There’s no bigger time in NCAA sports than March Madness, when the top college men’s and women’s basketball teams compete in unpredictable national championship tournaments.
In the Olympic community, though, NCAA sports play an important role year-round. As the NCAA Tournament heads into the Sweet 16 on Thursday, here’s a look at 16 ways in which college sports have benefitted Team USA.
Big Play In The Big Dance
The U.S. Olympic Men’s Basketball Team successfully defended its gold medal at the London Games in 2012. Nine of the 12 U.S. players had college basketball experience, and all nine competed in at least one NCAA Tournament. Two were national champions: Anthony Davis led Kentucky to the NCAA title in 2012, and Carmelo Anthony guided Syracuse to the crown in 2003. Kevin Love (UCLA), Russell Westbrook (UCLA) and Deron Williams (Illinois) all reached the Final Four. Meanwhile, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) is the all-time wins leader in NCAA Division I basketball.
|Team USA celebrates on the podium after defeating France and winning the women's basketball gold medal game at the London 2012 Olympic Games on Aug. 11, 2012 in London.
Women Can Dance, Too
As great as the U.S. men’s basketball teams have been over the years, the U.S. women have been even more dominant — winning the past five Olympic gold medals. In 2012, all 12 U.S. Olympic team members had Final Four experience. Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tina Charles, Asjha Jones, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi (Connecticut), and Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker (Tennessee), all won at least one NCAA title, too.
Seen In Sochi
More than 70 U.S. athletes at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games had NCAA athletic experience — and 31 of them medaled. NCAA athletes made up about a third of Team USA. Nowhere were the NCAA athletes more visible than in ice hockey. The U.S. men’s team had 20 former NCAA players while the silver medal-winning women’s team had seven who were still on college rosters at the time.
Lighting Up London
Sixty-five percent of the 532 U.S. Olympians in 2012 had participated in college athletics. Thirty who competed at the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games that year were still student athletes at the time, and they took home 36 medals. The National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and the United States Olympic Committee also recognized 37 coaches representing 31 colleges and universities that helped Team USA produce medals.
|Erik Bjornsen (R) competes in the men's skiathlon 15-kilometer classic during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb.9, 2014 in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
Small Schools Produce Olympians, Too
NCAA Division I sports are the highest profile, but in 2014 two U.S. athletes had competed on the NCAA Division II level and four at Division III. The Division II athletes in Sochi were cross-country skiers Erik Bjornsen from Alaska-Anchorage and Brian Gregg, who skied at Western State College in Colorado and at Alaska-Anchorage. Cross-country skiers Simi Hamilton (Middlebury College) and Holly Brooks (Whitman College) competed in Division III. Meanwhile, skeleton racer John Daly competed in the decathlon for the Plattsburgh State track and field team, and curler Allison Pottinger was a softball player at Wisconsin Oshkosh.
The NCAA provides competitive opportunities for a number of Paralympic competitors, as well. Cortney Jordan, a 2012 Paralympic swimming silver and bronze medalist, had to hurry back from a London — with a quick stopover in Washington to meet President Obama — to return to California Lutheran University for her senior year. Jordan, who has cerebral palsy and has a weaker left side of the body, was the captain of the swim team at Cal Lutheran, which competes in NCAA Division III. Two other medal-winning members of 2012 Paralympic swim team in London were also active college swimmers at the time. Gold medalist Kelley Becherer was a scholarship swimmer at Northeastern in Division I. Silver medalist Anna Eames helped Division III Gustavus Adolphus in Minnesota win three conference titles.
It’s Not Just Basketball
While basketball gets most of the attention among NCAA sports fans this time of year, lesser-known sports at the collegiate level provide much of the regular training for athletes who go on to the national team. One of those is shooting, where a number of U.S. competitors perfected their aim in NCAA competition. Matt Emmons, who has Olympic medals of every color to his name, won four team and four individual NCAA titles while competing at Alaska-Fairbanks.
|Lee Stecklein #2 handes the puck against Canada during the women's ice hockey gold medal game at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 20, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Frozen Four Foreshadowing
While college basketball celebrates the Final Four, college ice hockey is all about the Frozen Four. Each year the Division I championship events feature future Olympians on the men’s and women’s sides, and some of the women’s participants already have Olympic experience. This past weekend, Minnesota won the women’s championship with 2014 Olympian Lee Stecklein on the roster. Fellow U.S. Olympians Alex Carpenter (Boston College) and Michelle Picard, Lindsey Fry and Josephine Pucci (Harvard) also played in the Frozen Four.
Olympians who competed in the NCAA haven’t always done it in the same sport. Take the U.S. women’s bobsled team in Sochi last year. Elana Meyers Taylor was a college softball player at George Washington and Lauryn Williams was an NCAA champion sprinter at Miami before winning silver in Sochi (Williams also won Olympic gold and silver medals in track). Before teaming up with Jamie Greubel to win bronze, Aja Evans was an All-American sprinter and a shot putter at Illinois. Meanwhile, Lolo Jones was an 11-time NCAA All-American in track at LSU (and had already competed in the summer Olympic Games as a hurdler).
Team USA Fencing Has A Fighting Irish Hue
They might have been fencing for Team USA in London, but under their red, white and blue a lot of the U.S. fencers might have been wearing the green of the Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish. Five members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in London won individual national championships while fencing for the Irish: Courtney Hurley (epee, 2011), Kelley Hurley (epee, 2008), Lee Kiefer (foil, 2014), Gerek Meinhardt (foil, 2014), and Mariel Zagunis (saber, 2006). The Irish won the team championship in 2011. The Ivy League was also well represented on the U.S. fencing team in London, with four members who went to Columbia and three who went to Princeton.
|Annika Dries in action during the women's water polo match between USA and Canada during the 15th FINA World Championships at Piscines Bernat Picornell on July 23, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain.
Stanford Cleans Up
More hardware returned in 2012 from London to Stanford than anywhere else. The Cardinals had four athletes who medaled at the London Games and were still active NCAA competitors at the time they competed, the most of any university. Three were members of the gold-medal winning women’s water polo team: Annika Dries, Melissa Seidemann and Maggie Steffens. The other was bronze medal-winning diver Kristian Ipsen.
A Paralympic Pioneer
The T42-46 world record holder in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the long jump, Aimee Mullins, also benefited from her participation in NCAA sports. While at Georgetown, she was the first amputee, male or female, to compete in NCAA Division I track and field, where she competed against able-bodied athletes. She competed in the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta and later served as chef de mission of the U.S. team in London.
Grappling To The Top
Another sport where most Olympians develop in college is freestyle wrestling. 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs developed into an elite wrestler at Nebraska, blossoming from middle of the pack in conference meets his freshman year to a two-time national champion and winner of the Hodge Trophy for the nation’s best wrestler by his senior year in 2011. Before he went on to win the gold medal in London, Burroughs won the 2011 world championship. He became one of a few wrestlers ever to win an NCAA title and a world crown in the same year.
|Kyla Ross performs on the balance beam during the women's team final at the 45th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Guangxi Sports Center Stadium on Oct. 8, 2014 in Nanning, China.
Gymnasts Work The Other Way Around
Athletes don't necessarily have to compete in college before the Olympic Games. Bridget Sloan and Samantha Peszek won Olympic silver medals with the U.S. gymnastics team in 2008. Both went on to win NCAA championships, too. Peszek, competing for UCLA, won the NCAA balance beam title in 2011. Sloan did even better. Competing for Florida, she won NCAA team titles in 2013 and '14 as well as the 2013 all-around title. Both are still competing, with this year's NCAA championships coming up in April. “Being here and being on the team, that’s all I wanted to do,” Sloan told TeamUSA.org in 2013. “No matter what the results were I knew that I was meant to be here." Meanwhile, the pipeline is set to continue. Kyla Ross, a 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medalist, has committed to UCLA. First, though, she's attempting to give it one more go-round at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Coaches Come Along
Kara Patterson realized she might be an Olympic-caliber javelin thrower during a college meet, when she competed at Purdue. On a terrible, snowy, windy day she threw a personal best 56 meters — and knew that as a result of her training in college, she could throw with some of the best in the world. Patterson was so reliant on the coaching she received from Purdue throwing coach Rodney Zuyderwyk that he accompanied her to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games. “It’s really great to be able to travel and have the person partially responsible for my success coming with me,” Patterson told the campus newspaper, The Exponent, at the time. Patterson also competed at the 2012 Games but was hampered by a torn ACL and didn’t qualify for the finals. She has said she hopes to compete in Rio in 2016.
Triathlon Gives College A Try
The list of Olympic athletes who benefit from NCAA participation is about to get longer. U.S. women triathletes may soon benefit from NCAA participation with the addition of the sport to the list of those offered for women at some NCAA schools. The first NCAA women’s triathlon championships were contested this past November in Florida, with UCLA’s Kelly Kosmo winning the first title.
Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org since 2010 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.