athlete spotlight Archives - Athletes for Hope

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AFH Athlete Spotlight

AFH Athlete Spotlight

From Small Town To Big Impact

On September 18, the Minnesota Vikings agreed to terms with NFL veteran offensive lineman Dalton Risner. The four-year Denver Broncos starter and 2022-23 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee may bring on-the-field expertise to Minnesota, but he also brings years of charitable service and leadership to the Vikings community. 

Risner’s foundation, RisnerUp, is a reflection of who Dalton is as a person, kind and passionate about helping others. Whether it is bringing a simple smile or helping someone find a new pathway in life, Risner offers many people a helping hand each year. 

Dalton Risner standing between two new friends made at Howdy Handmade.

“We may not be stopping world hunger but we are making a positive impact one day at a time without turning down opportunities to do more,” Risner said. 

Dalton grew up in a small rural town with less than 1,000 people. He went on to play Division I football at Kansas State and was eventually drafted by the Colorado team he always dreamed of playing for, the Denver Broncos. 

The offensive lineman had to defeat many odds in his journey, but he realized his true definition of success while in college. 

“The countless humanitarian awards in my time at Kansas State reflected my true meaning of success,” Risner said. “Which is positively impacting & empowering those around me.”

Risner has continued to showcase his faith in the world and finds ultimate fulfillment in others’ joy. Once he realized he had a platform, Risner did everything in his power to expand his reach and support as much as he could. 

Dalton Risner poses for a photo at the Special Olympics polar plunge.

The small-town football player quickly became a notable figure in the philanthropy space and sacrificed lots of time to help those in need. 

“When I started figuring out who I was, what made me happy, what filled my cup every day, is when I started to utilize my platform for the greater good,” Risner said. “I started to see the bigger picture and just how many people I could impact & empower in a positive way.”

Now an NFL veteran, Risner has established a better routine in terms of time management and prioritizing his various commitments. He also hopes to help develop those around him into becoming role models as well. 

Dalton poses for a photo at the SuperBowl in Arizona with Eastyn.

“People look to us in the spotlight for empowerment, guidance, inspiration, courage, and much more,” he said. “Someone’s always watching and we don’t want to let them down.”

From football camps to building houses to serving meals, Risner does not set boundaries to what his foundation can and cannot do. He knows that he simply wants to support communities where he can. 

“Giving back, being a mentor, being a light to someone is a big deal,” Risner added.

Whether it is Colorado or Minnesota, this NFL player tries to be a shining light in any situation possible. Dalton Risner is living proof that an NFL schedule, while an obstacle, does not define the amount of effort athletes can put into their charitable work. 

A smile can go a long way. Dalton Risner has helped put smiles on hundreds of people, and it is only just the beginning. 

“The truth is that in life if something is important enough, we will do it,” he said. “If we need to eat, sleep, brush our teeth, etc. we make time to do it, and we plan ahead to do so. I treat service to others the same way, it’s important to me to be a role model, and show kids like my younger self that you can be a professional and have “made it” or however the world views it, and still be a genuine person that gives to others with time, money & commitment.”

Dalton tells participants of the RisnerUp football camp to put their hands in for a team chant before getting started.

Mental Health Athlete Spotlight

Just another player: How David Kubiak found joy in baseball

From college baseball to 36th round MLB draft pick to securing spots in 4 different organizations, David Kubiak’s baseball journey has been a series of ups and downs. 

Many baseball players picture themselves being drafted and having a long and lustrous career in the majors, but that is oftentimes not the case. Kubiak was cut from the Tampa Bay Rays on the last day of spring training and two years later found himself in Independent ball before taking time away from the game.

photo of David Kubiak pitching

“I think I still had some left in the tank,” Kubiak said. 

Upon his return to baseball, he went on to play several years in the Frontier League and Atlantic League before playing in the minors again. Stints in Mexico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic have brought him to where he is today, playing winter ball. 

While it is a windy path, Kubiak counts his blessings for being able to play the game he loves for a living. 

“I was fortunate enough to get drafted,” he said. “I probably would have played four or five years, now I’m in my twelfth. The stability of affiliated ball is fickle for sure.”

Whether it is the politics within baseball or the sheer number of talents, Kubiak found himself in a unique position. On two separate occasions he decided to take a step away from the game, and each time he came back with a positive attitude. 

As a “faith-driven career,” baseball’s landscape is not for everybody, and mental health is an essential piece to the sport. 

“Mental health is finally starting to make its way into normal, non-taboo talk,” Kubiak said. “When I grew up it was kind of just shut up and play. You just wear it.”

Photo of David Kubiak meditating before a baseball game

The direction sports is headed in the mental health space has carved out roles for people like Kubiak to become advocates, sharing their stories and helping others find peace. 

Kubiak serves as Marketing and VIP Relations Coordinator at WhiteFlag App, a mental health app dedicated to changing the way people communicate and heal. He has worked with dozens of clients and ambassadors to help promote the app and change lives. 

He doesn’t try to mask his own struggles either. 

“I wasn’t happy playing,” Kubiak said about the times he had to step away. “It wasn’t fun to come to the field every day and that wasn’t how I wanted sports to be.”

His support system at home and two years of therapy have helped Kubiak realize that he is not alone. 

Photo of David Kubiak celebrating after a great performance on the mound.

“Everybody goes through this stuff, everybody has insecurities no matter how much people tell you they don’t,” he added. “It’s nice to have somewhere to outlet that.”

The resources being invested in the game from mental skills coaches to other athletes who have struggled speaking out are a few ways in which baseball is helping their own. 

David Kubiak may not have had the easiest journey, but he has found happiness within himself after every twist and turn. 

“Mental health is a really important part of sports,” Kubiak said. “I’m really glad it’s starting to come out of the shadows.”

Athlete Spotlight

Rashad Weaver finds love in the little actions

Football player Rashad Weaver found a “deep love” for football his sophomore year in high school after he transitioned to defense, and never looked back. Today, Weaver is aware of his blessings and has found a way to support the next generation of children. 

The NFL linebacker has always viewed himself as a person who remains a work in progress socially. There is no sense of ego in his everyday emotions, and the Tennessee Titan will be the first to admit that it can be hard to balance such a busy lifestyle. 

The only difference between Weaver and many people is that he finds fulfillment in giving back, no matter the circumstances. He has found how influential his platform can be as a professional athlete and has embraced his role as a giver. 

photo of Tennessee Titan, Rashad Weaver, down and ready to make a play.

“I view myself as a very normal person, but to these kids and people I am so much more at times,” Weaver said. “It’s awesome to give them that joy.”

So when he is tired after a long practice or is coming from a brutal workout, he simply remembers the smiles he receives and the impact he can have. 

As a kid, Weaver played 4 sports and looked up to mainstream athletes as idols. Now, he makes it his mission to give back to the kids whose shoes he was once in. 

“I see kids telling me I’m their favorite player, with my jersey, writing me notes or letters, asking for autographs or just excited to hang out and have a good time,” Weaver said. “That’s when I realized the impact my platform can have.”

To Weaver, love can come in many different forms. It can come in a smile, an ounce of happiness, or a small gesture. Giving back has become the star’s way of showing love, and it is through others that he realizes he is more than a normal person, he is a source of inspiration. 

When he is able to make the time, Weaver enjoys participating in school days and other things of that nature to help the youth. He views them as innocent and without control of their situation making their smiles that much more important. 

Rashad Weaver stands with Patrick Jones II at the Chasing M's charity softball tournament.

“I just tell myself how much fun I will have and no matter how big or small that I can positively impact someone,” he said. “It gives me the desire to go to these events even when I have things going on.”

It took time to adjust to a lifestyle with service involved, but he remains candid as to the importance of supporting the less fortunate or underserved. 

Whether a person is sick or without many of life’s privileges, Weaver is always grateful for the opportunity to touch lives. 

He is the first person in his family to attend a university and also graduate from one. He was a first-team All-American in college and was drafted to the NFL. And he still counts his blessings and reaches out to help others. 

Rashad Weaver twirls his friend around at the Rally on the Runway event.

He knows football is more than a game, it is an opportunity to make your mark on the world. 

“Just take the leap,” Weaver said. “It can be overwhelming sometimes or even a little nerve-wracking as you can end up in uncomfortable positions, maybe with sick people or people in not great positions. But the feeling you will feel after being involved outweighs it all and you will be so grateful you got to spend time with these people.”

Mental Health Athlete Spotlight

Athletes are not defined by their body or their sport

By: Isabelle Irani

When I was 12 years old, I started swimming at a competitive level. The pressure in women’s athletics is imperceivable to those who have never experienced it, and as a young swimmer who experienced quick progression to a national level, being an athlete became a part of my identity. As I transitioned into a new version of swimming, the only thing I noticed was that I looked different.

As a south asian woman in a diverse city like Houston, I always had other people of color around me. People who I was able to relate to, people who looked like me. That type of community was limited in club swimming. The constant comparison started, and I began to realize that I wasn’t like the other girls I swam with every day. And so, my journey with mental health and representation in athletics began.

I fell into a rabbit hole of comparison. Every day at practice I would become angry with the fact that my body looked different than so many of the other girls, angry that they all seemed to have similar backgrounds and similar lives, and I felt as if I was alone. Unfortunately, my anger was expressed at home, and facing my parents’ innocent questions like “How was practice?” seemed to drive me over the edge.

How was I supposed to say “I hate myself, I hate my body, I hate that everyone seems to be doing better than me in school and in swimming.”, without making them think I was weak? I would explode when someone would comment on any imperfection of mine; panic and tears shed over every bad test grade, every bad practice, and race, and every time someone commented on what I looked like. My relationship with my parents broke more and more each time I pushed them away. I felt so obligated to a standard of perfection; if I wasn’t a perfect student and a perfect athlete, then who was I?

Luckily, I have an amazing mother who realized that something was wrong, and she was able to convince me to accept help from a therapist. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and high-functioning anxiety, it was soon discovered that with all the comparison to others I had done, I had forgotten who I was myself. I still remember in one of my first sessions, I was asked to describe what values I liked within myself. Not one thing came to mind. Five years later, after hundreds of hours in therapy, and countless conversations with friends, teammates, coaches, and my parents, I have realized what my values are.

I value the strength that my body possesses, and what it allows me to do every day in the pool- not what it looks like. I value learning new information and applying knowledge in a fulfilling way- not whether my grade was an A or a B. I value my family’s culture, my different experiences, and what makes me unique- the color of my skin doesn’t define me or my ability in athletics.

Getting help from a professional helped me realize that my thoughts were not who I was. My identity was never tied to my appearance, academics, or my performance in the pool, I was always ENOUGH.

Now, I often forget how I am perceived in my sport. I forget that I look different, I forget that my skin color is darker than many other swimmers around me, I forget that my body looks different than many other female athletes, and I forget all the things I used to focus all of my attention on. I forget small aspects of my sport that so many others focus their attention on because I was able to realize that those are not the aspects of being a student-athlete that I value.

Staying true to my values as a student and an athlete gave me the opportunity to do many amazing things, including now, as I attend my second-semester swimming Division 1 at The University of Maine. I work to remember and live my values every day and have so much pride as we enter a new age of diversity in swimming and sports. I hope to use my time left as a collegiate athlete to remind athletes that you are never alone, and you have never been defined by your appearance or ability.

If you are ever struggling, it’s okay to ask for help.

Olympic Athlete Spotlight

Staying true to himself through the “noise”

As Andrew Blaser prepared for his first Olympics in 2022, he knew he had a platform to represent the LGBTQ+ community on the world’s biggest stage. The Team USA Skeleton athlete has dealt with the trials and tribulations elite athletes face, helping him develop trust and tenacity along with learning how to cope with anxiety and fears. 

Blaser could be seen with a rainbow-taped saddle on his sled in Beijing that year, not as a political statement, but as a personal keepsake to hold onto during a daunting moment. 

“I had this tape that my teammates had purchased for me and I remember thinking that it was bright and happy and fun and would remind me that I hadn’t lost myself in all of the ‘noise’ going into the Olympics,” Blaser said. 

Andrew Blaser is a big believer in agency and autonomy, two attributes that allow him to accept his differences and fully enjoy his inalienable rights. 

The Boise, Idaho native grew up playing multiple sports from football, basketball, and track and field to cheerleading and ballet, where he excelled at each. Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is only one aspect of Blaser’s world-class career in sport thus far. However, his position as an athlete has given him a voice to help promote a sense of camaraderie for all. 

“I believe that Pride is about supporting each other and forming a community that feels safe,” Blaser said. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and everyone should have the right to feel seen as they truly are.”

He could not have reached this point without the “teachers” in his life, though. 

A supportive family of parents and siblings reminds Blaser that he is “capable of anything that [he] chooses to be capable of,” while friends have “literally walked around with [his] face on their shirts.”

The Olympic lifestyle is not for everyone, and various jobs held onto Blaser’s position for weeks at a time as he trained and competed. Meanwhile, coaches like Bryan Stith, Yogi Teevens, Wayne Phipps, and Brandon Siakel have allowed him to grow as a competitor. 

He even had a friend who donated $15,000 dollars to his sliding while also providing a shoulder to cry on. 

“I can’t even count the number of people who have helped me and loved me on this journey both in coming out and in sport,” Blaser said. 

This support system is part of the reason Blaser gives back today. Pride is not just a one-month thing or a parade, but a daily acceptance of others. 

“Supporting your LGBTQ+ friends and family should be an everyday stance,” Blaser said. “I think we have the ability to educate and to influence people to form more positive thoughts daily.”

Whether it is the Human Rights Campaign, or any organization fighting for equal rights on a daily basis, Blaser is committed to fighting for progress and equality. 

“I just come from a sports background and I think that just being able to tell our stories in a public space is a great opportunity to self-educate and to develop questions and to learn,” Blaser said. 

As Blaser and Team USA train for their next Olympics, the marriage between art and athletics remains a pivotal key to the Skeleton athlete’s success. Ballet events, high school meets, conference championships, and North American cups were all moments that helped Blaser find confidence in his abilities. 

Yet it is the people he continues to touch inside and outside of sport that has made Andrew Blaser an important figure in the fight for equality. 

“I would like to see it highlighted how far we are from equality,” he said. “Equality doesn’t happen just by passing a law that allows LGBTQ+ individuals to marry but it happens when we are seen as less than in the eyes of the general public or the politicians who are working against our right to exist freely.”

As Andrew Blaser heads down his next frozen track, he slides with ultimate freedom, confidence, and awareness. With eyes on the world-class athlete, he hopes freedom can exist in all facets of life, helping those who are different truly learn to love themselves.

Mental Health Athlete Spotlight

Your Possibilities Are Endless

By: Casey Zeller

Casey Zeller is a former USA track & field athlete turned professional stunt performer. She has been a stunt performer on television shows and movies such as The Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

When you fall in love with a sport, hobby, or career, your passion drives you to live and breathe everything you have into it. The sport then shifts, shapes, and forms us into the people we are today through the difficult practices, many coaches, teammates, competitions, travels, and sacrifices we make along the way.

My first love was gymnastics at the age of five. Since I could remember, my mom always told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” So, I set my mind on the Olympics as a gymnast. I was a natural and rose quickly through the competitive levels in 6 short years.

No one questioned why I wanted to go to the Olympics because they saw how hard I worked and my relentless determination to get to Level 10 and beyond.

But at 10 years old, at Level 8, my mom forced me to quit due to the toxic coaching environment. My dreams were shattered and I had no say in the matter because I was just a child.

Not long afterward, I tried out for my middle school track team as a promise kept to my best friend. We vowed that if we ever left gymnastics we would try out for the track team. Shortly after joining the team, I was flying past all the high schoolers to the finish line. My coaches told me I had great talent, so I once again set my sights on the Olympics, but for track this time. I powered through my high school years and landed a full track scholarship as a heptathlete and 400m hurdler.

Unfortunately, my college career was not kind to me. Years of overtraining and coaches pushing me to compete through injuries ad illness had caught up to me. My body was burnt out. Even when my college professor told me that I would never make it to the Olympics because it wasn’t in my genetics, I was determined to prove him wrong. I kept believing that I could do anything I set my mind to and refused to give up.

But after a tragic ending to my college career, I decided to take some time off. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return to the sport again but after a year, I reset my sights on my dream. I moved to Atlanta and got a new coach. We didn’t have a track, so I trained for the 400m hurdles at Piedmont Park. Injuries once again plagued me. Two months before the 2012 Olympic Trials I broke my foot and ankle- dashing any hope to make the team that Olympiad. I was devastated but I rehabbed and kept training. I went through 3 coaches hoping to find the right fit. By the time I found the right coach, my body was already too far gone, and my dreams were out of reach.

Middle school, high school, college, then professionally; I spent 15 years always chasing what I knew in my heart that I could do. Never accepting that my best years could be behind me, yet I consistently repeated the cycle until an injury put me out for yet another season.

The doctors told me that if I kept going, I would be in a wheelchair by the time I turned 30. I didn’t want to believe them. Track was everything to me, but it was costing me my body, my mental health, my financial well-being, and my life. So, I reluctantly retired. Left to question if my mom had been wrong the entire time-maybe I can’t do whatever I set my mind to.

For a year I wandered aimlessly trying to find a new sense of purpose. For half my life Track and Field defined me and my career: Track athlete, Track coach, B.S., and M.S. in Sports Management, USATF Athlete Advisor, and US Jr Pan Am Staff member. So, I sat and thought, “Who am I without track? Why did it define me? Did it define me?” These questions set me on a battle with depression, unlike anything I’ve experienced. I would look in the mirror and no longer recognize the athlete I used to be. I was just an empty shadow of who I once was. Unable to do what I felt I was born to do.

It was then I realized that I had to find who I was -unattached to any sport or career. I finally learned how important it is to be passionate about something but never let it define you. So, I took time to look inside myself. I spoke to my peers and began my quest of self-discovery. It was hard, long, and quite frankly, it never truly ends. Through reading books, going to therapy, personal research, holistic practices, meditation, feel good exercise-I found a way to be healthy and better manage the stresses that came into my life. I was able to find a way through that dark time and open my mind to other possibilities that I had never known existed.

I started trying anything and everything that came in to my life that challenged me: CrossFit, fitness/bikini competitions, BJJ, film background work, etc. One day while working on set as an extra, some stunt performers noticed how athletic I was and asked if I had ever thought about doing stunts. I replied, “What is that?” They laughed and invited me to come train with them and I thought, “Why not?!”

A month later, I was tafted into the SAG-AFTRA union and I hit the ground running, learning anything and everything I could.

It was a hard transition from a seasoned Track and Field athlete to the bottom of the totem pole in an industry I knew nothing about. It’s been almost 10 years now and I have created a new career for myself as a professional stuntwoman in the film and entertainment industry. But I have learned my lesson. Stunts do not define the person I am. It’s become my passion and career but it is not who I AM. Every day I wake up and try to find balance within myself and my life to keep me grounded in who I am as a person. There are still hardships that come and go but I have an arsenal of tools that I can use at my disposal now.

I hope my story can help shed some light on how the world and athletes define themselves in sports. We have so much more to offer than just our physical capabilities and performances. I encourage anyone reading this to never stop asking yourself important questions like Why. Why do you want what you do? Why do you want to go where you want to go? Why do you want to feel the way you want to feel? Why do you want to be who you want to be? These are questions that will keep us true to who we are – aside from our passions, sports, and goals.

Sometimes all you have to do is open YOUR mind and consider all YOUR possibilities because they are endless.