Tokyo says sayonara; what’s next for Pac-12 Olympians?
TOKYO – There is nothing like the Olympic Games. Not only because they feature 339 events at 42 venues over 19 days for 11,000 athletes from 206 countries.
The Olympics also turn college rivals into teammates, and teammates into rivals. They reveal who among them is clutch while the world is watching. Perhaps no one epitomized that better in Tokyo than UCLA’s Jessie Fleming who scored the winning goal for Canada to upset the U.S. in the women’s soccer semifinal – a tournament that ended in gold for Canada and bronze for a U.S. squad that included eight Pac-12’ers including CALIFORNIA forward Alex Morgan and Christen Press who once played for its frienemy, STANFORD.
The Olympics also revealed the global reach of the Pac-12 conference. Of its 108 total individual medals, non-U.S. athletes were responsible for 29 of them, representing 11 National Olympic Committees.
It all comes to a close on Sunday. Monday marks the traditional airport exodus followed by the terrifying question for all who attended: What next?
For many Pac-12 Olympians, Tokyo marked the ends of illustrious careers. Track star Allyson Felix (USC) completed her Olympic legacy with 11 medals, including bronze in the 400 meters and her seventh gold on the penultimate night, running the second leg of the women’s 4x400m relay. Gymnast MyKayla Skinner who missed the cut for Rio and credited college gymnastics at UTAH for reigniting her love for the sport, at 24, was a last-minute replacement for Simone Biles in the vault final and claimed an individual silver medal. USA Rowing coxswain Katelin Guregian’s career came to a close with fourth place in the women’s eight in Tokyo after coxing WASHINGTON to three NCAA titles and U.S. eight to five world titles and 2016 Olympic gold. “I’m excited about [retiring] and I’m also really sad,” she said, “because this is such an important and special part of my life.”
For others, retirements will be considered. Will this be it for the 39-year-old beach volleyball player April Ross (USC) who won gold in Tokyo, silver in 2012 and bronze in 2016? Some of the triple gold medalists in women’s water polo may consider life outside of the pool, including U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian (UCLA), 47, who said after the team won gold on Saturday night that while victory “never gets old, [the Games are] getting more tiring, I’ll tell you that.” Abdi Abdirahman (ARIZONA), the five-time Olympian and 44-year-old runner who placed 41st in the marathon on Sunday and said Tokyo would likely be his last Games, but probably not his last Olympic trials.
Others, meanwhile, found new fame in Tokyo. Rai Benjamin (USC) stunned the world in a 400-meter hurdle showdown, losing to the first man to go sub-46. Benjamin’s silver-medal time of 46.17 was under the previous world record in an event where, until July, the old world record had stood for 29 years. USC alumnus Isaiah Jewett also became a household name on the track. The 800-meter runner who sees his race in anime tumbled toward the front of his semifinal, taking down Botswana’s Nijel Amos, and quickly extended a hand and finished together. Jewett, 24, is loaded with talent and one to watch in 2024, for sure.
Others, also in their primes, are sure to continue. Professional swimmer Katie Ledecky (STANFORD), 24, has already said that she will aim for her fourth Olympics in Paris 2024 where she could add to her 10 career medals, (including 800m and 1,500m golds and two silvers from Tokyo). Hurdler Dalilah Muhammad (USC) will likely continue after posting the second-fastest time in history in the 400m hurdles – claiming silver! – before taking gold on the third leg of the US 4x400 relay. Tina Graudina (the ex-heptathlete who will return to USC as the fourth-place finisher in beach volleyball) set the mark for all NCAA players to follow and all the young girls in Latvia who saw her and her partner become the first female pair to represent the nation on the Olympic sand. Diver Delaney Schnell has two more years of eligibility at ARIZONA and took silver in the 10-meter synchronized platform, an event only contested at championship meets. And what growth Cole Hocker, 20, will bring back to Oregon as the sophomore who dethroned the 1,500m Rio Olympic champion at the U.S. Olympic trials (Matthew Centrowitz, OREGON) and was the lone American in the 1,500 final in Tokyo, placing sixth with a personal best 3:31.40. Similarly, Grant Fisher (STANFORD), who placed fifth in 10,000 meters on the opening night of track, may signal a U.S. revival in men’s distance events.
There also those for whom Tokyo marked new beginnings. Versatile incoming STANFORD swimmer Regan Smith, 19, took two silvers and bronze in her Olympic debut after setting a backstroke world record in 2019. There will also a be a post-Tokyo mini-explosion of Olympic gymnasts in the Pac-12: Grace McCallum, 18, (committed to UTAH) and Jordan Chiles, 20, (committed to UCLA) both took silver in the women’s team event with the United States by competing on all four apparatuses. Notably, Chiles was a late sub for Biles on bars and beam. Jade Carey who won gold in floor exercise has committed to OREGON STATE. On Friday, Amelie Morgan, who earned bronze in the women's team event with Great Britain, committed to UTAH.
Finally, there are question marks. What of the eight U.S. softball players and three Canadians from five Pac-12 schools who took the silver and bronze, respectively, in the renaissance of Olympic softball – absent since 2008 – and which won’t be contested in Paris 2024. Will it – or they – return for LA 2028?
As is true with most things at the Games, it’s hard to predict, but thrilling to watch.
Until Paris 2024… sayonara and arigato gozaimasu, Tokyo.