Seven undergrads among dozens of Cardinal athletes competing in Olympic Games

(Originally published by Stanford News Service)

Sprinkled among the red, white and blue of Team USA at the 2012 Olympic Games will be 27 athletes who are also pure Cardinal.

Two new additions to the Stanford Olympic roster were announced Wednesday. Incoming freshman Nina Ligon will represent Thailand in equestrian eventing and alumnus Ryan Nelsen will represent New Zealand in men’s soccer.

Twenty-seven current students and alumni will represent USA diving, rowing, women’s soccer, synchronized swimming, tennis, track and field, women’s volleyball, and men’s and women’s water polo when the XXX Olympiad begins Friday (July 27) in London. Stanford’s diving coach, Rick Schavone, will be the assistant women’s and men’s diving coach of the U.S. team for the Games.

In addition to Ligon and Nelson, 10 other Cardinal athletes will represent Canada, New Zealand, Kenya, Bermuda, Nigeria, Greece and Austria in women’s gymnastics, women’s soccer, men’s swimming, track and field, and wrestling.

The athletes include some of Stanford’s most recognizable alumni, such as beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh, indoor volleyball silver medalist Logan Tom and tennis bronze medalists Bob and Mike Bryan.

Though most of the Olympians left the Farm years ago, a select few will return to Stanford with their classmates for the fall quarter after the Games are over. For these undergraduates, it’s an early shot at an opportunity that athletes five or 10 years older only dream of.

Women’s water polo

For water polo players Maggie Steffens, Annika Dries and Melissa Seidemann, preparing for the Olympics meant taking a year off from Stanford to train full time in Los Alamitos, Calif.

Steffens deferred her freshman year to train, and at 19 became the youngest member of the Olympic team. She joined her older sister Jessica, Dries, Seidemann (who will graduate in 2013) and Brenda Villa to be the fifth Stanford player on the team. Steffens said making the Olympic team was a dream come true.

“I watched [Jessica] play in 2008, and I watched a lot of the other girls play and totally looked up to them, and now I’m their teammate,” Steffens said. “It’s kind of funny and ironic.”

Steffens said being the youngest player took some getting used to. But now that she and her teammates have grown closer, she feels like just another member of the team – though being the youngest has its advantages.

“Me being the youngest gives me the opportunity to learn more from the older girls and gain more experience, which gives me the advantage to bring my youthfulness and my spirit and energy,” she said.

Dries said that once the excitement of making the Olympic team wore off, she and her teammates simply continued to work hard in the pool.

“Just looking at this past year we’ve had successes and we’ve also had failures. We’ve won and lost games,” Dries said. “The biggest thing is just going in with total awareness of all the other teams but then also the confidence of our team and our offense and defense.”

Dries, a pre-med human biology major who will resume her junior year at Stanford in the fall, said the combination of eight years of hard, physical work and support from a network of coaches is what got her to the Olympics.

“It was, from day one, coaches keeping an eye out for me and saying, ‘I think you can do this,’ or putting me in a position to be successful,” she said. “I think having all these great mentors along the way has really kept me pursuing this level and backing it up with that fighting attitude.”

Synchronized diving

Kristian Ipsen will compete in 3-meter synchronized diving with partner Troy Dumais. Ipsen, a freshman who has been diving since he was 7, was one place shy of qualifying for the individual dive as well, and said not making the cut was upsetting.

“I am trying to look at it like a blessing in disguise,” Ipsen said. “We have a realistic chance of medaling in the synchronized event so now I can focus all of my time and energy to prepare for that.”

Ipsen took spring quarter off to train full-time but said he is looking forward to returning to Stanford in the fall. While many of his competitors were home-schooled, Ipsen said, he’s always attended regular school, though balancing the two hasn’t always been easy.

“It has been tough managing my studies and my competition and training schedules but it has taught me great time-management skills, which is definitely needed at Stanford,” he said. “The academics at Stanford are extremely difficult, but all of my professors were amazing and helped me keep up with studies while I was on the road.”

Synchronized swimming

Mariya Koroleva is one of only two Americans competing in synchronized swimming in London. The communication major, who took off her senior year at Stanford to train in Indianapolis, will compete as a duet with her partner, Mary Killman, even though the national team did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

Koroleva has been swimming for 13 years, after trying out the sport for fun at her home club in Walnut Creek, Calif. She said training in Indianapolis with Killman for the past year has felt a little isolating, so she is looking forward to meeting other athletes when the Games begin.

“The day-to-day training hasn’t changed. We’re still in the pool all day, every day, we’re still exhausted,” Koroleva said. “But once I get there and see everybody and get to put on my USA outfit, that’s when it’s really going to hit me.”

Koroleva said she’s most looking forward to the Opening Ceremonies, when the reality of her accomplishment will truly set in.

“That’s when I think it’s actually going to hit me that I’m at the Olympic Games and I’ve actually made it and my dream has come true,” she said.

Gymnastics

Rounding out the Stanford undergraduates is sophomore Kristina Vaculik, who will represent Canada in women’s gymnastics. She  competed for Stanford in 2011, but took the 2012 Cardinal season off to train for London.

“This year has given me the opportunity to focus all of my energy into my gymnastics, whereas before I had always made my education my first priority,”  Vaculik told Stanford magazine.

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