Ellis Coleman, left, is shown here competing in the 2012 U.S. Olympic team finals against Joe Betterman.
A single mother who has worked hard to get her children out of a rough Chicago neighborhood, Yolanda Barral has never gone on a vacation with her family.
That's all about to change, thanks to the generosity of the family's hometown. Their first trip together will be to London, where they will watch Barral's son, Ellis Coleman, go for the gold as an Olympic wrestler.
"What I really love the most is that me and my family have never had a family trip together, so for all of us to be together on a trip for the first time to see a once-in-a-lifetime thing like this is awesome,'' Barral told TODAY.com.
At the U.S. Olympic wrestling trials in April, Barral spent her entire savings to see her son wrestle in person for the first time since he was in high school.
The good news was that the $500 tax refund she saved allowed her to see Coleman, 20, qualify for his first Olympics when he won the Greco Roman 132-pound weight class. The bad news was that the cost of following him to his next step — competing for a gold medal in London — was upwards of $5,000, a sum that made it impossible for her to go.
That’s when the wrestling program at Coleman's old high school and the family’s hometown of Oak Park, Ill., stepped in to make sure Barral would be there in person to cheer on her son. At a fundraising event at Oak Park High School in late June, more than $14,000 was raised to send Barral and her two other children to London. They will leave on Aug. 2.
"It was phenomenal,'' Barral told TODAY.com about the fundraiser. "It surprised me because I didn't know everybody was going to participate like that. I was so speechless, I was shaking.''
Courtesy of Ellis Coleman
Yolanda Barral is pictured here with her son, Olympic hopeful Ellis Coleman. Thanks to community members, she'll be able to see him as he goes for gold in London.
“It was crazy,’’ Coleman told TODAY.com. "My mom has only been to one of my competitions ever since high school. It’s definitely going to help me out mentally.’’
For many of the Olympic athletes who aren’t millionaire NBA players or contenders with six-figure endorsement deals, the travel costs can be overwhelming. Many have to find some sort of financial assistance in order for their families to be able to watch them live the dream in person.
“It’s very expensive,’’ said Coleman, who now resides at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and lives on a small stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee. “Everyone has their own little thing to deal with when it comes to getting their family there, so every person has to do their own thing to find a way to raise the money.’’
Coleman had mistakenly believed at first that the USOC would be providing airfare and lodging in London for families of the athletes. He soon found out that each athlete would get two free tickets to his or her event in London, but airfare and a hotel was not covered.
"It was disappointing at first because I wanted to be there to support him,'' his mother said. "How many people do you know go to the Olympics? I want to be able to share that moment with him.''
At that time, Coleman’s high school wrestling coach, Mike Powell, got involved. He paid the rent in advance on a one-bedroom apartment in London for the family out of his own pocket, and was willing to give more if enough money wasn't raised by the community in the planned fundraiser in June. Powell wanted to ensure that Barral would make the trip overseas after seeing everything she had done for her son.
Barral had fought hard to move her children out of a gang-ridden neighborhood in the West Side of Chicago to give them a better life. Barral, who works in customer service for the Illinois Tollway, applied for Section 8 financial assistance with her housing and was granted vouchers that helped her relocate her family to a safer environment in Oak Park.
“My mom is on a big pedestal for me,’’ Coleman said. “She was always keeping me going in the right direction. She sacrificed so much.’’
Now she will get a chance to see her son, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, in person as he shoots for the gold. Maybe he will even break out the move that made him a viral sensation – “The Flying Squirrel.’’ He first tried the move at the Sunkist Open in 2009, but he officially became a YouTube star when he unleashed it at the Junior World Championships in Romania in 2011. The clip, which has been viewed more than 4 million times, shows Coleman doing a front flip over his opponent from a standing position, grabbing him around the waist on the way down and taking him down to the mat.
"When I saw that, it was like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe he just jumped over someone's head,''' Barral said. "Everybody's trying to do 'The Flying Squirrel' now.''
Coleman now hopes to ascend to the top of the podium not only for himself, but for the person who has given so much to help him succeed. It also would cap a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for a family that has never had one.
“I compete for my mom,’’ he said. “I’m striving to get a medal for my mom. It’s all for her.’’
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