July 26, 2015 / 9:35 PM / 4 years ago

Pan Am athletes leave lasting impression

TORONTO (Reuters) - There was no shortage of awe-inspiring moments at the 2015 Pan American Games as standout athletes left a lasting impression with performances that may lead to greater success on the Olympic stage.

Many of the athletes at the two-week, multi-sport event between countries from North America, Latin America, South America and the Caribbean were hardly household names when they arrived but made a big splash at the Games.

The five gold medals won by 15-year-old American rhythmic gymnast Laura Zeng, who triumphed in women’s all-around and all four apparatus finals, were more than any other competitor and could serve as a springboard to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira captured five medals in Toronto, bringing his career Pan Am Games total to a record 23, one more than retired Cuban gymnast Erick Lopez.

Pereira saved his record-breaking performance until the last possible moment, collecting a gold medal as part of Brazil’s 4x100 metres medley relay team.

His five-medal haul was played out at what proved to be the most electric venue of the Games, offering an Olympic-level atmosphere and no shortage of drama.

Another memorable story from the pool came courtesy of 17-year-old Canadian Emily Overholt, who out-touched American Caitlin Leverenz in the women’s 400m individual medley final only to be disqualified a minute later for an illegal turn.

After a sleepless night filled with tears, an emotional Overholt returned to the pool, qualified eighth out of eight swimmers for the 400m freestyle and went on to post a wire-to-wire victory from Lane 8 in a Pan Am record time.

“It was unbelievable. Last night was heartbreaking, I wanted to win so badly today to make up for it,” Overholt said after winning the gold. “I’m so happy right now.”

Among some other notable moments, Mexico ruled the diving competition by winning five of eight gold medals, women’s sevens rugby created plenty of buzz in its Pan Am debut and Cuba’s Mijian Lopez won gold in men’s Greco Roman wrestling for an unprecedented fourth straight Games.

In athletics, Levern Spencer won the women’s high jump to give St. Lucia their first gold medal in six appearances at the multi-sport competition.

“No other St. Lucian has ever won a gold at a Pan Am so it’s a great honor and I’m just happy to get a gold medal for my country,” said Spencer.

Evergreen 68-year-old Ian Millar, competing in his 10th consecutive Pan Am Games, led Canada to a gold medal in team equestrian to earn an automatic berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Hosts Canada were on the right end of one of the wildest Pan Am moments when the United States’ men’s baseball team, with the gold medal in their grasp, allowed the tying and winning runs to score on two throwing errors on the same play in extra innings.

“Baseball is a very humbling game,” said U.S. third baseman Tyler Pastornicky. “It makes you feel the highest you’ll ever feel in your life and then brings you to your knees before you know it. And that’s what happened to us.”

Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Larry Fine

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