From the Conference of Champions to the Olympics - Pac-12 athletes have what it takes
SEATTLE -- It was a sunny Saturday in Eugene, Oregon when tens of thousands of track and field fans packed historic Hayward Field to watch as the best athletes in the nation competed for a spot on the 2008 United States Olympic Team.
USC alum Jesse Williams was warming up on the infield for the high jump. He had competed in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials once before in 2004, but as a collegian. A breakout performance landed him an eighth-place finish that year, despite “barely sneaking in” to the entries.
This time around in 2008, though, Williams was far from “barely sneaking in.” He was picked as a favorite to win.
Eugene, also known as “TrackTown, USA,” was the home for the next U.S. Olympic Trials as well as many athletes vying for a spot to represent their country. Williams was one of them, moving to Eugene to focus on the trials and see just how far jumping over a bar could take him. As it turns out for him and many other Pac-12 athletes, it was pretty far.
The Pac-12, which was the Pac-10 when Williams attended, is nicknamed the Conference of Champions for good reason. It is one of the top conferences represented in international track and field competitions every year. In the most recent 2012 Olympic Games, 59 athletes attended a Pac-12 school – more than any other conference.
To put this in perspective, had the Pac-12 Conference been its own country, it would have finished fifth in the medal count.
What is it about the Pac-12 that leads to so many Olympic-caliber track and field athletes? For USC track and field head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert, the answer is simple: Tradition and expectation.
USC has been the frontrunner of the Pac-12, and entire nation, in producing Olympians. To this day, 587 athletes hailed from Troy to represent their home countries in the Games, and brought home 135 gold medals, 87 silver medals and 65 bronze medals. At the most recent Olympic Games, an NCAA-leading 12 track and field athletes had worn cardinal and gold.
“We expect to recruit Olympians,” says Gilbert. “Excellence doesn’t stop in college. We expect them to be greater than the NCAA, should they want to be, so we bring Olympians to talk to them and have Olympians on staff so the students get that firsthand experience.”
Williams knew that the Trojans were powerhouses in both the conference and nation, which was why he chose to transfer to USC after his freshman year at North Carolina State University.
“One of the biggest reasons why I transferred was the competition,” says Williams. “I like to compete at a high level and against the best guys. The Pac-10 and USC had that.”
USC isn't the only Pac-12 school to boast a high number of Olympians. Stanford has seen 21 current or former track and field athletes medal at the Games, and Oregon sent 10 current or former Ducks to compete in the 2012 Olympics in track and field.
The high-caliber competition in college certainly paid off for Williams. He came out of the 2008 trials as the United States Champion and a member of Team USA for the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Williams went on to be the high jump World Champion in 2011, make the U.S. Olympic team again in 2012, and is a contender for a spot on this year’s Olympic team as well. Whether he gets to don red, white and blue again will be decided in July at Hayward Field, just a few miles from Williams’ Eugene residence.
In addition to Williams, the Pac-12 once again looks to be well represented at the U.S. Olympic Trials and beyond. Nearly every school will have multiple current or former athletes running, jumping or throwing against the best in the country.
Every athlete, whether international or from the U.S., must face their own country's Olympic team selection process. The one constant is the Olympic “A” Standard that must be hit for an athlete to be eligible for participation. So far this year, dozens of current and former Pac-12 track and field athletes have already hit the standard necessary to represent their home countries in Rio this year.
Notable among that group are current Pac-12 student-athletes Pau Tonnesen and Nicholas Scarvelis. Arizona decathlete Pau Tonnessen defended his Pac-12 title last weekend and qualified to compete for Spain in Rio at the NCAA Championships last year. UCLA thrower Nicholas Scarvelis is one of the best throwers in the world and looks to compete for Greece. You can watch him shot put at the Pac-12 Championships in Seattle this Saturday, May 14 at 4 pm.
These, and all, Pac-12 track and field athletes are discovering what Williams says is the key to success: perseverance. Now as a self-proclaimed veteran of the sport, Williams offered one other important insight to athletes looking to make their name on the Olympic level. “Have the Pac-12 mentality: Be a champion.”