1990s: Fulfilled Dreams and Missing Olympians

Swiss swimmer Nathalie Kirkwood ’93 said that the Olympic Village for the 1992 Games in Barcelona was amazing. She recalled a cafeteria with several different kinds of food for the athletes, some of which was cooked by chefs from their own countries, so everyone could continue to eat the food they were used to eating.

American long distance runner Lynn Jennings ’83 said thatthe Village was at a beautiful location along the Balearic Sea.

“The Village was well-planned, with excellent food options and with each country’s teams ensconced in a series of villa-style apartment buildings [which were] later to be turned into residential housing… Olympic Villages are essentially an international housing project for 10,000 people albeit all of them world-class athletes,” Jennings added.

At the 1992 Games, Jennings set a personal record and an American record that lasted 10 years.

“I was prepared and ready to have a lifetime sort of performance but believing it and executing it are two different things. I raced with power, courage and strength and was in a fight for the bronze medal with 8 laps to go. I kicked with 300 meters to go and nailed down the bronze medal,” Jennings said.

She added that receiving the medal was something she would always remember.

“I remember the medal being placed around my neck and I reached my hand up to press it against my sternum, feeling the weight of it, feeling the reality of it. I recalled how many failures and missteps along the way I had to learn to bounce back from in order to continue on the path of being an elite runner. I felt exhilarated by where I was: on a podium, at a medal ceremony at the Olympics. A dream that had beckoned me for decades,” Jennings said.

American swimmer Nelson Diebel ’96 once broke both wrists in high school when an attempt to jump from a railing above the stands at his high pool failed, according to anarticleabout the Ivies at the Games published on the Ivy League website. Diebel then received strong guidance from his high school coach, which led him to two gold medals at the 1992 Games —he beat 58 competitors and set an Olympic record in the 100 meter breaststroke event, and led the United States to its eighth consecutive win in the 4x100 meter relay.

The 1992 Games were also the last Games that three-time Olympian and Olympic bronze medalist Harold Backer ’85 competed in. The Canadian rower was remembered by his coach and other elite Canadian rowers forThursday night dinners he and his wife hosted at their Vancouver home, according to anarticlepublished by the National Post in 2015 about Backer.

Early one November morning in 2015, Backer told his wife that he was going out for a bike ride. He has been missing since.

According to anarticlepublished in 2015 in the Times Colonist about his disappearance, Backer, who worked as a mutual fund dealer, left a letter for his clientsapologizing for running a “pyramid” scheme after incurring steep losses to their portfolios.

“My investors have been my friends and I have done a terrible thing to my friends,” Backer wrote in the letter according to the National Post, “If admitting to fraud would help restore the losses, I would accept the criminal penalty.”

Michael Vatis ’85, who rowed with Backer at the University, said that all of Backer’s friends want him to come home.

“This is a guy loved by friends around the world who would do anything they can to help him fix whatever the problems are that exist because of his financial decisions in the past,” Vatis said to the Times Colonist, “He needs to know that he is loved and supported by so many people.”

The 1996 Games, which were the Centennial Olympic Games, were held in Atlanta.

American rower Kevin Cotter ’96, who was one of the 17 rowers from the Ivy League at the Games, said that the rowers all stayed with host families since the rowing venue was outside the Olympic Village.

“There were several Princetonians on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Teams and that made the experience very Tiger-Powered,” he added.

2000: The Battle of the Oars Begins

Canadian rower Morgan Crooks ’98 said that the atmosphere in Sydney during the 2000 Games was fantastic, and that all of Australia was very focused on the games.

“Part of what’s special about the Olympics is that it gives countries the opportunity to show the world a little bit more about their culture and their people than you might otherwise be able to see,” American rower Paul Teti ’01 said.

American cyclist Derek Bouchard-Hall ’92 said that “the wholeworldtunes in” to this sporting event that is unlike any other.

Bouchard-Hall, who competed with a damaged hip at the Games, finished in tenth place.

“I had a surgery to repair a damaged artery in my hip from all the years of pedaling —literally millions of pedal revolutions. The surgery didn't completely fix the problem, but made it much better. I still had a problem at the Olympics, but I was much better than I had been in years,” he said.

American rower Tom Welsh ’99 said that for athletes like rowers, who do not usually garner the attention that basketball or football stars often do, it was exhilarating to be in the world spotlight.Welsh added that these distractions are to be navigated carefully in order to focus on the event.

“Olympians are creatures of habit, and you are still on a tight schedule in order to fit in practice at the racecourse, meals at the dining hall, physical therapy and back to bed for rest,” he said.

Welsh said that the Olympic Village for the 2000 Games in Sydney was located in a place called Homebush Bay, which was slated for a massive urban renewal project.

“Basically, they built hundreds of homes as part of a giant housing development, and then partitioned each home up so they could fit 20 people to each home — that's a lot of Olympic athletes in one house,” Welsh said.

Cotter said although he did not personally feel pressure to qualify for the 2000 Games, hefelt pressure to do so as a country.
“Not every country competes in the Olympics —you need to first qualify your country… I was fortunate in 2000 to win a Silver at the World Cup which qualified the US for the Olympics in Sydney that year,” Cotter said.

American rower Chris Ahrens ’98 said that, in the boat, the difference between the Olympian and “the last guy cut” is tiny, but the impact to their life is dramatic.

“Because of that dynamic the national team is just not as much fun as college… The tougher thing was rowing against my Princeton teammates like Morgan Crooks ['98] and Tom Herschmiller ['01], who were in the Canadian eight in Sydney,” Ahrens said.

Crooks noted that it was not hard to compete against his teammates from the University who were rowing for the United States in Sydney as he rowed for Canada.

“We competed all the time in practice at Princeton… When you race the focus is very internal, within yourself and your boat, it's just a competition to see who can make their own boat go faster. I think it would have been very different facing a teammate across the mat in a wrestling match or on a field in a team sport,” Crooks said.

Ahrens said that his boat had came into Sydney as 3-time defending world champions and favorites, but his boat had been in crisis all summer.

“We had some injuries and a brutal selection process. We struggled in training and it didn’t get better when we got to Australia,” Ahrens added.

Welsh said that he had a rib muscle injury several weeks before the Games.

“I had to sit out a few days while watching a spare take my place. After a few days of treatment, I was able to heal, get back to peak form and get back in the boat for the Games, but it was stressful. When you are pushing your body toward its limits, the maxim 'the mind is willing but the body is weak' often proves to be true,” Welsh said.

The U.S. men’s eights boat that Ahrens and Welsh rowed for placed fifth in the final.

“In short, it was a disaster. I quit rowing afterwards… Sydney is a wonderful place to visit but there’s still some emotional scars from the racing in 2000,” Ahrens said.

2004: The Battle of the Oars Continues

American rower Danika Holbrook ’95 said that the American team was a close knit group, with other University alumni participating, such as Lianne Nelson ’95 and Paul Teti ’01.

“Athens was surreal. [There was] total focus during the week of competition and then nothing but fun the second week,” Holbrook said.

Canadian rower Andreanne Morin ’06 said that despite everything the veteran athletes told her to expect of the Village, she was “blown away” by the dining hall in Athens.

“It's as large as a football field, seated 10,000 athletes and coaches and you could loose your team amongst all the food stalls from around the world! As a coach reminded us, you could also eat yourself out of a medal,” Morin said.

American high jumper Tora Harris ’02 said that the Olympic Village had an incredible atmosphere, with a lot of high level athletes all motivated to work towards the same goal.

“[The Village] is kind of like a college campus, but without the classes. Everybody there is an athlete. Basically, everybody there is like you,” Harris said.

Harris, who attended first grade in Taiwan, was introduced to jumping through a game played there where children would tie rubber bands together, have two people hold them up at different heights, and have others jump over them.

“[The Games] are like any other meet. But you’re like gosh, this is the Olympics. You do have a little bit more motivation to perfect technique… but you’re just there to perform, rather than think,” he said.

Harris did not advance past the first round when he could not clear 7feet 2.5inches (2.20m) on any of his three attempts leaving him with a best height of 7 feet (2.13m) and a17th-place finishat the Games.

Ahrens said that his team lived in a house near the rowing course about 90 minutes from downtown Athens, and did not attend the Opening Ceremonies because they had to race the morning after.

Ahrens, who had decided to retire after the 2000 Games, decided to come back to compete in the 2004 Games as it became clear that his boat was moving well in practice.

“I still wasn’t confident we would win. I thought we might win but we were racing a very good Canadian eight that had won the World Championship for the previous 2 years,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens’ United States boat drew that undefeated Canadian boat in their heat.

“I remember our coach was upset but I liked the idea of testing our speed against them and seeing how our strengths would match against theirs,” Ahrens said.

According to Ahrens, Canada had a very fast starting crew who always got ahead at the beginning of the race and held on through the 2nd half as everyone came back but still came up short.

“We hoped to medal in Sydney.We planned to win, in Athens,” Canadian rower Tom Herschmiller ’01 said.

The American crew was more steady off the start and then had a really strong finish.

Ahrens said that the course in Athens was “notorious” for being very windy, and that on the day of their heat there was a massive tail wind.

“These are very challenging conditions for rowing because the wind and the chop in the water make the boat very unstable. The wind also makes the race very fast so it favors a fast starting crew,” Ahrens explained.

However, the Canadians didn’t get as far as ahead at the start as they normally did, Ahrens said. The United States crew “managed to come through them” in the last quarter of the course.

“Because of the conditions it didn’t feel very good and it was only afterwards that we realized we had set the world record. I started to believe a bit more that we could win after that,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens said that his team had to wait six days between its heat and the final.

“During that week there several days when the wind was so bad that the course was closed so we couldn’t row at all. This made the waiting even worse,” he said.

According to Ahrens, the weather conditions on the day of the final race were perfect for his crew -- there was flat water with a little head wind.

“We expected a very close race. I was nervous not because of the competition, but I knew that in order to win we would have to go very deep and it was going to hurt very much. I actually remembering thinking that I really didn’t want to hurt myself like that anymore and that this would be my last race,” Ahrens said.

After the start of the race, the United States ended up being ahead out of the gate, according to Ahrens.

“This was unexpected and then we got into a great rhythm and easily moved out to a large lead. Instead of the Olympic final it felt like a freshman race in college,” he said.

Ahrens added that he spent the whole second half of the race rowing at about 98% to make sure he “didn’t screw up”.

“That’s dangerous and I knew it. I was nervous that I was too confident but the whole situation was totally unexpected. After we crossed the line I didn’t believe it,” Ahrens said.

The United States eights boat had won the gold medal – the last American crew to win had done so almost 40 years earlier, according to Ahrens.

“It took several days for reality to take hold. I had been chasing this thing for a long time and it had been out of reach, almost an impossibility,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens said that the United States came into the Olympics with a new crew that had never raced before, but was “flying in practice”.

“After we came together we never had a bad row for 3 months. We set a world record in the heat and won the final. Half way through the final we were so far ahead I knew we would win if we didn’t screw up really badly. In short, it was a dream,” Ahrens said.

Netherlands finished second, and Australia third in the coxed eight race Ahrens rowed in.

The Canadian coxless four boat with Herschmiller in it finished in second place. Nelson, who rowed in the United States’ women’s eights, added another silver medal for the University.

 

Next in The Olympics Series: The Past Ten Years

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