Lake City, 25th in Turin, 29th at Vancouver, and 37th at Sochi. This year, he'll take part in his sixth—and final—Olympic competition in PyeongChang.

10. THE PRINCE

Monaco's bobsleigh pilot prince Albert Grimaldi and his teammates wave to the public after their sled tipped over during the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
DENIS CHARLET/AFP/Getty Images

Prince Albert II of Monaco competed in bobsled in five Winter Olympics from 1988 to 2002 before becoming ruler of Monaco upon the death of his father in 2005. The Prince, who serves on the International Olympic Committee, refused any royal treatment at the Olympics, opting instead to stay in the athletes village each time. His brakeman at the Calgary Games in 1988 was a casino croupier.

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NASA / Harrison H. Schmitt
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Space
The 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon
NASA / Harrison H. Schmitt
NASA / Harrison H. Schmitt

If you were born after the Apollo program, and maybe even if you remember those days, it seems almost unbelievable that NASA sent manned missions to the moon 239,000 miles away. People continue to express sadness at the fact that the Apollo lunar missions were so long ago, and that soon there will be no one left alive who actually went to the moon. Today, Alan Bean—the fourth man to walk on the moon and the last surviving member of the Apollo 12 mission—passed away at the age of 86. Which makes it the perfect time to remember—or get to know—the only 12 people who ever walked on a body other than planet Earth.

1. NEIL ALDEN ARMSTRONG

Navy test pilot, engineer, and Korean War veteran Neil Armstrong left the Navy in 1952, but continued in the Naval Reserve. He worked as an experimental test pilot for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) beginning in 1955, which evolved into NASA. Armstrong was assigned as an astronaut in 1962, and flew on the Gemini 8 mission in 1966, where he performed the first successful space docking procedure. Armstrong was selected to be the first man to walk on the moon, as the Apollo 11 mission was planned, for several reasons: he was the commander of the mission, he didn't have a big ego, and the door of the lunar lander was on his side. Although the first steps on the moon are what he will always be known for, Armstrong considered the mission's biggest accomplishment was landing the lunar module. He later said,

Pilots take no special joy in walking: pilots like flying. Pilots generally take pride in a good landing, not in getting out of the vehicle.

Armstrong along with his crew were honored with parades, awards, and acclaim after their return to Earth, but Armstrong always gave credit to the entire NASA team for the Apollo moon missions. He resigned from NASA in 1971 and became a professor of of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years. Armstrong served on the boards of many corporations and foundations, but gradually withdrew from publicity tours and autograph signings. He didn't particularly care for fame.

Neil Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, at age 82. His family released a statement that concluded:

“For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

2. EDWIN "BUZZ" ALDRIN

After graduating third in his class at West Point in 1951 with a degree in science, Buzz Aldrin flew 66 combat missions as an Air Force pilot in the Korean War. Then he earned a PhD at MIT. Aldrin joined NASA as an astronaut in 1963. In 1966 he flew in the Gemini 12 spacecraft on the final Gemini mission.

Aldrin accompanied Neil Armstrong on the first moon landing in the Apollo 11 mission, becoming the second person, and now the first of the living astronauts, to set foot on the moon. Aldrin had taken a home Communion kit with him, and took Communion on the lunar surface, but did not broadcast the fact. Aldrin retired from NASA in 1971 and from the Air Force in 1972. He later suffered from clinical depression and wrote about the experience, but recovered with treatment. Aldrin has co-authored five books about his experiences and the space program, plus two novels. Aldrin, who is now 88 years old, continues to work to promote space exploration.

3. CHARLES "PETE" CONRAD

Pete Conrad was a Princeton graduate and Navy test pilot before entering the astronaut corps in 1962. He flew on the Gemini V mission and was commander of Gemini XI. Conrad was commander of the Apollo 12 mission, launched during a lightning storm which temporarily knocked out the command module's power shortly after liftoff. When Conrad stepped onto the moon, he said,

Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.

Conrad later flew on the Skylab 2 mission as commander with the first crew to board the space station. He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1973, after which he worked for American Television and Communications Company and then for McDonnell Douglas.

Pete Conrad died on July 8, 1999 in a motorcycle accident. He was 69.

4. ALAN L. BEAN

Apollo astronaut Alan Bean was the fourth man to walk on the moon, during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. He was the lunar module pilot. Bean was also the commander of the Skylab Mission II in 1973, which spent 59 days in flight. Altogether, Bean logged 1,671 hours and 45 minutes in space. Bean is the only artist to have visited another world, so his paintings of the lunar environment have the authenticity of an eyewitness. He retired from the Navy with the rank of Captain, but continued to train astronauts at NASA until 1981, when he retired to devote time to his art.

Bean died on May 26, 2018 at the age of 86.

5. ALAN SHEPARD

Alan Shepard was a bona-fide space pioneer who cemented his spot in history long before the Apollo program. A U.S. Navy test pilot, he was selected as one of the original Mercury astronauts in 1959. Shepard was the first American launched into space aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft on May 5, 1961. His suborbital flight reached an altitude of 116 miles.

Barred from flight during the Gemini program because of an inner ear problem, Shepard had the problem fixed surgically and was assigned as commander of the Apollo 14 mission to the moon. He was responsible for the most accurate lunar module landing ever, and spent 9 hours and 17 minutes exploring the moon's surface outside the module. During that time, he famously knocked a couple of golf balls with a six-iron attached to his sample-collecting tool. With one arm (due to the space suit), he managed to drive further than professional golfers on Earth could ever hope to, thanks to the moon's lower gravity.

Before and after his Apollo mission, Shepard served as Chief of the Astronaut Office. He retired from NASA and the Navy in 1974, having achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Shepard went into private business, serving on the board of several corporations and foundations. He founded Seven Fourteen Enterprises, an umbrella corporation named after his two space missions. Shepard wrote a book with Deke Slayton, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon. Shepard compared his book to The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, saying, "'We wanted to call ours 'The Real Stuff,' since his was just fiction.''

Alan Shepard died on July 21, 1998 at the age of 74.

6. EDGAR D. MITCHELL

Ed Mitchell joined the Navy in 1952 and became a test pilot. Then he earned a PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT. NASA selected him for the astronaut corps in 1966. In January of 1971, Mitchell flew on Apollo 14 as lunar module pilot, becoming the sixth man to walk on the lunar surface. He retired in 1972 and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which explores psychic and paranormal events. Mitchell gained some notoriety after NASA for his views on UFOs, as he has asserted that the government is covering up evidence at Roswell. His information, he admitted, came secondhand from various sources.

Mitchell died on February 4, 2016, the eve of the 45th anniversary of his lunar landing.

7. DAVID RANDOLPH SCOTT

David Scott joined the Air Force after graduating from West Point. Selected as an astronaut in 1963, he flew with Neil Armstrong on the Gemini 8 mission and was command module pilot on Apollo 9. Scott then went to the moon on Apollo 15, which landed on the lunar surface on July 30, 1971. It was the first mission to land near mountains. Scott and Jim Irwin spent 18 hours exploring the lunar landscape in the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the first mission to use such a vehicle to travel on the moon.

Scott became famous for the "postage stamp incident," in which he took unauthorized postage stamp covers to the moon with the intent to sell them afterwards. NASA had turned a blind eye to such activities before, but publicity over the matter caused them to discipline Scott and he never flew again. Scott retired from NASA in 1977 and served as a consultant for several movies and TV shows about the space program. He also wrote a book with former cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race.

David Scott is 85 years old.

8. JAMES B. IRWIN

Air Force test pilot James Irwin became an astronaut in 1966. He was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15 in 1971. His 18.5 hours of lunar surface exploration included gathering many samples of rocks. The astronauts' medical conditions were being monitored from Earth, and they noticed Irwin developing symptoms of heart trouble. As he was breathing 100% oxygen and under lower gravity than on Earth, mission control decided he was in the best environment possible for such irregularity -under the circumstances. Irwin's heart rhythm was normal by the time Apollo 15 returned to Earth, but he had a heart attack a few months later. Irwin retired from NASA and the Air Force (with the rank of Colonel) in 1972 and founded the High Flight Foundation in order to spread the Christian gospel during the last twenty years of his life. He notably took several groups on expeditions to Mt. Ararat to search for Noah's Ark.

James Irwin died on August 8, 1991, of a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

9. JOHN WATTS YOUNG

John Young is so far the longest serving astronaut in NASA history. He was selected as an astronaut in 1962 and his first space flight was in 1965 aboard Gemini 3 with Gus Grissom. He achieved some notoriety at that time by smuggling a corned beef sandwich onto the flight, angering NASA. But Young went on to complete a total of six space missions in the Gemini, Apollo, and the space shuttle programs. He orbited the moon on the Apollo 10 mission, then was commander of the Apollo 16 mission and became the ninth person to walk on the moon. Young was also commander of the first space shuttle flight in 1981 and returned for shuttle flight 9 in 1983, which deployed the first Spacelab module. Young was also scheduled for another space shuttle flight in 1986, which was delayed after the Challenger disaster, so the veteran astronaut never made his seventh flight. Young finally retired from NASA after 42 years of service in 2004.

John Young died on January 5, 2018 at the age of 87 following complications with pneumonia.

10. CHARLES M. DUKE JR.

Astronaut Charles Duke was capcom during the Apollo 11 mission. His is the voice you recall saying, "Roger, Twank... Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot!" when the lunar module landed on the moon. Duke also made history by catching German measles while training in the backup crew for the Apollo 13 mission, exposing the crew to the disease and causing Ken Mattingly to be replaced by Jack Swigart on that terrifying spaceflight. Duke went to the moon (with Mattingly as command module pilot) on the Apollo 16 mission in April of 1972. He retired from NASA in 1975 having reached the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force, and founded Duke Investments. Duke also became a Christian and a lay minister to prison inmates.

Charles Duke is 82 years old.

11. HARRISON "JACK" SCHMITT

Jack Schmitt was a geologist first, and trained as a pilot only after becoming a NASA astronaut. In fact, he was only the second civilian to fly into space, after Neil Armstrong, who was a veteran at the time of his flights. Schmitt was assigned to fly to the moon on the Apollo 18 mission, but when the Apollo 18 and 19 missions were cancelled in September of 1970, the scientific community lobbied to have Schmitt reassigned to Apollo 17 (replacing Joe Engle) as lunar module pilot. He was the first scientist in outer space. On the Apollo 17 mission, he and Gene Cernan spent three days on the lunar surface (a record) and drove their Lunar Roving Vehicle around collecting samples, conducting experiments, and leaving measuring instruments behind. Schmitt and Cernan gathered 250 pounds of lunar material to take back.

After resigning from NASA in 1975, Schmitt, a Republican, was elected Senator for New Mexico and served from 1977 to 1983. He became an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and lives in Silver City, New Mexico. In recent years, Dr. Schmitt's scientific background and political leanings have kept him in the spotlight as he has said that the concept of climate change is "a red herring," and that environmentalism is linked with communism.

Jack Schmitt is 82 years old.

12. EUGENE E. CERNAN

As a Navy pilot, Gene Cernan logged over 5,000 hours flying time. He was accepted into the astronaut program in 1963. Cernan's first space flight was on Gemini IX in 1966, in which he conducted extravehicular activities (a space walk), followed by the Apollo 10 mission in May of 1969, which orbited the moon. Cernan was assigned commander of the Apollo 17 mission before anyone knew it would be the last Apollo mission. Even after the Apollo program was cut, no one knew for sure that travel to the moon would be abandoned for decades. When Schmitt and Cernan boarded their lunar module for the last time on December 13th, 1972, Cernan said:

"I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Cernan retired from the Navy and from NASA in 1976. He went on to found an aerospace technology firm, and wrote a book about his experiences as an astronaut. He also contributed his talents to ABC-TV as a commentator during shuttle flights and has made appearances on various space specials. In September of 2011, Cernan testified before Congress on the future of the space program.

The space program has never been an entitlement, it's an investment in the future - an investment in technology, jobs, international respect and geo-political leadership, and perhaps most importantly in the inspiration and education of our youth. Those best and brightest minds at NASA and throughout the multitudes of private contractors, large and small, did not join the team to design windmills or redesign gas pedals, but to live their dreams of once again taking us where no man has gone before.

Gene Cernan died on January 16, 2017

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who was born on this day in 1951.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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