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Ivy League Olympians: A Rich History Of Academia And Athleticism

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 03, 2014, 2:35 p.m. (ET)

Sada Jacobson celebrates her win over Olga Kharlan of Ukraine in the women's saber Round of 16 at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on Aug. 9, 2008 in Beijing.

When Sada Bâby (née Jacobson) was looking at colleges in the late 1990s, she did not have many choices. Only a handful of colleges would meet the needs of an award-winning student and one of the nation’s top fencers.

She chose Yale because her dad — a former U.S. national fencing team member — was an alum, and also because long-time Bulldog fencing coach, Henry Harutunian, who started at Yale when Mr. Jacobson was a student, was a friend of the family.

“It felt like home right from the start,” Bâby said.

But that does not mean that pursuing an Ivy League education and her sport at the highest level was easy. As a freshman, Bâby was still competing on both the junior and senior circuits, as well as with the Yale fencing team.

“There was a stretch where I was at tournaments 10 weekends in a row,” she remembered. “It was challenging, but it helped that I had really supportive coaches both at home and at school, and a really supportive family.”

“I just worked on my time management skills,” she added with a laugh.

Midway through her college career, she was already a two-time NCAA champion. And she was on her way to claiming a number of firsts for U.S. fencing. She became the first American woman to achieve the No. 1 world ranking. Then at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, she earned a bronze medal in women’s saber, becoming the first American woman to claim an Olympic medal in fencing and the first Ivy League fencing medalist since 1932.

Back at Yale — a university that’s been home to future presidents and actors, among other professions in the spotlight — she was far from a campus celebrity. A couple people said, “I heard you did well,” she recalled, again laughing.

In 2006, Bâby earned a B.A. in history from Yale. Law school was in her future, but she still had Olympic dreams. She took off the next two years to train full time for the Beijing Games, where she won a silver medal in saber and bronze in team saber. Immediately after returning from China, she began law school at the University of Michigan. Bâby is now an associate at McKenna Longo & Aldrich in Atlanta focusing on commercial litigation.

Bâby is not the only scholar-athlete who has balanced an elite education with the Olympic Games. Athletes from the Ivy League’s eight colleges and universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) have been part of the Olympic Games — with many on the podium — since Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games in 1896.

At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens that year, James B. Connolly, a 27-year-old freshman in a special engineering course at Harvard, became the first champion of the modern Olympic Games when he won the triple jump. He was one of 12 Ivy Leaguers competing in track and field in Athens.

Except Connolly wasn’t attending Harvard at that point. He had requested a leave of absence so he could travel to Greece to compete in the Games of the I Olympiad, held in April 1896. He was a national triple jump champion and was excited to see Greece.

Harvard denied his request, so Connolly withdrew. He ended up winning the Olympic triple jump — then known as the hop, step, jump — with two hops and a jump. He also finished second in high jump and third in long jump.

The former Crimson student competed again in 1900 and 1906 — the latter considered an unofficial Games by the IOC — but did not medal. Connolly attended the 1908 Olympic Games as a correspondent for Collier’s magazine. He later became a well-known novelist and was offered an honorary doctorate by Harvard, which he turned down.

He did, however, receive an honorary Harvard athletic sweater in 1948 during his class’s 50th reunion.

Since Connolly’s three podium finishes in 1896, athletes with Ivy League educations have amassed 490 medals in both the summer and winter Games, reports IvyLeagueSports.com (ranking the Ivy League in the top 15 on the all-time medal table among countries). And this number does not even include athletes from the equally rigorous “Little Ivies,” or Stanford University, which boasts the nation’s toughest admissions rate among universities. Since 1912, Stanford students and alumni have won 237 Olympic medals.

In recent years, the Ivy League has been most strongly represented in rowing and fencing at the summer Games, and skiing (thanks to Dartmouth College’s strong Olympic ski tradition) and women’s hockey at the Winter Games.

At the London Games in 2012, 49 athletes from 11 countries represented the Ivy League in nine separate sports. Of those 49, 10 were Americans who won medals in three events (fencing: women’s team epée; rowing: women’s eight and men’s four). And 23 were rowers.

Susan Francia and Esther Lofgren celebrate winning gold after the women's eight final during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on Aug. 2, 2012 in Windsor, England.

This is no surprise given the Ivies’ long history in the sport. Rowing was the first collegiate sport. It started in 1843 when Yale organized a boat club. Harvard soon followed, and in 1852, the first Harvard-Yale regatta was staged on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. The regatta is now the longest running intercollegiate sporting event in the U.S., and all eight Ivies have varsity crews.

Despite this tradition, many students choose to attend Ivy League colleges for the academics, with strong rowing programs as a bonus. Some students, like Susan Francia (Penn ’04), one of five Ivy League graduates who won gold in the women’s eight at the London Games, don’t even try crew until college.

As a high school senior in California, Esther Lofgren, another gold medalist from the women’s eight, had no idea that she would pursue rowing after college. A “wise person” who told her to pick a school where she would be happy whether she was rowing or not.

“I chose Harvard because I felt like I could thrive in so many dimensions there — academically, athletically, and socially,” she said via email.

In 2006, her sophomore year, Lofgren realized her potential in a boat. She was named to the U23 and the senior national teams and won medals at both world championships that summer.

“That was the turning point for me,” she said. “I decided to pursue my Olympic dreams, including rowing full time after graduation.”

She also rowed full time before graduation, taking a year off to tryout for the 2008 Olympic team. In 2009, she graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics and began rowing toward London, where the women’s eight was unchallenged for the gold medal.

Now a 2016 Olympic hopeful, Lofgren is living in Washington, D.C., and working full time as a marketing and communications specialist at SGI Global, a company that supports the intelligence community. She balances training around her work schedule.

“It keeps me honest and motivated about my training and dreams,” she said. “You really have to want it when you're waking up before five every day to get in a full session before work, or heading out for two hours at the gym at 7:30 at night. It makes you very aware, as our coach says, that ‘every practice is optional.’”

Despite the workload, she has no intention of giving up rowing. Nor does she feel pressure from her parents or former professors. A significant number of people applaud her choice to continue pursuing her Olympic dreams, although she knows that “the romanticized image of the Olympic-hopeful athlete doing ‘whatever it takes’ — sleeping on couches, working odd jobs — to pursue the dream does not feel romantic forever.”

But she has no intention of quitting anytime soon. There is always more to learn and master.

“It's hard to imagine someone training on the violin for a decade, becoming a world-class player, and then saying, ‘Well, checked that box, let me put this back in the violin case for good and find my next thing to do,’” she said.

But Lofgren is also excited for the next chapter of her life — “Hopefully post-Rio” —as long as rowing is a part of it.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. She rowed at Phillips Exeter Academy and Amherst College and won a bronze medal at the NWRA national rowing championships in 1980.

Related Athletes

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Sada Jacobson

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Esther Lofgren