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Olympics Preview: Cal Athletes Aim to Make a Splash and Score in Rio Games

June 16, 2016
by Kelly O'Mara

With so many world-class athletes, UC Berkeley is always well represented at the Olympics. The joke in 2012 was that if Cal were its own country (and isn’t it, in its own way?), it would have tied for sixth in the world for the number of gold medals won. That number was 11, by the way.

This summer, expect to see a few dozen current and former Golden Bear athletes competing in Rio, both under the U.S. banner and for other countries. Here are few to watch—especially for fans planning to watch the Olympic Trials still being contested. Swimming, track and field, and gymnastics will all finalize their rosters in the next month.


When it comes to turning swimmers into Olympians, arguably no school has more magic in its pool. The U.S. Swimming and Diving Olympic Trials will be held June 26–July 3 in Omaha, but it’s safe to say you’ll already recognize some of the names.

London Olympics five-time medalist Missy Franklin turned professional officially after the 2015 NCAA swim season, during which she also won three individual NCAA titles and helped the Cal team win the national championship. Franklin is expected to compete at the trials in the 100m and 200m free, and the 100m and 200m backstroke, in which she holds the world record.

She’ll see plenty of Cal teammates on deck, including the Bears’ current co-captain Elizabeth Pelton, who has been recovering from a hand injury this year but took third in the 2012 trials at the 200m back and 200m individual medley. To make the Rio team, Pelton will have to beat former Cal swimmer Caitlin Leverenz, who is considered a favorite in the 200m medley. At the Pan-Am Games this past year, Leverenz set a new 200m record and won the 400m IM, and she took bronze in the 2012 Olympics. They’ll be joined by current Cal senior and fellow backstroker Rachel Bootsma, who has said she’ll retire after Rio. She specializes in the 100m back and was part of the gold-winning medley relay team at the 2012 Olympics.

They’ve all raced on international teams together, including with another familiar face: Dana Vollmer. Vollmer, a former world-record holder in the 100m fly and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, retired after the London Games and gave birth to a son. But she returned to swimming in the spring of 2015, has been back working out with the Cal team, and will compete in the fly races at the trials.

Nathan Adrian qualifies first in 50 prelims; photo via Cal Athletics

Many people predicted Natalie Coughlin, one of the most decorated athletes in history, would also retire after a less-than-stellar London Olympics. In 2008, she was the first woman to win 6 medals at one Olympics and her total of 12 Olympic medals has her tied for the most all-time by a female swimmer. Instead of retiring after 2012, though, Coughlin has been busy re-creating herself as a sprinter, and working out with the Cal men’s coach and men’s team. She is expected to compete at the 50m free, 100m free, and 100m backstroke in Omaha.

Two of those male swimmers Coughlin works out with will also be racing for their own spots on the Rio team: Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin. Adrian became a fan favorite after his Olympic gold medal in the 100m free and his medal-winning legs on the relay teams. He currently holds the American record in the 50m free as well, and was on an episode of Mythbusters. Ervin, who is also completing a graduate degree at Cal, went through his own retirement and soul-searching after his gold in the 50m free at the 2000 Olympics. He auctioned off his medals and donated the money to survivors of the 2004 tsunami in Japan, but started swimming again in 2011 and took fifth at the 2012 Olympics.

Phew. Basically, the gist is: Watch the Olympic Swimming Trials. It’s going to be intense.

Track and Field

Alysa Johnson Montano hits the track; photo via Cal Athletics
The U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials won’t wrap up until July 10, making it one of the later teams to be announced. But if you’re Alysia Montaño, you’re already planning to be at that start line in Rio. Montaño is a six-time national champion in the 800m and placed fifth at the 2012 Olympics—though doping violations from two athletes ahead of her at that race could make her retroactively eligible for the bronze. Montaño will face stiff American competition this year at the trials in Eugene, Oregon, July 1–10, but she’s not a six-time national champion for nothing.

Water Polo and Rowing

In the other water sports, Berkeley will also have plenty of representation. On the U.S. men’s water polo squad look for alumnus John Mann and current Cal players Luca Cupido and Nic Carniglia. Mann, who competes for a professional team in Serbia, helped lead the Cal men’s team to a NCAA title in 2006 and the U.S. men’s national team to a second at the 2008 world championships. The team’s silver medal at the 2008 Games is its only Olympic medal since 1988, so they’ll be looking for a podium spot this summer.

The U.S. men’s rowing team is slightly more successful historically—and those boats are typically filled with Golden Bears. The 2012 Olympic coxswain Zach Vlahos could be leading the men’s eight again in Rio, while Cal teammate Will Dean rows on the Canadian quadruple sculls.

On the women’s side, alumna Kara Kohler was recently named one of the Pac-12 All-Century women rowers and she’s likely not done yet. She won a bronze at the 2012 Olympics in the quad sculls and was part of the Cal NCAA championship-winning eight team in 2013.


Alex Morgan battling for the ball; photo via Cal Athletics
After last year’s World Cup win, the U.S. Women’s National Team won’t be changing much of its winning roster. That means you can count on Cal alum Alex Morgan being a key part of the scoring lineup. Morgan, who was dealing with injuries last year, won a gold medal with the team at the 2012 Olympics and was a World Player of the Year finalist.


With just five gymnasts named to each of the men’s and women’s teams, it’s one of the harder squads to make for the Olympics, especially once you factor in the needs for all-around gymnasts and event specialists. The men’s trials will be held in St. Louis, June 23 and 25. (The women’s trials are in San Jose, July 8 and 10.) And on any men’s shortlist has to be Donothan Bailey, who was the 2016 U.S. pommel horse champion, and Steven Lacombe, who is a rings expert. Both have a tough fight to make the Rio team.

Gymnast Toni-Ann Williams is among the Cal athletes aiming for the Rio games; photo via Cal Athletics

Cal gymnast Ryan Patterson will be on a different team in Brazil, but his qualification made him South Africa’s first male Olympic gymnast in over 50 years.Though the men’s program, despite funding challenges over the years, has spawned a handful of Olympians, the Cal women have never qualified an athlete to the Games. Jamaican gymnast Toni-Ann Williams will be the first Cal and first Jamaican female gymnast to compete at the Olympics. The sophomore earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors last year and has been busy destroying Cal record boards—when she wasn’t raising money in a GoFundMe campaign to pay for her trip to the qualification event in Brazil.

New Debut Sports

There are also a handful of new sports being introduced in Rio this summer, and a few Cal athletes will have prime spots in history. Rugby sevens, a shortened and faster version of rugby, will make its debut in Brazil and Danny Barrett will be part of the U.S. Men’s Eagles Sevens team that locked down its qualification position early.

Golf will be also back at the Olympics for the first time since 1904. And South Korean golfer Byeong-hun An (known at Cal by his English name Ben An) is expected to be part of that historic event. He has the genes for it: Both his parents were Olympic medalists in table tennis in 1988. An moved to the U.S. at the age of 14 and became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur tournament in 2009. He was named the European Tour’s Rookie of the Year last year. Rio sounds like a nice way to cap that success.

As the Aug. 5 opening of the Olympics approaches, you can find more coverage of Cal athletes at

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