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2020 Olympic Hopefuls Seek To Carry On Proud Legacy Of Cal Golden Bears

By Karen Price | May 21, 2021, 3:20 p.m. (ET)

Ayla Spitz competes for the University Of California on Oct. 24, 2019.

 

Ayla Spitz doesn’t remember watching swimming at the Olympic Games for the very first time as much as she remembers watching the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

It was 2008 and the Trials were in Omaha, Nebraska, where her grandparents live. Since Spitz and her twin sister, Zoe, had recently started swimming, their grandmother thought it would be fun to take the girls. 

Little did any of them know what a full circle moment young Ayla would have 13 years later. 

“I remember hearing the team name Cal come up over and over and over again,” said Spitz, from Newport Beach, California. “Going to Trials when I was younger really got me excited about swimming.”

Spitz is now a sophomore swimmer at California, and she will be competing at the Olympic Trials next month in Omaha for the first time ever in the hopes of adding to her school’s tradition of producing Olympic athletes. 

“It’s a dream of mine, for sure,” Spitz said. “I think looking at all my teammates who’ve achieved Olympic success or have Olympic dreams, I love being a part of that. Even if I don’t get there, to be able to support them is really special as well.”

Nearly five years ago in Rio, Cal swimmers brought home a total of 19 medals including eight gold. Ryan Murphy, who was a rising senior at the time, joined alumni Mary T. Meagher, Matt Biondi, Missy Franklin and Dana Vollmer in becoming the fifth Golden Bear to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games. Other current and past Cal swimmers to medal were Nathan Adrian, Vollmer, Anthony Ervin, Kathleen Baker, Josh Prenot, Franklin and Abbey Weitzeil. 

Back in 2012, Cal swimmers won a total of 16 medals. Among the most decorated Cal alumni are three-time Olympians Natalie Coughlin (three gold, four silver and five bronze medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012) and Biondi (eight golds, two silvers and one bronze medal in 1984, 1988 and 1992). Biondi, who qualified for his first Olympic Games while still in college, is a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame. 

In total, the Cal swimming program has produced 34 U.S. Olympians and 65 non-U.S. Olympians. 

The athletes aren’t the only ones with deep ties to the Games, either. 

Women’s coach Teri McKeever has not only led Cal since 1993 but also served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic Team in 2004 and 2008 and head coach in 2012. She was the first woman ever to coach the U.S. women’s swim team at the Games. That year six Cal swimmers medaled at the Games in London, including Franklin with four gold medals and one bronze. 

This year, men’s coach Dave Durden will lead the men’s team in Tokyo. He was also an assistant coach in Rio in 2016, and has led Cal since 2007. 

Cal’s Olympic history is part of the fabric of the program.

“I think it’s just sort of this culture of excellence and standards that we all have,” Spitz said of how that tradition manifests itself in everyday life. “We all have these really incredible goals and we’re all going to help each other get there. When you get on the pool deck at Spieker (Aquatic Center) and see the Olympic wall and it’s all filled up with so many names, it’s incredible and very humbling walking by it getting ready to get in the pool. It’s everywhere. Your teammates are trying to make the team, or have made the team, and it’s just this culture and this expectation that we all support each other to reach that goal.”

Spitz’s grandmother still likes to mention how it was that trip to the Olympic Trials in 2008 that really sparked the little girl’s love of the sport. During that period of time last year between when COVID-19 was spreading and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed, Spitz was worried that if they did hold the Olympic Trials, her grandmother wouldn’t be able to watch from the stands. 

“I was nervous she wouldn’t get to see me,” she said. “Things were so uncertain. Now that things are looking up again I’m incredibly excited that I’ll be able to have her there. It’ll mean so much.”

This year, the Trials will be broken up into two waves in order to create the safest environment possible. The first wave will be June 4-7 and the second will be held June 13-20. Based on conversations with those who’ve been there before, Spitz is expecting Trials to be the most nerve-wracking and most exciting meet ever. 

She also feels Cal and McKeever have her well-prepared.

“I think so far at Cal the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to take things one race at a time, one day at a time and really have gratitude,” said Spitz, who’s qualified to race in six events. “In the past a big meet like that might overwhelm me but (it helps) if I break it down and think, ‘Wow, I’m so grateful to be here and have this incredible opportunity and I want to make the most of it.’ Then if I have one bad race you just move on to the next one. That’s really grounded me.”

Karen Price

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.