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2016 Olympics: Pac-12 women making history, piling up medals in Rio

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RIO DE JANEIRO -- Of the many Pac-12 women athletes in Rio for the 2016 Olympics -- leaping, bounding, swimming and breaking barriers -- none were born before 1972. But that year marked a crucial moment in each of their lives, as Title IX was passed and helped elevate the profile female athletics in America.

In the 44 years since, the U.S. has jumped to the forefront of the women’s sports movement. Take a look at the medal table in Rio, and you’ll see the women have earned 17 of USA’s 28 golds, 13 of the 28 silvers and 11 of the 28 bronzes.

Pac-12 women have been leading the charge. Through the conclusion of Tuesday’s action, only nine athletes worldwide have claimed as many as four Olympic medals in Rio. Remarkably, four of them are women swimmers from the Conference of Champions -- Stanford’s Katie Ledecky (4 golds, 1 silver), USC’s Katinka Hosszu (3 golds, 1 silver), Stanford’s Simone Manuel (2 golds, 2 silver) and Stanford’s Maya DiRado (2 golds, 1 silver, 1 bronze).

In all, 19 female Pac-12 athletes have collected 37 medals -- 19 gold, 13 silver and 5 bronze -- including duplicate medals for team events.

[Related content: Follow the Pac-12 to Rio]

“I think women’s sports have just been growing at such a huge rate for the past 30 years,” DiRado said. “It’s been an accepted part of the culture. I’m probably too young to even know when it was any different. I’ve always grown up being encouraged.”

Aside from sheer production, the women have also been making history throughout the games.

With her shared gold medal in the 100m freestyle, Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold. USC alum and USA track living legend Allyson Felix earned silver in the 400m event, surpassing Jackie Joyner-Kersee for the most medals ever by an American female track athlete with seven. On consecutive days, Colorado alums and training partners Emma Coburn (bronze) and Jenny Simpson (bronze) became the first American women to medal in the 3000m steeplechase and 1500m events, respectively. Katie Ledecky and Katinka Hosszu were, well, Katie Ledecky and Katinka Hosszu.

“It’s not perfect,” DiRado said. “There are a lot of things that still need to get better with athletics and women in sports. … But little girls are going to grow up watching Katie Ledecky, just destroy, like, destroy by crazy margins. And they’re going to watch Simone do things that nobody’s ever done before. They’re going to watch relays win and ... I think that’s great, and I think that’s why women’s sports are doing so well.”

[Related content: Stanford swimmers reflect on dominance in Rio]

The women aren’t quite done yet.

Team USA women’s volleyball and water polo are still undefeated and headed to their respective semifinals with gold medals on the minds. While the USA water polo team features 11 of 13 athletes with ties to the Pac-12, the American volleyball squad features four former Pac-12ers.

“We're grooving together and kind of finding that edge,” said USA volleyball middle blocker and Stanford alum Foluke Akinradewo. “I feel like we've put in a lot of work. Not just in terms of our volleyball skills, but our interpersonal skills and our relationships. I just feel that all that work we've put in is kind of showing now. We're just clicking and I think we're able to rely on one another.”

Water polo veteran and UCLA legend Courtney Mathewson has been a part of the Team USA program since 2009, winning gold in London with the team in 2012. Looking ahead to the future, Mathewson said the team is in good hands.

The USA women’s water polo roster currently features three players that are in high school or recently graduated -- including UCLA signee Maddie Musselman and Stanford signee Makenzie Fischer.

“The coolest thing is that after the girls retired from 2012, we reloaded,” Mathewson said. “We brought in some new, young girls and they have excelled over the past couple of years in our system and the game and an international level. It speaks volumes about our Olympic Development Program, helping from a really young age, from 12 and under. By the time they get to the age of 16, or 17 when they’re able to compete and keep up with the senior team, it’s pretty seamless.”

World, you’ve been warned.

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