July 17, 2008
By Dean Caparaz
Editor's note: The following feature appears in the summer 2008 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.
BERKELEY - The road to Beijing started in Berkeley for many Olympic hopefuls. Whether current or former student-athletes, they developed their skills in the water or on the fields in and around the University of California campus. Entering the summer, more then 60 Golden Bears were vying for their place in the Games.
Some, such as current assistant track & field coach and former Cal runner Magdalena Lewy (marathon), have already secured their spot, while many others will realize their fate at Olympic trials.
Cal has a long tradition of sending large groups of Bears to the Summer Games - 34 athletes and coaches from Cal participated in the 2004 Olympics alone - and more of the same is expected this year. With athletes wearing the colors of such countries as New Zealand, Croatia, Israel, Switzerland, Canada and Brazil, in addition to the United States, the school's representation reflects the international flavor of the worldwide event.
For Cal freshman Hannah Wilson, a butterfly/freestyle specialist who will swim for her native Hong Kong, reaching Beijing would be extra special. While she has been an Olympian before - she competed in the 2004 Olympics - she has reason to look forward to this year's experience.
"Being in China and growing up there, it's close to my heart," said Wilson, who has studied Mandarin for 10 years. "I know that they're going to put on such a show. They're going to want to outdo everybody else. Being able to somehow relate to them just makes things a little bit easier."
Cal has a few '04 veterans who boast rather interesting memories of Athens. Senior swimmer Dominik Meichtry, who hails from Switzerland, noted that "shaking hands with [tennis star] Roger Federer was quite the experience. Something that stands out from 2004 was going to the opening ceremony and as we walked in, everybody was cheering for us. And not because I am Swiss and not because you're from Iraq or from the United States, but because you are an athlete and there are certain sacrifices that you had to make in order to reach that level."
For many athletes, including Cal freshman swimmer Martti Aljand, dreaming about going to the Olympics is just part of being a high-caliber athlete.
"I think that is the ultimate goal every athlete has," said Aljand, who will represent Estonia. "My grandmother was an Olympian; she competed in backstroke. My sister, Trin, went to Athens."
Most of the Bears would be making their first trip to China, including Alysia Johnson, the 2007 U.S. and NCAA champion in the 800-meter run. The senior is looking to cap 2008 with a serious Olympic run.
"Hearing the word Olympian by my name sounds great in itself," Johnson said. "Along with that, I'd like to win a medal; that'd be awesome. I'm looking forward to the competition and seeing the Olympic Games for myself. You always see it on TV, but to witness it for myself, to be in it and feel proud to wear the USA uniform as an Olympian is totally different."
Johnson, who hails from Canyon Country in Southern California, has thrived in Berkeley, and all the Bears striving for the Olympics have taken advantage of Cal's world-class training environment.
Martin Maric, for example, has performed well since entering the fold at Cal. A transfer from Georgia, he will compete in the discus for his native Croatia.
"In Georgia, I had two rough years," Maric said. "I came here, and my first semester, my first month, I felt like home because the environment Berkeley has reminds me of being back home. I felt more comfortable and the coaches helped me a lot. My first year here I PRed by 12 feet. It was amazing."
Maric's teammate, Ed Wright, a senior hoping to become an Olympian in the high jump, praises Cal's coaching staff and specifically assistant coach Ed Miller.
"He's been the root of a lot of my success at Cal," Wright said. "He's not only helped me on the track, but off the track as well. He's helped me grow and mature and learn lessons while staying humble and being professional."
Sophomore swimmer Lauren Boyle has likewise flourished since joining the Bears. She spoke about the challenges of fulfilling her Cal obligations and competing in New Zealand's Olympic Trials.
"I flew straight from the NCAA championships, which were in Columbus, Ohio, to Auckland, New Zealand," she said. "Then I had to compete the day after I arrived in New Zealand. I was really tired and really jet-lagged."
Despite the stress, Boyle nevertheless qualified to go to Beijing with her country's 800-meter freestyle relay.
As with Boyle and Maric, some of Cal's Olympic hopefuls have had to train far from home and from their country's coaches but have managed well. That's the case for senior rower Marko Marjanovic, who, along with freshmen teammates Jovan Popovic and Goran Todorovic, hopes to qualify for Beijing in Serbia's coxless four.
"We use every chance here, on Sundays or other times we don't have practices with Cal, to go out in a four or even in pairs to just train," Marjanovic said. "We talk every day with our coaches in Serbia by phone, so we know exactly what we need to do. I think we should qualify, because the boat did well last year at World Championships and the two young guys have learned a lot this past season."
The tradition of excellence at Cal continues to inspire Bears athletes in every sport to accomplish their ultimate goal of competing in the Summer Games.
"There are Olympians on my team," said senior swimmer William Copeland, who's vying to reach Beijing in the freestyle events. "I've trained with silver medalists and gold medalists over the years. Being here at Cal, there's a winning attitude. You're almost expected to do great things."