February 17, 2010

Cornell in the Olympics

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In 1896, the International Olympic Committee began its revival of the ancient Greek games in Athens, Greece. Since the inception of the modern games, Ivy League athletes have been competing for their countries against people from all over the world. Three Cornellians made the trip to the 1904 Games, which has led to a legacy of over 80 athletes competing for the elusive gold medal.

Brett Hoover, an Ivy League and Olympics enthusiast, worked on compiling a list of all the Ivy undergraduates who had competed in the Olympics since its rebirth, noticing the extensive history of the two organizations.

“No other league can say they had people in the 1904 Olympics, because no one else did. So that’s part of it, that our history starts at the very origins of it,” Hoover explained about the high prevalence of Ivy Olympians.

This year, like in the first modern Olympics, three Cornellians will compete for their respective countries: Rebecca Johnston ’12 (pictured above left) for Canada in women’s hockey, Jamie Moriarty ’03, a former Cornell football player who will represent the U.S. in bobsledding; and NHL player Douglas Murray ’03 (above right), who will compete for his native Sweden.

Johnston, the only current Cornellian competing, has taken a year off from her studies and the Cornell women’s hockey team in hopes of Olympic victory. She has been training in Calgary, Alberta as part of a lengthy try-out to be named to Canada’s team.

“I was overwhelmed and in a little bit of shock when they chose the team,” Johnston said of the December announcement. “It’ll be a little more surreal when I get there. It’s a great honor, it’s been a dream of mine since I was little.”

As of press time, Canada had already crushed Slovakia in their first game, 18-0, and Johnson was optimistic about the final results — rightfully so, as the Canadian team has won gold in the last two Olympic games.

“You never know but I feel like right now we’re pretty confident that we’re going to do well,” she said. “I think we can bring home the gold if we stick with the game plan and play like we’ve been playing.”

Johnston is motivated to push for the gold both by a home-field advantage — this year’s games are being played in Vancouver, British Columbia — and by a hugge base of supporters at all her events.

But no Olympic experience is entirely about the competition, and Johnston was excited to take in every moment of the games in her home country.

“Being able to see some of the other events and go to the opening ceremonies and be a part of that will be pretty fun. … I want to be able to remember every moment of it.”

While Cornell’s hockey team is well-known for its prowess, many athletes from the Hill participate in more obscure sports. For example, many Cornell rowers have experienced enormous success.

Jennifer Kaido ’03, who competed in Beijing, was never expecting Olympic glory.

“I thought of myself as an average athlete,” Kaido explained of her early days competing at a SUNY school in volleyball and track and field before transferring to Cornell.

After a year in Ithaca, Kaido still hadn’t figured out which sport she wanted to play at Cornell when she finally found rowing. She prepared to race in her senior year, and success came quickly.

“I hadn’t done it very long and I was already beating a lot of my teammates who had been doing it longer,” she said.

After finding a way to continue competing after college — for a while, Kaido wasn’t even aware that there was a U.S. rowing team — she found herself at the 2008 Olympics, where she came in fifth in the quadruple sculls (two-oared rowing). The Olympic bug has bit, as Kaido will begin training again in the spring in hopes to compete in the 2012 Olympics.

Kaido’s experience with rowing, while incredible, is not all that unique. Ken Jurkowski ’03 wasn’t even a high school athlete when he was asked to come to a crew meeting. At 6’2”, Jurkowski merely possessed the height the team needed.

“I didn’t know anything about [rowing],” he explained about the beginnings of his athletic career.

Without working out harder than his teammates, just aiming to get more out of the workouts, Jurkowski found himself succeeding in the sport

Jurkowski’s interest in rowing waned and, in turn, sculling — which Jurkowski describes as being a very different sport — became appealing. The appeal led the self-coached athlete to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where Jurkowski came in 11th in the single sculls.

He kept himself as motivated then as he does today, as he continues to train and coach crew at UCLA.

“Lots of people have told me in the last 10 years that I’m not going to be successful — everyone from my varsity coach in college to national team coaches told me I could not be competitive in the single sculls […] I don’t think that anything is impossible,” the positive athlete said.

It is this can-do attitude that has allowed Jurkowski to go as far as he has in rowing and sculls.

“When I was in college, when I started out I was not the biggest, I was not the strongest, even when I finished college, I was not the biggest, I was not the strongest but I had the best results of anyone on the team. I refused to accept that anyone was going to work harder or perform harder and if you do that you can’t lose,” he said.

While Jurkowski and Kaido’s experiences — going from no involvement in a sport to competing in the Olympics in only a few years — do seem to be rare, Chindeum Osuji ’96 can relate.

Osuji, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, competed in Taekwondo in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and only began the sport during his time at Cornell.

“I got involved in Taekwondo when I took it as a Phys-Ed course at Cornell, in the spring semester of my freshman year,” Osuji explained. “The classes were fantastic. The instructor [was] a really charismatic, energetic and inspirational guy. He just made you want to do Taekwondo every day. […] Needless to say, I stayed well after I had fulfilled the two-semester P.E .requirement.”

After getting much more out of his P.E. requirement than do most students, Osuji began competing. He had learned to “develop and channel [his] passion” in the sport from his inspiring teacher.

In Athens, Osuji placed 11th in the men’s welterweight (the middle weight class in Taekwondo) and had an experience that “only grows dearer with time.”

“The thing that really touched me most was the closing ceremony … the realization that the show had ended, but also the appreciation for all [who] had come and left their best efforts on the mat, on the floor, on the stage, on the field. One develops an instant fraternity with the other athletes in the Olympic village. You do feel really as though there is a class of people, called athletes, who, despite differences in disciplines / sport, share the same passion, mindset and goals as you do,” Osuji fondly recalled.

While Cornell can be credited for producing successful athletes, it is not always the University fosters them, as is the case of Olympic skiers Hannah Hardaway ’03 and Travis Mayer ’07.

Hardaway grew up skiing — anxious to be like her brothers, she took to the slopes at a young age and began competing at 11. But while she was growing up, skiing was never everything. Despite the prevalence of ski prep schools that groom young athletes, Hardaway shied away from all that, choosing a more typical childhood.

“I was just a weekend skier up until the year before the Olympics. I played three other sports in high school and went to a public school and all that.”

Hardaway’s other sports — most notably softball, for which Cornell recruited her — dominated her time, but skiing was always a priority.

Before agreeing to play softball at Cornell — Hardaway played two fall seasons before knee injuries took her out of the game — she explained her intentions to the coach.

“That was an agreement we had, [my coach] knew about my ski career and knew I wouldn’t come unless I was allowed to ski,” Hardaway explained.

Hardway intended to compete in Nagano in 1998, but she was met with some obstacles.

“I had some professors who were not very cooperative during the Olympic year in 1998 when I was supposed to go to Nagano. We had to get the athletic director and my softball coach to write all these letters for me to even be allowed to go to Olympic trials. … Some of my instructors were really great though!” she explained.

Unfortunately, a knee injury three weeks before the game prevented Hardaway from competing, so she had to wait to compete until 2002, when she could ski in the U.S., resulting in a fifth place finish in women’s moguls.

Childhood friend and teammate Mayer sought Olympic glory that same year.

Mayer, who chose Cornell based on the school’s flexibility with his skiing career, completed his schooling in between training.

“I didn’t do continuous semesters at Cornell until after I retired from competitive skiing. I did a semester here and there when I was injured or needed a break from skiing. I also did summer school a few times. When I finished competing in 2006, I had about three semesters left,” Mayer explained.

Putting school on the back burner paid off, but the path to the Olympics was not so clear at first.

“Three months before the Olympics, I didn’t even expect to make the Olympic team,” Mayer said. “Two months before the Olympics, things started to click. I started crushing it. I was able to both qualify for the team and carry a lot of momentum and enthusiasm into the Olympics.”

Mayer was rewarded with a silver medal in moguls (the first active Cornell student to medal in 10 years as of 2002), and he remembers what a special moment the Olympics was.

“Salt Lake was particularly special because it was in the U.S. about five months after September 11th. The crowds were incredibly supportive and excited, and the country felt pretty engaged,” he explained.

Because this year’s Olympics are close to home, Mayer intends to attend the Vancouver Games to cheer on his friends — and quite possibly, his fellow Cornellians.

Original Author: Cara Sprunk