Had Stanford competed as its own country in the Beijing Olympics, it would have placed 11th — tied with Japan — in total Olympics medals. This summer is shaping up to be no different, as track and field athletes, synchronized swimmers, divers and water polo players, among others, prepare for the impending games in London.
“When you think of the Stanford athletics brand, the Olympics play a big part in shaping that brand,” said Jim Young, senior assistant athletic director of communications and media relations. “Over the years, Stanford University has been able to attract world class athletes in a wide variety of sports, and a large part of their Olympic path went right through Stanford. We’re very proud of our Olympic heritage and tradition.”
Freshmen and seniors alike are entering their final few months of training before heading to London. Amaechi Morton ‘12, one Olympic hopeful, has been training as a 400-meter hurdler for the U.S. trials at the end of June.
“I’ve just been doing the same thing,” Morton said, when asked about his training this year. “I’m trying to get mentally ready — that’s an important part, too. If you’re not ready mentally, no matter how physically ready you are, it doesn’t matter…I keep telling myself constantly that I can do this, that I belong there.”
While the Olympics had always been in the back of Morton’s mind, they didn’t become a tangible goal until his sophomore year of college. For Katerina Stefanidi ‘12, a pole-vaulter from Greece, the Olympics were also initially a distant aspiration, leading her to initially choose Stanford for its academic excellence.
“The Olympics didn’t really come into my mind until last year when I got the Olympic B standard,” Stefanidi said. “Every athlete has the dream to go to the Olympics. I can’t say that I never thought about going, but there are always short-term goals that overwhelm you.”
Stefanidi now is only a few inches away from securing the Olympic A standard of 14’ 9”, which will secure her a spot on the Greek national team this summer.
Kristian Ipsen ‘15, a diver and a member of the U.S. National Diving Team since 2009, also chose Stanford in part for the variety of opportunities offered outside of the pool.
“I’ve always been really into school,” Ipsen said. “A lot of my fellow competitors have taken this year off just to train for the Olympics, but I really wanted to go to school and experience everything about college.”
Unlike Morton and Stefanidi, the London Olympics have been on Ipsen’s radar for quite a while, at least since the diver was an alternate for the 2008 U.S. team. Although he is enthused about being a student at Stanford, Ipsen has taken spring quarter off in order to devote himself more fully to his training schedule.
Other athletes have also found it difficult to balance the rigors of top-tier athletics with the challenges of being a Stanford student, eventually opting to take a leave of absence. Maria Koroleva ‘12, a synchronized swimmer, decided to postpone her senior year at Stanford in order to train with the U.S. National Team.
“When you are pursuing the Olympic dream, you aren’t just a regular athlete,” Koroleva said. “You have to go above and beyond.”
The team component of synchronized swimming made this commitment especially intense for Koroleva. She recently qualified for the Olympics in the duet — the zenith of synchronized swimming events — but described her qualification as “bittersweet” after the U.S. Team failed to make it to the Olympics.
When she returns to campus this fall, Koroleva said she’ll be happy to focus on school. She described life in Indianapolis, where she has been with the National Team since last June, as “all training, and not really much of anything else.”
“I’m excited to come back. You never really know how much you appreciate your school until you leave,” Koroleva said.
Back in the pool, women’s water polo players Annika Dries ‘14 and Melissa Seidemann ‘13 have also taken this year off to train with the U.S. National Team in preparation for London, as did incoming freshman Maggie Steffens ‘16.
While some athletes have been forced to choose between attending Stanford and training for London, Morton asserted that Stanford’s “stress on the excellence of academics and athletics goes one and one” together and has pushed him to achieve distinction on all fronts.
“Coming from the institution, you want to excel,” Morton said. “Because it’s Stanford, you want to hold the name up high. You want to look to the expectations and the standards.”
“Success is contagious,” said Arantxa King ‘11 MA ‘12, a redshirt senior on the track team.
King is an Olympic veteran, having competed as a long jumper in Beijing in 2008 for her native Bermuda. She hopes to repeat the feat this year in London.
“I can imagine that, from my experience, being an athlete is being a student just in a different dimension,” King said. “So, people who aspire to do really well in their sport, from my perspective, can also be very alert and smart in the classroom as well…If you’re dedicated to your sport, you are dedicated to excel in other areas.”
Chris Derrick ‘12, a distance runner on the track team who hopes to qualify for the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events, noted that Stanford opens a lot of opportunities for the world beyond sports.
“A lot of the sports that we’re really good at are not necessarily the most mainstream,” Derrick said. “For people who are doing track and field or water polo, they know there’s going to have to be a life after sports and — given the facilities and the tradition of Stanford — it gives them a great chance to develop those athletic components, but the academic prowess also gives them a chance to develop for life after sports.”
Despite their remarkable accomplishments as student-athletes, prospective Olympians downplayed their accomplishments in the context of the greater Stanford community.
“When I came here, my friends from home were like ‘Oh, are you treated like a superstar at Stanford?’” King recalled. “And I said, ‘No, no one is, because everyone here is a superstar.’”