Many Columbians will root for the red, white, and blue as the XXX Summer Olympiad kicks off tomorrow, but don’t forget to cheer on the light blue.
Of the more than 10,000 athletes, 11 current and former Lions will be participating in the London Games, among them five fencers, the Dominican flag bearer, and the first person from Croatia to qualify for the marathon.
Nzingha Prescod, CC ’15, and Nicole Ross, who will graduate CC in December, are the only two current undergraduates participating in the Games, both fencing women’s foil. They are joined in the fencing arena by former Lions James Williams, CC ’07, and Jeff Spear, CC ’10, in men’s sabre. All four are representing the United States. Sherif Farrag, CC ’09, will represent Egypt in men’s foil.
Erison Hurtault, CC ’07, will have his first moment in the international spotlight Friday evening as he waves the green flag of Dominica as the opening ceremony. A 400-meter sprinter, Hurtault is one of two athletes representing the tiny Caribbean island.
Meanwhile, another former track and field runner, Lisa Stublic, CC ’07, is making history as the first Croatian ever to qualify for the Olympic marathon.
And on top of these nine students and alumni, head fencing coach Michael Aufrichtig will coach the fencing portion of the pentathlon, and Caroline Nichols, an assistant field hockey coach who just joined Columbia this month, will compete for the U.S. field hockey team.
The fields at Baker and the gyms in Dodge mean a lot for student athletes, but the Olympics are something special—as Spear put it, “For the first time in my life, I feel like a professional athlete.”
Columbia’s fencing program is world-renowned. Besides attracting top-tier recruits year after year, it has managed to send at least one fencer to every summer Olympics since 1972—excluding the 1980 games in Moscow, when the United States did not send a delegation (although one fencer, Tom Losonczy, did qualify). This year, four Columbia students and alumni join the 20-member U.S. delegation.
Ross, a Manhattan native, was the NCAA Individual Champion in women’s foil in 2010. She took time off from Columbia in order to undergo an 18-month training for London.
“The thing I have been working on the most and most proud of is my mental edge, my ability to focus in … important and intense moments and my ability to deliver an important result at a really crucial moment,” Ross told Spectator in April. “I’ve been working a lot at the sports psychology, mental aspect of the game, which has really elevated my level.”
Ross, who is ranked No. 3 in the U.S. and No. 33 in the world, grew up fencing with Prescod, her Columbia and Olympic teammate. Prescod, a native of Brooklyn, was named the Ivy League’s Rookie of the Year this year. Aufrichtig, the head coach, singled her out as one of the reasons the Light Blue fencing team “has a lot of potential to bring many more NCAA championships for the future.”
Being on the Light Blue squad was crucial for Spear, who will serve as an alternate in London. “Columbia provided me with unparalleled training opportunities that allowed me to make the jump from moderately successful junior to NCAA champion and top 8 on the senior points list in just a few years,” he said in an email.
Spear, who served as an assistant coach for the team this season, was also the salutatorian of his class.
Williams was an alternate in Beijing and earned a silver medal in the team competition—the first medal for an American men’s team since 1984. He is the third seed at this summer’s games.
Despite rising to No. 13 in the U.S. by the end of 2010, Farrag, a two-year captain for the Lions, realized last year that he would have a better shot at qualifying for the Olympic team by fencing for Egypt. “Glad I made it and proud to represent a post-revolutionary Egypt!” he said in an email.
Farrag, hailing from a fencing family, began the sport when he was 10. “It was almost mandatory for me to be honest,” he said. But he came into his own, and fencing alongside world-class foilists at New York’s Metropolis Fencing Club “is really what inspired me along the way.”
But being an Olympian hasn’t gotten to Farrag’s head—he was delighted to run into Nenê, the Washington Wizards power forward, and World No. 2 tennis star Novak Djokovic this week. It also doesn’t mean he’s forgotten Columbia. “I've had dreams in which I find myself choosing housing for the upcoming year and have seriously woken up half-believing it,” he said.
It’s the first Olympics for Aufrichtig, who took over as the Lions’ head coach a year ago, but he’ll be serving as coach not for the American fencing delegation but for the fencing portion of the modern pentathlon. As excited as he is, he is most proud of “the last three years, giving these athletes the opportunity to have the right training environment, have the right training opportunities, get the right training plans,” he said in an interview. “If they get a little anxious, we remind them of all the work they’ve done.”
Aufrichtig is confident in the United States' chances this year. "In the past, USA might have always been considered an underdog compared to some of the other countries like Italy, France, Russia, and Hungary," he said. "This time, we’re going in as a country that qualified all of their members. We’re the only countries that qualified all fencers."
As coach, he needs to understand exactly what makes each athlete tic. “Every athlete has a different cue to calm them down,” he said. “One of the things I really consider myself very good at is really learning what works for each individual person. … [I] just remind them: every day you start off with a blank slate. Every day everybody has an opportunity.”
Track and field
Both Lions competing in the track events come from modest athletic backgrounds. Hurtault didn’t start running until he was a freshman in high school, but even then he did not enjoy anywhere near the success he saw at Columbia, which includes winning the Ivy championship in the 400 meters every year. Instead, Hurtault was a basketball player, who said he “decided to focus my efforts on running when I realized my chances of growing beyond six feet tall were slim.”
Since he graduated five years ago, “training and competing has been my priority,” Hurtault said in an email. This will be the sprinter’s second trip to the Olympics, having competed in Beijing in 2008.
Hurtault, who was born and raised in New Jersey, ran in the Olympic trials four years ago for the U.S., but came short of securing a spot on the American team. But because his parents were born in Dominica, the country offered him a spot on the national team.
Now that he’s in his second Olympic Games, Hurtault said he feels a less pressure. “I have come to learn that all I can do is get out there and give it all I have,” he said. “In Beijing, I’m pretty sure the morning of my race was the most nervous I have ever been in my life. Now, I’ve learned to deal with that and not let things that are out of my control bother me.”
Hurtault credited track and field head coach Willy Wood with much of his success. “Willy Wood has done a lot for me as an athlete during my time at Columbia and during my post-collegiate career,” Hurtault said. “He trained me through my biggest breakthroughs as a Lion and is currently training me for the upcoming Games.”
Although Stublic ran for Columbia, she did not begin running the 26.2-mile race until 2010 as a result of a bet she made with her coach, Slavko Petrovic. Over the course of the next year, she more than doubled the total distance of her weekly runs, from 50 to 110 miles. She finished her first marathon in September 2010 in 2:33:42.
When she was younger, “running was something that I did ... it was more like a habit. I never really thought about it, I just did it.”
“It is not an end all, be all,” she said in an email. “It is a habit that I am fortunate to be talented in.”
Rowing and field hockey
LaCava, a Weston, Conn., native, will compete in the men’s lightweight four. He has rowed since high school. While at Columbia, he majored in economics and was a member of the varsity men’s rowing squad. During his junior year, he frequently won mini-competitions against his teammates on the Erg machine, an indoor rowing apparatus. His first day of competition is July 28.
Davies, who received her bachelor’s from Harvard, won gold in the women’s eight at the 2008 Olympics and silver in 2004. She is an 11-year veteran of the women’s national rowing team and will first compete on July 29.
Nichols is an incoming assistant field hockey coach for Columbia this fall. She was a member of the 2008 Olympic team and graduated from Old Dominion University in 2007. Her first match is July 29 vs. Germany.
Whether the Olympic Village is just a glorified Carman Hall is to be determined, but it’s safe to say that these athletes will feel right at home in London surrounded by such talent.
Rebeka Cohan, Charlotte Murtishaw, and Eric Wong contributed reporting.