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A Look At Notre Dame, Clemson's Underrated Olympic Histories Ahead Of Cotton Bowl

By Jamie MacDonald | Dec. 28, 2018, 7:30 p.m. (ET)

On Saturday, two of the more recognizable programs in college football will square off in the Cotton Bowl with Notre Dame's Fighting Irish and the Clemson Tigers playing for the chance to move on to the national final on Jan. 7.

The Irish have won 13 titles in NCAA history while the Tigers have remained one of the country's top teams for the better part of this decade, reaching the NCAA's version of the final four at the end of the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons and appearing in the Orange Bowl in both 2012 and 2014.

“It’s a good matchup because Clemson is going to be really hard to beat, and I feel like they have a bit more recent history at this level, so just the hard battle will be exciting,” says Notre Dame alum and Olympian Molly Huddle, who will likely be watching the game from Arizona after a long run. “Though I’m not the biggest football fan, as a Notre Dame grad, of course I’m pumped for this bowl game." 

Both Notre Dame and Clemson also have significant Olympic histories, too.

Of course, when it comes to student-athletes who competed in South Bend, Indiana, fencing Olympians spring to mind. Led by a four-time Olympian with her eyes still on Tokyo in 2020, Mariel Zagunis, who earned two gold medals and two bronzes and served as flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Games London 2012, the roster is impressive. Three-time Olympian Kelley Hurley and her sister, two-time Olympian Courtney Hurley, who medaled together in 2012, two-time Olympian Lee Kiefer, two-time Olympian Molly Sullivan and Sara Walsh have competed at the Olympic Games for Team USA, as have three-time Olympian and 2016 team bronze medalist Gerek Meinhardt, 1980 Olympian Tim Glass and Jan Viviani on the men's side.

In all, Notre Dame, has sent more than 30 athletes to the Olympic Games to represent Team USA, six of whom participated in at least three: Zagunis (four), Kelley Hurley and Meinhardt in fencing, Kate Markgraf and Shannon Boxx in women's soccer, and Mike Gostigian in modern pentathlon.

Most recently, in addition to the fencing and soccer stars, Huddle (5,000-meter and 10,000-meter) and Amanda Polk (rowing) have made waves, with Polk winning gold in the women's eight at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

Huddle went on the record with a prediction, too: "ND will win because I’d never bet against them, 28-21, and I don’t know if that’s even a sensical football score.”

Overall, Notre Dame's connection to the Olympics also dates back to 1912, when Forest Fletcher, George Philbrook and James Wasson competed in track and field events at the Stockholm Games.

Speaking of Stockholm ...

It was in the Swedish capital this past summer where Clemson alum and Olympic champion Brianna McNeal showed some blazing speed to win a women’s 100-meter hurdles Diamond League race. McNeal's time, 12.38 seconds, clocked in only 0.18 seconds off the world record held by Team USA star Keni Harrison. (Harrison began her NCAA career at Clemson but transferred to Kentucky.)

McNeal, then competing as Brianna Rollins, placed first in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field and repeated that feat again in Rio in an American sweep of the event. Back in 2013, Rollins also set an NCAA record in the 100 hurdles.

While McNeal is the first female athlete from Clemson to win individual Olympic gold, Clemson's most decorated Olympic alum is Shawn Crawford, who won gold at the 2004 Games in the 200-meter, and silvers in the 4x100-meter in 2004 and in the 200-meter at the 2008 Games.

Crawford was inducted into the Clemson Athlete Hall of Fame in 2010. Also in the Clemson Hall of Fame is James Trapp, who may be most well-known for his time in the National Football League, but he also stared on the track as a 10-time All-American with a 4x100-meter 1992 Olympic appearance to his credit.

Notably, in tennis, Gigi Fernandez won two Olympic gold medals; Kim Graham won gold as part of the 4x400-meter in Atlanta in 1996; wrestler Sammie Henson won silver in 2000; George Kitchens competed in the long jump at the London Games; and swimmer Mitzi Kremer won relay bronze in 1998 in Seoul.


Related Athletes

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Mariel Zagunis

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Kelley Hurley

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Courtney Hurley

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Gerek Meinhardt

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Brianna Rollins

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Shawn Crawford

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Lee Kiefer

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Shannon Boxx

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Molly Huddle

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Kathryn Markgraf

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Amanda Polk