Alumni and students chase Olympic dreams

On a field in Vancouver, women’s soccer star Diana Matheson ’08 practiced with her teammates on Canada’s national squad. In a Knoxville, Tenn., swimming pool, Doug Lennox ’09 refined his butterfly stroke under the guidance of a world-renowned coach. At an outdoor shooting range in Ridgewood, N.J., incoming freshman Sandra Fong steadied her rifle and aimed at a target 50 meters away. And on the waters of Princeton’s Lake Carnegie, Caroline Lind ’06 trained with America’s top rowers. All four approached their workouts with one destination in mind: Beijing.

The athletes are among more than a dozen alumni and students vying to represent their countries in the 2008 Olympics this August and add to the University’s legacy of success at the summer games. Since the modern Olympics were first held in 1896, Princetonians have participated in all but two summer Olympiads, earning medals in 17 of 25 of the quadrennial competitions.

Rowing has been Princeton’s strong-est Olympic sport, and that appears to be true again this year. In addition to Lind, Tigers on the national team radar include Lia Pernell ’03, the Princeton captain during Lind’s freshman year; two-time Olympian lightweight rower Paul Teti ’01; Simon Carcagno ’98, an alternate on the 2004 Olympic team; and Steve Coppola ’06, a classmate of Lind who is training with the men’s heavyweight camp. Sam Loch ’06, Coppola’s former teammate, has secured a seat on the Australian men’s heavyweight eight.

The U.S. Olympic selection camps, based at Lake Carnegie and Mercer Lake in nearby West Windsor, rely on intrasquad rivalry to identify the top rowers. So while the athletes bond in challenging, three-a-day workouts, they also realize that they must beat some of their campmates to win a spot in the Olympic boat. Lind, who helped the U.S. open eight win gold medals at the World Championships in 2006 and 2007, tried to make the most of a stressful situation. “I think we have an amazing team, and I just feel fortunate to be a part of it,” she said in mid-June. The rosters for America’s “big boats,” to be announced June 28, were not available for this issue of PAW.

Princeton athletes faced similar stresses at the Olympic trials in June and July. Alicia Aemisegger ’10 was slated to lead a handful of Tiger hopefuls at the swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., June 29–July 6, and in track and field, two former Princeton stars — high-jumper Tora Harris ’02 and distance runner Cack Ferrell ’06 — were scheduled to compete at the trials in Eugene, Ore., June 27–July 6. Results from the trials also were not available for this issue.

For the athletes who already have secured Olympic berths, summer is a time for intense training. Matheson, at age 24, has played in more than 70 international games, including last year’s Women’s World Cup in China, but this will be her first trip to the Olympics. Fitness will be a factor when soccer teams take the field in August, Matheson said, partly because of air quality in Beijing. “It is definitely noticeable,” she said. “It’s just gray — even looking down the street, a few blocks away, you can tell that the air is badly polluted, unfortunately. The longer you’re there, it kind of builds up in your lungs. But it’s an even playing field. Every team has to deal with it.”

The air also will be a factor for Fong, a competitor in the three-position rifle event, though wind, not air quality, is her primary concern. When you’re 50 meters away from a target that’s roughly the size of F.D.R.’s head on a dime, even a light breeze matters. Technique and mental focus also are at a premium. Competitors spend about two and a half hours trying to remain as still as possible. “It’s not really a spectator sport,” Fong joked.

Fong, a New York City native, learned to shoot from her father and practices with her sisters, Abigail ’10, a nationally ranked shooter, and Danielle, who will represent the U.S. at this summer’s Paralympics. Fong’s first athletic passion was swimming, but she shifted her focus to shooting in high school, realizing that she had a chance to compete against the world’s best. She still swims to train for shooting (a low standing heart rate helps to keep her aim steady), and she hopes to find tickets for some of the swimming events in Beijing.

If Fong visits Beijing’s National Aquatic Center, she might be able to watch Lennox, an NCAA All-American in the 200-yard butterfly who will compete with the Puerto Rican team. Lennox, a Lake Forest, Ill., native whose mother is from Puerto Rico, has worked through lingering shoulder injuries in recent months, but his biggest concern is dealing with the nerves of swimming in the world’s most competitive meet. “If I can stay relaxed and enjoy the experience, that will be a major victory,” he wrote in an e-mail in June, “because I know if I can do that, I will swim my best.”

Lennox is one of more than 300 athletes who have joined Team Darfur, a coalition that aims to raise awareness about the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. The group was started by fellow undergraduate Joey Cheek ’11, an Olympic speedskating champion in 2006, and UCLA water polo player Brad Greiner. “The Olympics are not only an opportunity to step up and compete with the world’s greatest, but to also represent something greater than oneself,” Lennox explained. “Hopefully, the press the Olympics bring to China will help the world realize how much more progress we have to make so that we can achieve more humane treatment in faraway places, as well as at home.”