Cal Swimming Gold Medallists Staciana Stitts And Ashley Whitney
Nov. 15, 2001
BERKELEY - There are aspects of the 2001-02 California women's swim team that are unique to any other collegiate swimming program in the nation. Besides featuring the 2001 NCAA Swimmer of the Year Natalie Coughlin - who as a freshman was thoroughly spectacular in winning all 15 Pac-10 races and setting three NCAA records - Teri McKeever's squad also has a pair of truly Golden Bears.
Truly gold as in Olympic gold medals.
Juniors Staciana Stitts and Ashley Whitney both have experienced success at the highest level, both owning gold medals - something most college swimmers can only dream of - yet they did not earn their golds in typical fashion. Stitts won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics as a member of the United States' 400-meter medley relay team, swimming the breaststroke leg for Team USA. Whitney got her gold medal while still in high school and as a member of the United States' 800-meter freestyle relay at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. But, neither one of these Cal stars saw the top of the victory stand or got to listen to the national anthem.
What Stitts, the Bears' school record holder in the 100 and 200 breast, and Whitney, an outstanding distance freestyler who was an All-American and a member of the national champion Georgia Bulldogs in 1999, have in common, is that they only swam in the morning prelims at the Olympics. They did not swim in the evening finals in front of the world stage, and in a way, were unsung heroes that enabled others to capture the glory.
'I swam in the morning, so the girls could swim that night,' said Stitts. 'I kind of felt like second string. But swimming was such a small part of the whole Olympic experience. To me, the opening ceremony was more exciting than the swimming part.'
The way relay teams work at the Olympic Games is that each country can have up to six members be a part of a relay, having different people swim in the preliminary races. Then all members of deserving parties receive medals at the end of the competition. It really is a true team effort, something that is also important to the Cal program, which relies on its relay teams to earn valuable points at the NCAA Championships. Stitts was a member of the Bears' 200 and 400 medley relays, swimming the breaststroke leg on Cal's 2001 national runner-ups in those events. Whitney earned All-America honors at Georgia as a member of the Bulldogs' 800 free relay.
In a lot of ways, the most cherished accomplishment for Stitts and Whitney was making the United States Olympic Team. Whitney, a native of Nashville, Tenn., attended high school at the prestigious Bolles School in Jacksonville, FL and was coached by former Cal swimmer Larry Shofe. She made the 1996 Olympics when she was the '96 national champion in the 800-meter freestyle. Stitts earned her spot on the Olympic team when she placed second in the 100-meter breast at the 2000 Olympic Trials.
'I was in shock when I made the Olympic team,' said Stitts. 'It was a race I wanted. It was something I had been concentrating on and training for three years. There was a moment of doubt, but when the race was over, all I saw was that No. 2 on the scoreboard next to my name. I was so excited. There were 11 people from my school and club who had made the Olympics, so I was already a part of a community. It was like my gift to be with them.'
'When I made the Olympics, two other high school teammates made the Olympic team with me,' explained Whitney. 'There were 21 other swimmers from Bolles as well. To see them compete for other countries was so exciting. It was a great opportunity.'
And so now Stitts and Whitney, who are swimming together on the same team for the first time in their careers, can share with each other their feelings and experiences of being part of the Olympic glory, albeit bittersweet because of their circumstances. They also share the difficulty of coming off the Olympic stage and having to get back to the day-to-day grind of training, as well as now having to juggle being a college student at one of the most challenging academic universities in the world.
'It was tough coming back from the Olympics,' said Whitney. 'You realize you have to work again to be fast. It was hard to get back into it. There are no exceptions for you. It is nice talking with Staciana because she was going through some of the same things I went through four years earlier. It is nice being able to understand some of the same experiences with each other.'
'It is awesome to have been in the same position as Ashley and to have the same feelings when we were there,' said Stitts. 'The opening ceremony was really the highlight. We both didn't get to stand on the victory stand. It felt more like we were a cog in the machine. Once it (the Olympics) was over, I didn't have any goals any more, absolutely no goals.'
'Getting a gold medal didn't mean as much to me personally,' added Whitney. 'What I like to do more is to share it with kids. It is neat when people ask me if I've been to the Olympics, which the answer is 'yes.' And, then they ask you if you got a gold medal and the answer is also 'yes.' I don't think Staciana and I both really realize what we have accomplished.'