By Ann Killion
The curtain is about to rise on the most breathtaking global stage in sports: the Summer Olympics, which officially open in London on July 27.
And many of the brightest stars on stage will be Olympians from the Pac-12.
The Pac-12’s Olympic history is rich: if the conference was a sovereign nation it would rank fourth in medal count – behind only the United States, the former Soviet Union and Germany.
The 2012 Olympics will continue that heady legacy. The Pac-12 is sending 241 total Olympians, representing 43 countries, to London - by far the most of any collegiate conference (the Big Ten is second with half that number). Almost a full quarter of Team USA – 119 athletes – come from the Pac-12.
Pac-12 athletes soar in individual sports, such as swimming and track, and also populate the rosters of teams: women’s soccer, men’s basketball, rowing, volleyball, water polo. They range from the well-known superstars – Russell Westbrook (UCLA) and James Harden (Arizona State) have jumped from the NBA Finals to Team USA – to new faces such as Stanford incoming freshman Maggie Steffens, who will join her older sister Jessica (Stanford) on the water polo team. The Steffens are one of three sets of Pac-12 siblings competing at the Olympics joining swimmers Alyssa Anderson (Arizona) and Haley Anderson (USC) and tennis doubles aces Bob and Mike Bryan (Stanford).
Pac-12 athletes include beloved veterans: Natalie Coughlin will compete in her third Olympics, wearing her Cal swimcap, on the first day of the Olympics. Meb Keflezighi (UCLA), the first American man to win a marathon medal since Frank Shorter in 1976, is back on the team. Kerri Walsh (Stanford) is back for her fourth Olympics – her first was on the indoor volleyball team, the rest on the beach – bringing her two young sons along for the ride.
When the curtain drops with the Closing Ceremonies on August 12th, the Olympics won’t be over for the Pac-12. Three days later, on August 15, the Pac-12 Networks will launch – including hours of Olympic sport programming, featuring many of the athletes who will have competed in London. And the next generation of Pac-12 Olympians.
Here are 12 Pac-12 Olympians to watch in London 2012:
1. Rebecca Soni - USC. The world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke, Soni could be a breakout swimming star in London. She won a gold medal (200) and silver medal (100) in Beijing but contemplated retirement following that Olympic success. But adjusting her training – and the banning of the full body swimsuits that Soni hated – helped her avoid burnout. She’s ready for another shot at the medal podium.
2. Hope Solo, Washington – Solo, the veteran goalkeeper of the U.S. soccer team, is appearing in her third Olympics (she was an alternate in 2004) and leads a Pac-12-heavy women’s soccer team. She credits her time at Washington for changing the course of her life. No athlete has generated more pre-Games publicity than Solo – starting with her stint on Dancing With The Stars in the fall of 2011. Universally considered the best goalkeeper in the world, the burden of stopping the world’s burgeoning women’s soccer talent, will fall on Solo.
3. Ashton Eaton, Oregon – Eaton is a first-time Olympian but expectations for London ratcheted into the stratosphere after he set a world record for the decathlon at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene.
A five-time NCAA champion at Oregon, and a native of Portland, Eaton, 24, won the silver medal at the World Championships in 2011. Eaton also holds the world record in the heptathlon.
4. Teri McKeever, Cal – The Bears swim coach is making history – she is the first female coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s swim team, a fitting coincidence during the 40th anniversary of Title IX. McKeever – using 11-time medalist Natalie Coughlin as a foundation – has built Cal into a swimming powerhouse and has become renowned for her unconventional training techniques. She will balance a deep and talented team that includes 29-year old Coughlin and 17-year old phenom Missy Franklin.
5. Alison Williamson, Arizona State – Williamson – who will be competing in her sixth Olympic Games in archery – is one of the longest-tenured Olympians in history. The 40-year old citizen of Great Britain, who is a member of Royal British Order, attended ASU in the early ‘90s, when the University offered scholarships for archery. She has been at every Olympics since 1992, winning bronze in Athens. Now she has a chance to compete at home.
6. Kevin Love, UCLA – No longer termed “the Dream Team,” the U.S. basketball team is now a showcase for the rising young talents of the NBA. Love – who led UCLA to a NCAA Final Four appearance in 2008 – will join former Bruin teammate Westbrook, and other NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul on the quest for gold. On a team that lacks size, physical Love, a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, will be vital to the team’s success.
7. Bernard Lagat, Washington State – Lagat, a WSU grad and assistant coach at Arizona, will be competing in his fourth Olympics: he ran for his native Kenya in 2000 (winning a bronze medal) and 2004 and, after becoming a U.S. citizen, ran for the U.S. in 2008. He did not medal in Beijing and later revealed he had an injured Achilles tendon. Lagat will compete in the 5000 meters, the event in which he won silver at the 2011 World Championships and holds the American record.
8. Michelle Plouffe, Utah – The 6-4 forward will be playing for Team Canada, the first time the basketball team has qualified for the Olympics since 2000, when Plouffe was just seven years old. Last year, Plouffe ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in scoring and earned an All-America honorable mention. Her older sister Andrea played at Washington.
9. Patricia Obee – Oregon State. The 20-year old from Victoria, British Columbia, who only started rowing in 2009, will compete for Canada in lightweight doubles sculls. She won a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships with partner Lindsey Jennerich, and is considered one of the up-and-coming women rowers in the world. Team Canada officials have said they expect Obee and Jennerich to make the medal podium.
10. Brigetta Barrett, Arizona – Barrett, who will be a senior at Arizona next year, set a personal best in the high jump at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The New York native cleared 6-feet-7-inches to make the team, finishing second to Chaunte Lowe. Barret’s mark puts her in contention for a medal. The last time the U.S. medaled in the high jump was in 1988.
11. Kara Goucher, Colorado – Goucher, a three-time NCAA Champion while at Colorado, ran both the 5000 and 10,000 meters in Beijing. But she switched to the marathon, making her debut a few months after the 2008 Olympics. She took a season off after the birth of her son Colt in September of 2010, but qualified for London by placing third at the trials last January.
12. Tony Azevedo Stanford – For the fourth straight Olympics, Azevedo is leading the U.S. water polo team. The U.S. won a silver medal in Beijing – a breakthrough for a team that hadn’t medaled since 1988. Though most experts aren’t picking the U.S. to medal, Azevedo walked away from a six-figure contract in Europe to focus on winning gold. He holds the all-time scoring record at Stanford where he was a four-time collegiate player of the year. His father will coach the Chinese team in London. Azevedo has already said he plans to work toward a fifth Olympics in 2016.