While most Olympians from the University said that writing their thesis was the most challenging experience of their lives, several others recalled specific moments in their sporting and University careers that had challenged them immensely.
Olympic silver medalist Peter Raymond ’68 said that the nadir of his University athletic experience was the final rowing race during his freshman year when, in intense heat and humidity in a two-mile race, he “got into serious trouble” within the first half-mile, possibly due to dehydration.
“It was a perfect horror show… After getting thoroughly clobbered and giving away my racing shirt to Navy's #6, I walked slowly toward the finish line to watch the JV and varsity race, carrying my tee shirt because of the heat. Well, it was party weekend at Syracuse and some wag, looking up from his picnic blanket and date, advised me to put on my shirt. I probably weighed 160 that year,” he said.
Raymond added that another challenging moment came when his team's coach lost his nerve a few days before the racing in the 1972 Games.
Ross Wales ’69, winner of a bronze medal in the men’s 100 meter butterfly swimat the 1968 Games, said that his most challenging experience was makingthe transition from high school to college-level academics.
“It [the transition] never lasted long, but it got my attention and made me buckle under, work harder and try to understand things that didn’t come easily, so they would start to come more easily,” Wales said.
Thorsteinn ThorsteinssonGislason ’69, an Icelandic runner, said that the Olympics were the most challenging and memorable of all events he had ever competed in.
“This [the Olympic Games] is certainly a very prominent event where you want to do the best you can. So you should feel challenged,” he explained.
Olympic bronze medalist Carol Brown ’75 said that the most challenging moment of her rowing career was beating the East German team in a rowing competition held before the 1980 Games, after losing to them several times earlier, and then learning that her team could not repeat their win because the United States was boycotting the Games.
“We got on a plane and came home. They [the East Germans] went to Moscow and won,” she said.
American fencer Lee Shelley ’78 said that his most challenging moment was during the U.S. National Championships before the 1984 Games, where he lost a bout against a much lower ranked fencer. If he lost one more match, he would have been eliminated from consideration for the national team.
“I went to a private room in the gymnasium and had a talk with myself —about how hard I had trained, how much I had sacrificed, how much I wanted to be on the Olympic Team,” he said, “I told myself that no matter who my next opponents would be that I would fight with every ounce of my being to win what I felt I truly deserved. Well, that talk I had with myself worked. I easily won my next bouts, made the finals and made the Team. I was an Olympian.”
Shelley added that the most challenging experience of his University athletic experience occurred during the NCAA Championships his freshman year. He becameill due to contaminated water at the tournament he had competed in previously.
“I had lost almost 15 pounds in 10 days. The NCAAs was a two-day competition. I would fence a bout, lie down, fence another bout, lie down, etc. At the end of the first day I went back to the hotel and just slept until the next day,” he said.
According to Shelley, he was still able to compete, and the University’s team took third place at that tournament.
American shot-putter August Wolf ’83 said that his most challenging moment came six weeks before the 1988 Olympic trials, when he tore his tendon. Wolf was instructed to rest until the trials, and had not thrown a single shot in the six weeks leading up to them. Despite his injury, Wolf missed the Olympic team by only two or three inches and threw only two or three feet less than his best throw ever.
“That was a really hard six weeks for me to train without throwing and not knowing what was happening,” he said.
Haitian shot putter Deborah Saint-Phard ’87 said that receiving her first report card during her freshman year at the University was her most challenging moment. Saint-Phard said that the three B’s and one C on her report card caused her to wonder if she belonged at the University. She soon realized that getting straight A’s would require working on academics almost all of the time.
“I didn’t only want to be a student getting straight A’s. That would have eliminated the time I had for my sport and the time I could spend with the Tigressions… I was going to take everything I could take out of Princeton instead of studying for, you know, 18 hours a day to get those straight A’s,” she explained.
Canadian fencer Danek Nowosielski ’91 said that his most challenging moments included injuries, splitting his sophomore year for the Games while taking classes like organic chemistry and having to finish senior obligations a month ahead of everybody else amidst a busy travel schedule.
“It’s more a journey and a marathon than a single moment. It’s different things that happen at different times in your career,” Nowosielski explained.
Giving up her swimming career was the most challenging moment for Swiss Olympian Nathalie Kirkwood ’93. Kirkwood competed in the 1992 Games, and dismissed the idea of continuing her Olympic career when managing daily swims at 5:00 a.m. and then reporting to work as a financial analyst at 6:30 a.m. became too exhausting.
“It [swimming] was my full identity for so long. I was the star… Swimming was my anchor, and it was not easy to come up with who I am now without it,” she explained.
According to American rower Danika Holbrook ’95, waiting for the competition to begin at the 2004 Games in Athens was very difficult. At the University, Holbrook’s most challenging moment was not making the 1st varsity boat during her sophomore year.
“[I] then used that [not making the 1st varsity boat] as motivation to push harder and get better. I made my first senior national team that following summer,” Holbrook said.
American rower Kevin Cotter ’96 said that balancing his life as an athlete and a student at the University often got challenging. He added that one moment in particular during his senior spring stood out as he sat in the basement of his host family’s house in Atlanta and worked on the footnotes of his thesis.
“I remember looking over seeing my teammates crashed on a couch sleeping while I was up making sure my numbers in my data were statistically significant. That was hard to switch gears three times a day from athlete to scientist,” Cotter said.
Olympic Gold Medalist Chris Ahrens ’98 said that losing the Eastern Sprints during his senior year was extremely challenging.
“In my opinion, we had the best crew. There was cross wind and we lost to a Penn crew we had beaten easily several weeks before. It’s possible that Penn had some shelter from the wind but, in any case, on the day they were the winners,” Ahrens said.
Two weeks later, his team went on to win the National Championship.
“The whole campaign in 2000 [for the Olympic Games] was so challenging it broke us. It was an awful experience and I’m sure it still bothers every person who was involved,” Ahrens said of the most challenging moment of his Olympic career.
Canadian rower Morgan Crooks ’98 said that the most challenging moment of his college career came as a senior when his team was racing for the National Championship.
“[We knew] that after everything we had been through over the past four years, we had only one last chance to get it right. In almost every other important race there had always been the promise of next year, but that time there was not,” Crooks said.
He added that his boat’s seventh place finish at the 2000 Games in Sydney was another tough moment.
“The scale of the endeavor made me feel like I had let my parents down for the sacrifices they had made, my coach down because he would lose his job over it and even the whole country down to a certain extent. Canada has a strong history of Olympic rowing performances and we definitely came up short. It definitely took some time to get over that,” he said.
A minor rib injury was the most challenging moment for American rower Tom Welsh ’99.
“I was in Australia giving everything I had to prepare for the biggest race of my life, and when I got hurt, I was replaced by one of the spares on the team. I was lucky that I was able to make it back, but it was a cautionary tale about how quickly an athletic career can fall apart, and how you need a lot of things to come together at the right time for you to be successful,” Welsh said.
Three-timeOlympian Paul Teti ’01 said that while the rowing competition at a varsity level in college and at a national level is incredibly fierce, another challenge is the end of a career.
“You don’t get to do it forever. You wish the season is a little bit longer. You wish you had a little more time with your teammates,” he said.
Olympic Silver Medalist Tom Herschmiller ’01 said that balancing premed courses such as organic chemistry in sophomore year and competing for varsity rowing was his most challenging time at the University.
“One day I ripped down a small recently planted tree on the way to practice out of frustration, did about a third of the workout and left. That's the only workout I've ever cut short, I did it because Curtis Jordan, our omniscient coach sensed some of us were over worked and had encouraged us to get in for a hard piece or two and get out if we had to,” Herschmiller said.
He added that he became unwell that spring, missed a few weeks at the University and never got his seat back in the varsity.
“I did, however, turn around a near failing grade to a B with a huge effort on the Orgo final. I took a lot of lessons out of that year. One being never give someone an opportunity to take your seat,” Herschmiller said.
American Olympic Silver Medalist Andrea Kilbourne-Hill ’02 said that the most challenging moment of her Olympic experience was the final game of ice hockey during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
“I was playing well, and our team was getting a lot of chances, but nothing was dropping for us. I tried to keep the positive self-talk and energy up, but the longer the clock ticked, the more nervous we all got. We had beat Canada every other time we had played them that year, so we didn’t know how to play when we were down,” she explained.
The Canadian ice hockey team defeated the American team 3-2 for the gold medal that year.
Olympic Bronze Medalist Maya Lawrence ’02 said that fighting through her injuries and attempting to make it back on the national fencing team was difficult.
“I had to start from zero and climb back up. It was a tough road, but extremelygratifying once I made it back to the top,” she said.
American high jumper Tora Harris ’02 said that adjusting to the fast pace of the academics and the sport at a college level was extremely difficult. He added that as an engineer, scheduling labs and training was especially challenging.
“It feels like one afternoon at Princeton is like a week of high school,” he said.
American rower Lia Pernell ’03 said that the race conditions during her senior year NCAA final were extremely tough —the wind was strong, and her boat was taking on a lot of water as she raced.
“I just wish we had a better chance at that final race, because I thought we had a good boat, and we had a good team. I was disappointed about that race,” she said.
American fencer Soren Thompson ’05 noted that the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games qualifications were extremely challenging. To earn his spot on the team headed to the 2004 Games, Thompson finished 8th in the world championship leading up to them, which was the best world championship finish ever for an American fencer.
“I wanted to qualify. I wanted to find a way to win. I went above and beyond what I could do,” he explained.
Olympic silver medalist AndréanneMorin ’06 said that her biggest challenges revolved around injuries.
“In 2007, I had a serious back injury that kept me out of a boat for 6 months. Mental strength is critical during these times and you have to believe in yourself every day,” she said.
Australian rower Sam Loch ’06 said that the most challenging moment of his Olympic career was his first ever race at the Olympics —the heat in the 2008 Games. His boat was racing against Canada, the reigning World Champions, when his boat’s rudder —the key device for keeping his 62 foot vessel straight —snapped off after 400 meters of rowing.
“We veered off into an adjacent lane and eventually finished the race significantly slower than the next slowest boat. It was not the experience you hope for on debut,” Loch said.
American rower Gevvie Stone ’07 said that failures, such as not making the Olympic team in 2008, not making the U.S. team in 2010, and having a relatively unsuccessful experience at the World Championships in 2014, were the most challenging moments of her rowing career.
“During each of these 'failures,' I almost stepped away from the sport, questioning my confidence and my passion. I was forced to re-evaluate my commitment to and love for rowing and to dig deep in order to find the motivation not only to continue but also to change and to improve,” Stone said.
Stone added that another challenging time was the fall of her sophomore year at the University, when she had knee surgery and was taking five courses including organic chemistry.
“Suddenly post-op, I didn't have rowing as an outlet for my energy and aggression. I also didn't have the daily time with my teammates to vent, to bond and to joke. I felt a bit lost. Fortunately, I had great friends with me, especially my roommates in Forbes, who helped me to get through! And, they got to ride in my golf cart as a perk,” she said.
Puerto Rican swimmer Douglas Lennox ’09 said that it was challenging to balance his personal life at the time of the Games.
“I allowed some personal relationships to distract me when I should have been focused on the task at hand —that was a big learning experience for me because I am a very sensitive person and I lacked the maturity to let things —and people —go at the appropriate time,” he said.
Lennox added that the most challenging experience he faced in his time at the University centered around social turmoil within the swim team that "caused a bit of a schism between leaders on the team."
"As a captain, I tried to navigate that situation as best I could but I think I lacked some leadership skills that would have allowed me to really successfully address it in a productive manner," he explained.
American field hockey midfielder Katie Reinprecht ’13 said that the most challenging moment of her University experience was the fall semester of her freshman year.
“There was definitely a learning curve to understanding the ins and outs of Princeton academia,” she said.
Reinprecht added that the most challenging moment of her Olympic experience was losing 7-0 to South Africa in pool play.
“It was difficult to rebound from a loss so devastating,” she noted.
American fencer Susannah Scanlan ’12 said that aside from her Math 215 final at the University, her most challenging moments were during the entire 2012 Olympic season, when she made the team at the very end of the qualification period.
“Taking time off to only focus on competition was great because I had more time to focus on training, but it was tough mentally. There was nothing to distract me from my results. Yoga helped,” Scanlan said.
American table tennis player Erica Wu ’18 said that her most challenging moment was during the 2012 Olympic trials, when she was one match away from making the team. Wu was to play an opponent she was confident in beating, and had to win by a certain margin in order to make the team. However, she choked and won by an inadequate margin, which resulted in her having to play another day and defeat some more people before she was named to the American team.
“I felt like I’d really built up to that one match and that one moment… I knew I could do it, and I didn’t,” she added, “Overcoming that kind of mental breakdown in a span of 24 hours to be able to compete again the next day was really, really challenging, because table tennis is such a mental game. To choke like that at such a big event really affects you mentally, and affects your game.”
[Next in The Olympics Series: Olympians from the University recount their favorite moments at the University and at the Games]