Ninety-eight University students and alumni have competed in the summer Olympic Games for a total of 135 appearances between the 1897 and 2012 Games.
“Even if you had some experience with international competition, this [the Games] is probably the first time and the only time so many countries all gathered together in one village. It is quite exciting,” American swimmer Ross Wales ’69 said.
13 University students and alumni have also qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, as of publishing time. Eight of these 13 have competed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Gevvie Stone ’07 will be rowing in the US single sculls, Kate Bertko ’06 in the US lightweight pair, Tyler Nase '13 and Robin Prendes '11 in the US lightweight four, Lauren Wilkinson '11 in the US women's eight and Glenn Ochal ’08 in the US men’s eight. Donn Cabral '12 will be competing on the US track and field team in the steeplechase event. Julia Reinprecht ’14, Katie Reinprecht ’13 and Kathleen Sharkey ’13 will be on the American field hockey team.Stone, Prendes, Wilkinson, Ochal, Cabral and the Reinprecht sisters have also competed in the 2012 Games.
Diana Matheson ’08 will be on the Canadian Soccer Team for her third consecutive Games. Ashleigh Johnson ’17 and Katherine Holmes ’17 will be making their Olympic debuts on the United States Women’s Water Polo and United States Women’s Fencing team, respectively.
The 2016 Olympic qualifications for several sports and countries are still underway.
“The intensity of Princeton undergrads makes the athletic culture here very competitive and perfect for creating Olympians,” Kevin Cotter ’96, a two time Olympian and former crew coach at the University, said.
The University’s summer Olympians have won 55 medals thus far —17 gold, 18 silver and 20 bronze. Yale students and alumni have won 100 medals, Harvard 67, Penn 63, Cornell 34, Dartmouth 25, Brown 20 and Columbia 10.
“For most sports, if an athlete really wants to focus, and if they have the disposition and the body for it, I think they can get all the resources they need as students at Princeton to be the best athletes that they can be,” American shot putter August Wolf ’83, a Trustee of the US Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, said.
American rower Carol Brown ’75, vice president of US Olympians and Paralympians, the USOC athlete alumni organization, said that the University has quite a few sports “where we consistently have put athletes on the Olympic team.” Brown said that these sports include rowing, track and field, field hockey, fencing, soccer and potentially women’s rugby.
“The biggest thing it says about Princeton is that Princeton can track and keep coaches who are capable of developing athletes to their full potential,” Brown said.
Most frequently represented sports
Rowing has attracted the most Olympians from the University, with 34 University Olympians untilthe 2012 Games.
“[Rowing] is an extremely physically challenging sport; but it’s also elegantly rhythmic and beautiful. When a boat gets in the zone perfectly synchronized, it feels remarkably rewarding,” American rower Douglas Foy ’69 said.
Nineteen athletes from the University have competed in track and field events, making it the second most popular Olympic category at the University.
“I like the black and white nature of it [track and field events such as shot put]. There’s no referees. There’s no subjective judging. There’s a measuring tape. And I like that. It suited my personality,” Wolf said.
The third most popular Olympic sport at the University for number of competitors is fencing, with eleven competitors hitherto.
American fencer Soren Thompson ’05 said that fencing involved a lot of possibilities for each athlete to make their own tactics and strategies to develop themselves in a unique way, with each opponent acting as a new set of problems to figure out.
“What I’ve always liked about fencing is that it’s an individual sport at its core, although I also loved the team aspect of it as well. It is one person’s skill, technique and tactics against another’s. It is a true martial sport in that sense,” American fencer Charles Lee Shelley ’78 added.
Other sports that University Olympians have competed in include swimming, cycling, basketball, shooting, sailing, field hockey and table tennis.
“In the US, table tennis and ping pong are kind of seen as an activity that you do with your friends after a couple of beers,” American table tennis player Erica Wu ’18 said.
Wu trained in China before she competed in the Games as a high school sophomore, making her one of the youngest Olympians at the University.
“Table tennis is a really, really beautiful sport. And it’s a really, really complex sport because it's fast,” Wu, now captain of the University’s Table Tennis Club, added.
Representing nations other than the United States
14 of the University’s 98 summer Olympians have represented nations and territories other than the United States at the Games, of which six have represented Canada.
Canadian fencer Danek Nowosielski ’91 said that the schedule for his national team, which involved traveling to Europe for the weekend nearly every two weeks, often clashed with the University’s athletic schedule; thereby forcing him to prioritize the Canadian National team over the University’s team.
“My schedule was mapped out from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed… It was a choice. That was twenty-five years ago, and I wouldn’t hesitate to make it a second time,” Nowosielski said.
Canadian rower Thomas Herschmiller ’01 said that it may be a little more complicated to represent nations other than the United States and Canada while studying at the University.
“There were other Canadians that were attending college in the US so the national team accommodated us a bit for trials etc. Although…in US Rowing there's a pathway to represent the country in a boat without attending camp, this doesn't exist in Canadian rowing,” Herschmiller explained.
He added that he loved rowing against his college teammates abroad because that provided more opportunities to “talk down to other countries."
“There was definitely a time in the late 90's where Canada wasn't so good and the US won a lot, so I got to enjoy their wins because I was so close to the guys, there wasn't any jealousy,” Herschmiller added.
Other nations and territories represented at the Games by the University’s Olympians include Switzerland, Puerto Rico, Greece, Iceland and Haiti.
Thorsteinn ThorsteinssonGislason ’69, a runner with dual citizenship between the United States and Iceland, said that he was “quite pleased” to represent Iceland, the country of his family, at the Games.
“I was not likely to be an athlete that could have gotten to top three of the US. I didn’t seek that out. It wasn’t likely to be something that I would succeed in,” he explained.
Dr. Deborah Saint-Phard ’87, a shot putter who represented Haiti at the 1988 Games, also said that it was unlikely that she would have qualified for the American Olympic team, since each nation can only take its top three shot putters.
Puerto Rican swimmer Douglas Lennox ’09 said that his experience of representing Puerto Rico had its challenges, but those were mostly bureaucratic and logistical.
“I think representing the United States is a little more streamlined in terms of qualifying meets and criteria (at least in swimming), but it's more competitive in most sports so therefore more challenging to qualify for the USA,” Lennox said.
A lifelong dream requiring consistent effort
For most of these Olympians, the Games have been a life long dream that they consistently worked towards. For example, American rower Lia Pernell ’03 wanted to be an Olympian since she saw the 1984 Games on television at a grocery store when she was only three years old.
“I remember thinking as I tried to peer up [above the grocery store counter] that I would be an Olympian… So there was really no doubt in my head that I would try to make it,” Pernell said.
Swiss swimmer Nathalie Kirkwood ’93 said that she swam and lifted weights nearly every day through high school, including the day of her prom. On that day, she not only went to practice early to be back in time for prom, but also left her prom night early in order to make it to an early practice the next day.
“That was the way I wanted to live, which was fine for me. And I think I got things out of my life that other people don’t get. You know, I got to train professionally, I got to go places… and I would not trade that for going to the prom all night,” Kirkwood said.
American rower Paul Teti ’01 said that he felt a sense of responsibility to work towards qualifying for the Games, because of the opportunity he was given by his family, and the sacrifices that they made in terms of driving him down to the river at 4:30 in the morning and certain financial sacrifices that allowed him to go to a good school.
“Those were the things for me that created a sense of responsibility and pressure to do my best. And I felt like making it to the Olympic Games —there’s no better way to say thank you than for people to kind of see that result in terms of me walking into the Olympic stadium and representing my country. I think —I hope that that was a source of pride for my family,” Teti said.
Thompson addedthat it is very difficult to make it to the Games as a fencer unless one receives proper training and trains consistently from a young age, since fencing is an extremely technical sport.
“By the time you’re in college, many athletes are already at the Olympic level. It’s very hard to catch up. The complexities of the sport make it so that experience is very helpful,” Thompson explained.
American rower Steven Coppola ’06 said that it was possible to begin rowing a little later in life than one would have to begin ball sports to make it to the Games.
“[Rowing] is a true meritocracy, where your worth and your value to a team is directly related to how hard you work… It’s not like a ball sport where you come in and have ball skills,” he explained.
Cotter, who was also a crew coach at the University, said that he would work out alongside the undergraduates he coached to let them know that “they should strive for Olympic gold.”
“That is what makes Princeton great… whether it is a professor or a coach… they push you to new ways of thinking or new boundaries for your athleticism… training for the Olympics is a step-wise process that I tried to bring to campus… meaning that you can make significant jumps in your level of athleticism in a short amount of time,” Cotter said.
American fencer Maya Lawrence ’02 said that she treated fencing like it was a University course, and even referred to it as her fifth class.
“I dedicated as much time to practicing as I did my university class. I guess you could say I had two majors —politics and fencing,” Lawrence said.
Pernell noted that the balance she had to strike between her sport and academics was good training for life, although she was not very good at this balance.
“I could only think of one thing at a time. You know, if I had a test, I would forget half my rowing clothes for practice. But you know, you have no choice when you’re training— you have to start to figure that stuff out. I’m still working on balancing things,” Pernell said.
Katie Reinprecht said that while it was difficult to juggle the demands of the University’s academics with the demands of a national team that trains all year long, doing both was manageable as long as she was upfront with professors about her upcoming absence, so that she could complete assignments well in advance.
Kirkwood noted on the physical challenges that come with being a University student and an Olympian, explaining, “[qualifying for the Games] is a lot of hard work. A lot of times when your body is broken and you still have to train hard and there’s a lot of yelling by the coaches, but you’ve got to keep going. And this is on top of the schoolwork."
Stone said that she prioritized her medical school and athletic aspirations by alternating years when medical school was the priority with years when rowing was the priority, because she thought it impossible to give 100 percent of herself to rowing and medical school at the same time.
“Princeton’s a great place where the athletes that we have are certainly capable of it [qualifying for the Olympics]. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into it, which I think they know how to do and are suited to. There’s also some luck that goes in too,” Coppola added.
Nine University students and alumni have competed in the Winter Olympic Games for a total of eight medals —one gold, four silver and three bronze.
The opening ceremony for the 2016 Games is scheduled for Aug. 5 and the closing ceremony for Aug. 16 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Next in the 'Prince' Olympics Series: The First Games to World War II & On Tap with Kate Bertko '06