BYU athletes making Olympic history since 1912

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BYU-affiliated athletes have left their mark on the Olympics since 1912. Left to right: Alma Richards, Kresimir Cosic, Kate Hansen, Tatenda Tsumba and Taylor Sander. (BYU Photo)

The Cougars have made a mark in the Olympics since BYU’s first Olympian competed in 1912. More than a century later, BYU-affiliated athletes — including students, coaches and professors — have participated in dozens of Olympic events and collectively earned 34 medals.

Quick history

The first modern Olympics took place in Athens, Greece, in 1896 — the year Utah became a state. BYU’s first Olympian, Alma Richards, simultaneously won a gold medal and set a new world record for the high jump in 1912, just 16 years after the Olympics began.

Former BYU men’s volleyball outside hitter Taylor Sander brought home the most recent medal when his team won a bronze in Rio in 2016. Sander was one of four athletes with BYU ties who competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draw nearer, several BYU-affiliated athletes aim to earn a spot in the games, nine of whom are current BYU students or faculty. Six members of BYU’s swim team, Mary Lake from the women’s volleyball team, Clayton Young from the men’s track and field team and adjunct professor Jared Ward, who competed in Rio, are all qualified. Athletes can continue to qualify until the end of June and beginning of July 2020, so more BYU athletes could qualify before the Olympics. Deadlines vary by event.

Former BYU swim and dive team member Peyton Sorenson also qualified during the 2018-19 season shortly before he graduated. Team USA volleyball outside hitter Sander is likely to make a second Olympic appearance after helping his team qualify on Aug. 11. Sprinter Tatenda Tsumba competed and Rio and may return in 2020 for Zimbabwe.

Years and sports represented

Athletes and coaches with BYU ties have appeared in 16 total Summer Olympics, including the last 14, and five total Winter Olympics, according to the BYU Athletics website

One of BYU’s most notable years came in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Men’s track and field saw a gold medal finish from Pekka Vasala in the 1,500 meter, a gold medal in both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter for Lasse Viren, a silver in the 400-meter hurdles for Ralph Mann, and a silver for Jay Silvester in the discuss. Kresimir Cosic, who was then playing on BYU’s men’s basketball team, won a gold medal in the same Olympics. In addition, basketball player Ken James, gymnasts Makoto Sakamoto and Debra Stark Clark, swimmer Piero Ferrauti, and runners Usaia Sotutu and Zdravko Pecar all competed. 

The 1980 Olympics was also notable because the U.S. was boycotting the Moscow Olympics. Despite the boycott, three athletes with BYU ties competed: Kresimir Cosic for the Yugoslavia men’s basketball team, Kenth Gardenkrans for the Swedish track and field team and Lasse Viren for Finland’s track and field team. 

(Anna Bryner)

Medals and medalists

The majority of medals for BYU athletes have come from the Summer Olympics. The only medals to come from the Winter Olympics are Shauna Rohbock’s silver in the two-woman bobsled in 2006 and Jean Saubert’s silver in the giant slalom and bronze in the slalom in 1964. Rohbock was a standout soccer player at BYU between 1995-99, and Saubert earned her Master’s degree at BYU in 1976 after winning her medals.

One of BYU’s most decorated athletes was Croatian basketball player Kresimir Cosic, who led the former Yugoslavia to four medals as a player and one as a coach. Cosic was a standout center on BYU’s basketball team from 1969-73, helping the Cougars to two WAC championships.

The Olympic experience

Competing at the premier international sporting competition is an honor few athletes ever experience. 

The Olympic Games last 16 days and occur every other year, alternating between the Summer and Winter Games. By the time athletes become Olympians, they have often spent years waking up early, eating healthy, pushing their bodies to the limit and strictly managing their time.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, athletes across the globe attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials and Olympic teams. For many countries, including the United States, Olympic teams aren’t finalized until a few weeks before the games begin.

Team USA Gymnastics silver medalist Guard Young said he made the team 10 days before he flew to Athens, Greece, to compete.

Young said he struggled with the pressure and began doubting he deserved a spot on the team. He said he was surprised when Team USA won silver because he was just thankful to be there. Fifteen years later, Young said he wishes he and his team would have gone into the experience knowing what was possible.

2014 luge Olympian Kate Hansen remembers the surreal experience of competing in the Olympics. 

“I had spent 11 years of my life in the sport and, all I could dream of was walking into opening ceremonies with Team USA,” Hansen said. “To be affiliated with some of the best athletes in the world and treated like equals was really special for me.”

1988 Seoul Olympian Troy Tanner said no competition is quite like the Olympics.

“Every time you step into an Olympic arena, it just feels different; every emotion is intensified,” he said. 

When the time to compete arrives, athletes have to channel their years of training, dedication and passion into the event. Rowing Olympian Megan Dirkmaat McCourt, who competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics, remembers the anxiety that swept over her before her team’s race.

“Everything in my body was definitely terrified,” she said. Shaking with nerves, McCourt said she began praying — her custom before races — to calm down. 

“You’ve got to keep track of your emotions and not get caught up in the setting,” Tanner said. 

While Olympic competitions are intense, the experience of living in the Olympic Village and mingling with other athletes is more fun and relaxed, according to McCourt. She remembers riding buses with USA athletes, such as Michael Phelps, to go watch Team USA compete in other events.

Hansen said many people don’t know much about the personal side of Olympians.

“Olympic athletes can be weird,” she said. Because athletes have to find ways to calm their nerves and relax between races and training, they sometimes take up activities such as video games.

“Everyone has their weird quirks and hobbies they get into, so it’s funny when they open up about it,” she said.

Olympians’ experiences at BYU

Olympians with BYU affiliation have come to BYU before, during and after their Olympic debuts. Despite the common BYU thread, the athletes’ Olympic training and experiences vary as much as the events they have competed in.

Megan McCourt, Rowing

McCourt came to BYU before competing in the Olympics. McCourt’s parents attended BYU, and she decided to do the same despite a full-ride rowing scholarship offer at USC and pressure from her high school coach to keep participating at the collegiate level. 

Despite lacking a team and coaches at BYU, the Olympic hopeful kept working toward her dreams by training on a rowing machine in her Heritage Halls dorm. 

McCourt’s previous coaches kept reaching out to her, urging her to officially get back into the sport while she was at BYU. Finally, on a visit to her home in California, McCourt toured UC Berkeley. She enjoyed the visit but felt unsure about transferring because she perceived the school as “the polar opposite” of BYU.

After the tour, UC Berkeley’s coach kept reaching out to McCourt, and in December 1997, after two and a half years at BYU, she transferred to participate on the rowing team. 

McCourt’s collegiate career launched her into the waters of international competition, and in 2004, McCourt realized Olympic dreams as she made it to the Olympics and earned a silver medal. 

Guard Young, Men’s Gymnastics

Guard grew up with Olympian Wayne Young as his father, so gymnastics became a family activity, especially when Wayne began medical school. Guard said the family moved into a small apartment, so they went to the gym to shake off extra energy.

With the help of his coach, Mark Williams, Guard fell in love with gymnastics and later followed his father’s footsteps to BYU where he won six All-American awards and NCAA National Championships on the vault.

The men’s gymnastics team was cut during his senior season at BYU. Guard said he felt lost until Williams was hired as the University of Oklahoma’s men’s gymnastics head coach and recruited him to be a graduate assistant where he had the opportunity to train and coach.

He joined the USA Senior National Gymnastics team in 2000 and helped the team win a silver in the 2001 World Championships. He then represented Team USA in the 2004 Athens Olympics where he and his team earned silver.

The father and son Olympians share a unique bond as both were inducted in the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame after their respective times in the Olympics.

Guard’s love of gymnastics led him to become head coach of BYU’s women’s gymnastics. He said it feels like he is doing every routine in a meet, so he feels like he is competing again.

Kate Hansen, Luge

Luge Olympian Kate Hansen was a BYU student while competing in the Olympics. Hansen got her start with luge at age 10, and by age 15, she was traveling the world competing on the U.S. National Team. 

During her senior year of high school in 2010, Hansen was not sure she would go to college. She had barely missed a spot in the Vancouver Olympics and hoped to make the USA team in 2014, but training for the Olympics would give her little time to do much else.

Because she was raised a Cougar fan, and because of Park City’s close proximity to Provo, Hansen decided to apply to BYU.

“If I wasn’t going to get in, then I probably wasn’t going to go to school,” she said.

Hansen was accepted and began classes in Fall 2010. She traveled to Park City twice a week to keep up her training while she was a student. She even petitioned to be able to use the athlete weight room so she could have the resources she needed to maintain her regimen.

Hansen’s winter sport demanded her attention during fall and winter semesters, so she came to BYU for spring terms before heading to Lake Placid, N.Y., for her summer training. Because she was not attending fall and winter semesters, she had to keep reapplying to BYU as a continuing student. 

“It wasn’t a mission, so I didn’t get the normal deferral that missionaries got,” Hansen said. 

After years of training, Hansen earned a spot to compete on Team USA in Sochi. 

“When I finally qualified in 2014, I had no emotion left,” Hansen said. “I was so exhausted and tired from the three-month process of Olympic trials that I just cried and cried; all I wanted was a pizza and my bed.”

While she might have wanted rest, Hansen kept working hard and earned a 10th place finish in the Olympics. After retiring from the sport in 2014, she returned to BYU full-time and graduated in 2017.

Troy Tanner, Volleyball

Olympic volleyball player Troy Tanner came to BYU to work as an assistant coach and to pursue a Master’s degree after competing in the 1988 Olympics. Tanner had the opportunity to share some of his experiences preparing for and competing at the Olympics with the players he coached.

Years later as Tanner coached volleyball stars Keri Walsh Jennings and Misty Mae-Treanor in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he ran into Ryan Millar and Rich Lambourne, two players he had coached at BYU. While in Beijing, Tanner coached Jennings and Mae-Trenor to a gold medal while Lambourne and Millar also earned a gold medal. 

Countries represented

BYU affiliated athletes have represented 27 countries in the Olympics and won medals for five of them since representing Finland in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964.

(Ashley Jorgensen)

Besides Team USA, which 43 BYU affiliates have represented, Sweden, Finland and Singapore have been most represented by Cougars with seven, six and five Olympians, respectively, but this statistic doesn’t account for repeat appearances. Twenty four athletes have been repeat Olympians, and seven returned more than once. Cosic returned four times after his initial debut in 1968, Jay Silvester came back three times, and Frank Fredericks, Henry Marsh and Lasse Viren each made two additional appearances. 

BYU’s influence on international teams is likely to continue in 2020 through BYU track and field’s Tsumba, who looks to represent Zimbabwe, and Josue Dominguez from the BYU swim and dive team, who has qualified to represent the Dominican Republic.

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