July 17, 2008
By John Sudsbury
Editor's note: The following feature appears in the summer 2008 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.
BERKELEY - Perseverance. Hard work. Discipline. Intelligence. Ambition.
All are traits required in order to succeed at a challenging and demanding school such as the University of California. Those same characteristics are also necessary to compete on the highest of international sports stages - the Olympics.
Not coincidentally, many young men and women who test themselves daily as students at Cal, the No. 1 public university in the nation, are also vying to represent their home countries at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
The attitudes and personalities necessary to be successful in all aspects of life are molded and developed by the Cal Athletics Department, which has a mission to teach, serve, compete and excel - perhaps not the same as the Olympic motto of faster, higher, stronger, but still noble ideals which contribute to success on an Olympic level.
"It takes a special kind of student-athlete to succeed at the University of California," Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour said. "Our culture at Cal is one of striving for greatness in all aspects of your life. I believe the attitudes of excellence that our student-athletes display athletically, academically, socially and in the community are all part of developing into the type of individual that can compete with the best athletes in the world."
For the fifth time in the last six years, Cal finished in the top 10 in the nation in the Directors' Cup standings, which measure overall excellence in an athletic program. Since the beginning of the 2006-07 seasons, the Golden Bears have earned 16 top-10 finishes nationally, including five national team championships. Thirteen individuals have captured national titles and 73 student-athletes were recognized as All-Americans in their respective sports in 2006-07 alone.
As an institution, Cal is recognized as one of the premier universities in the world. Fulbright Scholars, Guggenheim Fellows and Nobel Prize winners dot a faculty that educates elite students who advance to great success in the fields of business, entertainment and politics - as well as athletics. While excellence is demanded from a student body filled with lofty goals and aspirations, the school is designed to assist its students in how to reach those levels of greatness; and the Athletic Department strives to assist its pupils in their quest for sporting splendor.
"Here at Cal, you are really pushed to succeed; they don't try to make you fail," said Sean Mahoney, a Cal swimmer specializing in breaststroke. "It's one of the best things about Cal; everyone's trying to help you. Everyone you talk to, your coaches, the trainers, your professors, everyone is there for you. I think that's one of the reasons Cal is so great in academics and in sports."
"You're surrounded by excellence," Golden Bear women's water polo coach Rich Corso said. "One of your professors might have a Nobel Prize, one of your fellow students might be doing something incredible in science or politics or the arts. Then you go to the pool, the track, the gym, the weight room, you see these people vying to not only make an Olympic squad, but to medal. They make you learn here; they make you go the extra mile. A lot of people talk about how heavy that degree weighs, but I look at it as not so much the product, but the process and the education you get."
Corso's opinions on the potential of student-athletes competing for the Olympics come from experience. He coached the U.S. men's water polo team at both the 1992 and 1996 Olympics; the '96 squad listed five former Golden Bears on the roster, including current Cal men's water polo coach Kirk Everist.
"This University is going to show you how to get up," Corso added. "But nobody's going to do it for you; you have to learn to do that yourself. Of the five Cal guys in 1996, we could have easily gone with kids from other universities, but there's something about the kids from Cal; I think they are a lot tougher mentally."
Throughout its history, Cal representatives have made 336 appearances in the Olympic Games and Golden Bears have captured 143 medals. That tradition of excellence continues to push current Cal student-athletes to strive that much harder, to reach that much further to follow in those footsteps of greatness.
"It really is motivating to walk into Spieker Aquatics Complex and walk past that board with all the Olympians posted," said Cal swimmer Dominik Meichtry, who will represent Switzerland in his second Olympics this summer. "It motivates you, makes you realize why you put in that effort. I know I want to be on the board again!'"
Men's crew coach Steve Gladstone sees Cal's student-athletes as possessing many of the characteristics needed to become elite-level athletes, while also pointing to the past as motivation for the current Golden Bears - Cal's varsity eight, as a unit, achieved legendary status in Olympic lore, winning gold medals in 1928, 1932 and 1948.
"When you see pictures on the walls of the boat house and you see that these people that you know, your peers, are doing these things, it makes it a reality for yourself and I think clearly that's a stimulant," Gladstone said. "My guess would be that no other university has the academic rigor and the level of athletic performance that we have here. I would assume the characteristics to do both would be the same."
While Cal's success as a university is on display around the world through the accomplishments of its alumni, the evidence of the effectiveness of the school as a proving ground for elite athletes will be on display this August in Beijing. Eighty-six different (current, former and incoming) Cal athletes are competing to qualify for this year's Olympiad. As of mid-June, 31 Golden Bears had already locked down trips to China for the event, putting the school into position to perhaps exceed an impressive statistic from the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Cal representatives tallied 15 medals - a total that would have ranked No. 18 overall on the medal counts for entire countries.