Brains and brawn: Cal, Stanford churn out elite Olympic athletes 

click to enlarge Kerri Walsh - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Getty Images File Photo
  • Kerri Walsh

If every Olympic athlete affiliated with either Stanford or Cal could team up and compete together in London this summer, they would have more representation than at least two-thirds of the 204 countries participating in the games.

Cal is sending 37 current or former athletes to London next week, along with four coaches and one medical officer, while Stanford qualified 38 affiliated Olympians and one coach.

In 2008, this fictional nation hauled in 42 medals, which would have ranked sixth in the medal count, ahead of France, Germany and Italy.

So, how are two schools known primarily for academics (the Ogwumike sisters recently renamed Stanford to “Nerd City”) blowing away the competition on the Olympic playing field, too?  

Like most phenomena, multiple variables are in play here. First, the schools benefit from being in California, which produced 128 of the 530 athletes (24 percent) the U.S. is sending across the pond this summer. The state’s developmental programs in sports — such as water polo, volleyball and swimming — are unmatched and they feed the teams at these universities.

Second, Cal and Stanford have long histories of excellence in the nonrevenue Olympic sports. Stanford has won 17 straight Director’s Cups and Cal has finished in the top 15 the past 10 years, so the programs at these schools self-perpetuate, attracting and churning out world-class athletes and coaches in a continuous loop. 

But these universities aren’t just pulling in local talent. Twenty countries, spanning five continents, will be represented by the Cal-Stanford contingent in London, including athletes from Kenya (Jason and David Dunford, swimming, Stanford), Iceland (Kari Karisson, marathon, Cal) and Iran (Amin Nikfar, shot put, Cal).

Derek Van Rheenen, a former Cal athlete who runs the school’s athletic study center and has authored several books, including “Academic Motivation and the Student Athlete,” said more than anything, Olympic-caliber athletes are attracted to Cal and Stanford because of their academic reputations.

“There is really nowhere else in the world that combines elite academics with elite athletics,” he said.
Rick Schavone, who’s headed Stanford’s diving program for 35 years and is making the trip to London as a member of the U.S Olympic coaching staff, said academics are his primary recruiting tool.

“I don’t ever sell the program first, I was always sell the academics and Stanford first,” he said. “Because that’s what everybody wants and that’s what they’re going to buy.”

Schavone, who earned a Ph. D in sports psychology at Stanford, said both schools are fertile-breeding grounds for Olympians because they attract what he calls “high-energy individuals”; super achievers who know how to set goals, work toward them, multi-task, handle defeat and transfer those skills into multiple arenas.

“They want it, they know how to achieve it and they’ve proven they can achieve in other areas, so they have confidence,” he said, adding: “They’re probably great boyfriends and girlfriends, too, who knows?”

London Games
When: Friday through Aug. 12
Number of sports: 26 sports representing 39 disciplines
Number of countries participating: 204
Number of athletes: 10,490
Team USA athletes: 530 (269 women, 261 men)
U.S. athletes from California: 128
Olympics held in London: 3
Number of Summer Games: 30
New sports: Women’s boxing, mixed doubles tennis

Keep an eye on

Gabby Douglas: The upset winner at the U.S. gymnastics trials in San Jose will likely have to fend off teammate Jordyn Wieber in the battle for the women’s all-around gold.

Oscar Pistorius: Known as the “Blade Runner,” the South African who has no legs will pique interest as he runs the 400 meters and 1,600 relay on his carbon-fiber limbs.

Yohan Blake: The Jamaican upstaged his more famous countryman, Usain Bolt, during Olympic qualifying, winning the 100 and 200 meters. Look for the world record to fall.

About London

Population: 8.2 million
Metro-area population: 13,709,000
City boroughs: 32
Time difference: Eight hours ahead of San Francisco (if it is noon here, it is 8 p.m. in London)
Etc.: London is the capital of England and has an elected mayor. England is ruled by an elected prime minister, not the queen. The royal family plays a ceremonial role.

TV and online

NBC: 272.5 hours of coverage
NBC Sports Network: 293 hours 3,500 hours
Total NBC outlets: 5,535 hours


The cheapest entry to events is £20, or $31.03. The most expensive ticket is for the opening ceremony at £2,120, or $3,289.39.

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Paul Gackle

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