Olympians Share Experiences in Panel Discussion

Members of the heavyweight crew team and Taylor Ritzel '10.
Members of the heavyweight crew team and Taylor Ritzel '10.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – Six out of the seven Yale grads that competed at the 2012 Olympic Games shared their experiences in a panel discussion at the Law School Auditorium on Thursday night.  Rowers Ashley Brzozowicz ’04, Tess Gerrand ’10, Jamie Redman ’08 and Taylor Ritzel ’10 and sailors Sarah Lihan ’10 and Stuart McNay ’05 took turns reflecting on their time in London, both on and off the water.  Moderator Ron Vaccaro ‘04, the current Editorial Director for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network, led the discussion.

Athletic Director Tom Beckett made a few opening remarks, highlighting that it was a Yale grad, Eddie Eagan ‘21, who was the first person in the history of the Olympics to win a gold medal in both the Summer and the Winter Games.  The other notable Yale alumni mentioned were Bob Kiphuth, head coach of the Yale men’s swimming team from 1918 to 1959, who went to five Olympics as a coach including with one of his swimmers, Don Schollander ‘68, who was the most successful athlete at the 1964 Games with four gold medals.

Charlie Cole ’07 also competed in London this summer, winning a bronze medal in rowing as three-seat of the U.S. men’s four, but was not present Thursday night.

The panel opened with a general discussion of what these London Games were like from the perspective of the athlete.  Brzozowicz and McNay both competed in the Beijing Game in 2008, and so the experience of a second Olympics for them meant better preparation -- and in Brzozowicz’s case, better results.

“For me these games were a chance to be as prepared as we possibly could,” said Brzozowicz.  “For the first week when we were still racing as rowers, we were sort of doing our normal thing and we felt a real ability to remain on track for what we wanted to do, getting a podium finish.  Afterwards it was amazing to go from only focusing on the six-minute race in your sport to getting to experience the entire Olympic Games firsthand, being a superfan and cheering on your teammates in other sports.”

As a sailor, McNay was able to put things in perspective for those who take part in sports that don’t get year-round primetime media coverage.

“The Olympic Games are a showcase for all these professional athletes who don’t get paid the big bucks or don’t get the huge attention that the popularized sports do get,” said McNay.  “So feeling the energy from the competition and identifying with that, having been through the same things in my own sport and my own training, was really very special.”

Redman graduated in 2008 just before the Beijing Games, and offered a colorful take on what it was like to finally experience the Olympics.

“When people have asked me to characterize my Olympic Games, I say that it is like the culmination of the Super Bowl, college March Madness, Christmas, your birthday and college spring break…every single day,” said Redman.  “The quality of competition is so much higher than I had ever seen.  I had made a few national teams and I thought I had seen some good racing at NCAA’s, but all of a sudden crews that were a distant fourth, fifth or sixth place at the World Championships last year were in the hunt for a medal.  Race after race after race, no winning margin was big enough, and no losing margin was too big.”

On the theme of “it’s not the triumph, it’s the struggle” Gerrand shared her interesting, hard-fought road to London.  Australia had not sent a women's eight overseas since the Beijing Games, and so she was relegated to training in a single for much of the time since she graduated from Yale.  The prospects of sending an eight to London did not look good.

“I was already training for Rio in February,” said Gerrand.

Not long after successfully petitioning Rowing Australia and the Australian sports minister to allow for an eight to be sent to FISA’s Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, Gerrand finished third in the pair at the Australian national championships and earned a seat in the crew.  At the qualification regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May, the Australian women’s eight won by more than three seconds and was would stay in Europe to train for London 2012.

Ritzel rowed against Gerrand in the Olympic women’s eight final, but her own journey to Dorney Lake was quite different.  A swimmer in high school, Ritzel was a walk-on rower as a freshman at Yale who would climb the ranks and serve as team captain as a senior.  Her success at Yale is undoubtedly linked to her success with the national team.

“The more I learned about the sport and having met some women on the Yale team that were a part of the national team, I thought not only had I gone from just watching these people on TV but to knowing them and having raced with them, it [rowing on the national team] just became more real,” said Ritzel.

Perhaps the most daunting question of the night was what lies ahead for this group of athletes.  Lihan has been living and training at home in Florida for the past two years, and like many other athletes returning from London she finds herself wondering what the future has in store.

“Going home really makes you evaluate what you’re doing, and whether you want to move forward, and that’s not a decision I have made yet,” said Lihan.  “There’s this very big progression.  You qualify for the national team and you qualify for the Olympic team.  You show up at the Games and every day you have a schedule from seven to ten and then all of a sudden…that’s all gone.”

While four years from now may Yale may have an entirely different group of athletes headed to Rio, the seven Bulldogs that competed in London will be recognized at halftime of Saturday’s football game against Dartmouth.  With three medals from London 2012, Yale as a country would have won as many or more than 36 countries that competed in the Games.

Report filed by Yale Sports Publicity