Olympians pose for a photo with Penn State’s Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour (center) during the Penn State-Michigan football game on Oct. 19, 2019 in State College, Pa.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A little bit of red, white and blue pride mixed with the White Out atmosphere at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 19, as Penn State honored 15 of its Olympic and Paralympic athletes during halftime of its primetime football game against Michigan.
The celebration took place as part of the Olympians Made Here and Paralympians Made Here campaigns, which strive to celebrate student-athletes with Games experience and advance opportunities for athletics at college campuses.
There’s no better atmosphere for such an event than the one provided by the annual Penn State White Out, which saw 110,669 fans pack into the seats — the fourth-largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history.
“It was exhilarating,” said Monica Aksamit, a bronze medalist in fencing at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Aksamit spent four years fencing at Penn State, earning All-America honors in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
A bronze medalist in Rio in team saber, Aksamit said her time at Penn State helped prepare her for her Olympic run because it forced her to become accustomed to five-touch bouts.
Those shorter bouts usually make up the initial rounds of large tournaments, Aksamit said. Because she came into college used to practicing 15-touch bouts, she found that experience extremely useful.
“I think that’s definitely very beneficial in terms of qualifiers,” she said.
Moreover, Aksamit’s collegiate years helped her grow as a person. She grew up as an only child until the age of 12 and was an avid fencer, but was anxious with meeting new people.
College helped her become close with her teammates, teaching Aksamit the strength in unity and adding to her conviction that fencing was what she wanted to pursue.
“It pushes you outside of your comfort zone to go into college,” she said. “Obviously you’re leaving home, you’re leaving your friends and family, where you’re training, and you have to go into an entirely new environment. I think it definitely teaches you a lot about yourself.”
Ken Chertow, a 1988 Olympian in freestyle wrestling, was another athlete among the group that was honored.
Chertow was the first of three Nittany Lions named to the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team, helping set the foundation for the dominant program that has emerged inside Rec Hall, having won eight of the last nine national championships.
Chertrow, who wrestled under legendary Penn State coach Rich Lorenzo, said his experience with the Nittany Lions was a critical step along his Olympic path.
“I got to Penn State when I was 17,” he said. “I was a good wrestler, obviously a scholarship athlete. I had Olympic dreams but I trained year-round at Penn State for four years, and I was in the proper environment with great coaches and an outstanding club program.”
Chertow, who took part in the Seoul Olympic Games while he was still in college at the age of 21, also credited the resources Penn State used to support him for a portion of his success. Like Aksamit, he also said college was a formative time for him personally.
A science student, he learned time management and left school with a 3.6 grade point average and a degree.
“I hit the books hard. I was a serious student,” he said.
Now, he’s parlayed that into a living. He runs wrestling camps for kids and also has a wellness company.
Chertow said he’s pleased with his university’s commitment to honoring its Olympians and Paralympians. Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour hosted an event for all of the honorees, Chertow said, and he was impressed by her commitment to Olympic sports.
“She’s very involved and supportive of athletes competing during college to compete internationally as well as after college,” Chertow said. “She’s been really supportive of wrestling.”
“We are so proud of all of our Penn State Olympians and Paralympians, and are honored to have played a role in their training and development as they ascend to the world’s largest stage,” said Barbour. “Our Olympians and Paralympians inspire not just the State College community, but communities around the world. And with the Opening Ceremony for 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo less than a year away, we can’t wait to cheer on all of our Nittany Lions as they compete for gold wearing the uniforms of their respective countries.”
Among the other honorees present at the game were Felix Aronovich (gymnastics), Matt Baranoski (cycling), Jane Barkman Brown (swimming), Ronald Coder (soccer), Shana Cox (track and field), Greg Fredericks (track and field), Jeffrey Hantz (Para track and field), Steve Hayden (track and field), Suzie McConnell-Serio (basketball), Consuella Moore (track and field), Dick Packer (soccer), Romel Raffin (basketball) and Curt Stone (track and field).
Barbour joined them on the field for halftime, posing for a photo while holding a Team USA athletic sweater. It was predominantly white, of course, in line with the evening’s dress code.
For Chertow, who lives in State College and attends Penn State football games whenever he feels so inclined, the evening wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary — but the moment at halftime was special.
“It was nice to be recognized,” Cherow said. “It was fun. Just the concept of representing our wrestling team and representing Penn State athletes, it was exciting.”
Aksamit enjoyed it, too. Because of travel for fencing, she hadn’t ever made it to a big football game between Penn State and a powerful opponent like Michigan.
Of course, the 28-21 final score in Penn State’s favor made it even better.
“I didn’t drive all those hours to go see them lose,” Aksamit joked.