Rio Grand…2016 Olympics Wrap-Up

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By Bill Alden

Photography by Ed Hewitt

Katelin Snyder relished bike rides from her apartment in Kingston to the boathouse at Lake Carnegie in Princeton to get in some exercise and clear her head before assuming the duties of coxswain for the U.S. women’s eight and guiding it through grueling practice sessions as the rowers prepared for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Up in Boston, Gevvie Stone, a 2007 Princeton University alum, honed her sculling skills over the last several years, navigating through the tough conditions and the boat traffic on the Charles River as she pursued her dream of an Olympic medal while earning an M.D. from the Tufts University Medical School.

Ashleigh Johnson, a star Princeton women’s water polo goalie, took a leave of absence from school last summer, moving to Southern California for 6-day-a-week training in and out of the pool with the U.S. women’s national team.

While their paths to the Rio Summer Games were divergent, the three athletes ended up with a medal haul as Snyder piloted the women’s 8 to its third straight gold medal while Stone earned silver in the single sculls, the first U.S. athlete to medal in that event since 1988, and star goalie Johnson anchored the water polo squad on an undefeated run through the Olympic tournament to its second straight gold.

Their success highlighted an extraordinary performance in Rio by athletes with Princeton connections. Former Tiger women’s soccer star Diana Matheson ’08 helped the Canadian women’s team to a second straight bronze.  Princeton field hockey stars, Katie Reinprech ’13, Julia Reinprecht ’14, and Kat Sharkey ’13 helped the U.S. squad turn heads as it won four straight games before losing to eventual gold medalist Great Britain in its last game of pool play and then suffering a 2-1 loss in the quarterfinals to Germany, which went on to take bronze. Princeton fencing standout Kat Holmes ’17 made it to the Round of 32 in the women’s individual epee and then helped the U.S. place fifth in the team competition.

Princeton track legend Donn Cabral ’12 took ninth in the men’s steeplechase while Tiger track coaches Priscilla Frederick and Robby Andrews competed in the women’s high jump and the men’s 1,500, respectively, with Frederick taking 28th in her event and Andrews advancing to semis in the 1,500.

Adding to Princeton’s storied rowing tradition in Olympic competition, Glenn Ochal ’08, helped the U.S. men’s eight take fourth while Lauren Wilkinson ’11 competed for the Canadian women’s eight that took fourth. Two other former Princeton rowers, Taylor Nase ’13 and Robin Prendes’11, saw their U.S. men’s lightweight four take 10th overall while Kate Bertko ’06 and Devery Karz placed 10th in the women’s lightweight double sculls.

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ROAD TO RIO

Snyder and her boatmates tried to lighten the weight of expectations coming into the Games as the U.S. women’s eight had won 10 straight world or Olympic title, including gold at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.

“It was going really well all summer; one of the things that we were really working on was eliminating all expectations and focusing on ourselves and the girl in front of you,” says Snyder, 29, a 5’4, 110-pound former University of Washington standout who patiently worked her way up the ranks in the U.S. program, moving to the Princeton area in 2013 to begin training with the national women’s program at the Shea Rowing Center on Lake Carnegie.

“It was really important to put that out of our minds and focus on being the fastest we can be and let the chips fall where they may.”

Stone, who placed seventh in the single sculls at the 2012 London Summer Games, came to Rio focused on getting on the podium.

“I was still prepared to have my best race,” says Stone, 31, a lithe 6’0, 156 pounds. “I had come off a world cup where I had been second so I knew that I was in medal contention.”

While the water polo squad entered its competition as the favorite, Johnson and her teammates were concentrating more on reaching their full potential than their medal prospects.

“I think we were ready,” said Johnson, a chiseled 6’1 native of Miami, Fla. “Our whole mindset leading up to Rio was working on being consistent, putting our hearts into the game, and to be the team we have been wanting to be the whole time.”

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COMING THROUGH

The women’s eight, for its part, lived up to its billing as one of the most dominant teams in the history of its sport. The U.S. cruised to victory in its opening heat, winning by more than eight seconds over runner-up Netherlands. In the final, the boat pulled away to a win of 2.49 seconds over silver medalist Great Britain.

In the wake of the gold medal race, Snyder gained worldwide attention for exhorting her teammates by bellowing “this is the U.S. women’s eight” when the boat stood in third halfway through the final.

“We had such a good rhythm and we lengthened out, it was so strong, it was so easy to move the boat, the call came from my excitement,” recalls Snyder.

“From my perspective, I was so excited. We are in this good rhythm and I think all of us knew that if we stay in this rhythm, we are going to inch out into the front. That was so motivating and so empowering. We are the US women’s 8 and this is our rhythm. We are doing it right now even though we are not in the lead, it is still where we want to be and what we want to do.”

With the boat in a rhythm that resulted in gold, Snyder lost her composure for a moment at the finish.

“It was all about executing the first shift up and we did that in the last 300 meters and once we executed that I just remember thinking, we are going to win, we are going to win,” says Snyder.

“It was really exciting. I just kept saying Olympic gold, Olympic gold, you can do it, it was awesome, we did it. The finish line was a little bit hairy because I didn’t actually tell them to paddle, I just started celebrating. If you watch the video and you look for it at the end of the race, there are two or three strokes after the line where they are sprinting and I am splashing the water.”

Stone got into the rhythm of her life in her gold medal final, surging past China’s Jingli Duan and Emma Twigg of New Zealand and making a run at gold medalist Kim Brennan of Australia, ending up at 7:22.92 over the 2,000-meter course with Brennan coming in 7:21.54.

“It was to go out hard, be with the pack as much as possible at the start and to keep pushing hard through the middle,” says Stone, reflecting on her race plan.

“At 1,000 meters, I thought this is fun, this feels good. Usually at 1000 is when you are shaky and you find another gear. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel any pain. I think I managed to be in the zone.”

Getting into that zone was the product of years of training. “I prepared mentally and physically for that day and that race and when you do that correctly, you are able to have your best race,” says Stone. “I was having fun even though I am working hard. I had no idea how exhausted I was until I pulled into the awards dock and tried to stand up and ended up on all fours. They had to support me.”

For Johnson, the gold medal game against Italy turned into one of the more fun and rewarding days of her life as the U.S pulled away to a 12-5 triumph.

“We were just really excited for the opportunity to play in the game that we have been looking forward to these past four years,” says Johnson.

“It was kind of surreal that we were in that situation but we were ready for it. That is what we have been training for, that is where we wanted to be. We just wanted to play the way we have been playing. We knew that we could get so much better, that is what we were aiming for. I was trying not to think about the clock the whole time once I got out of the game. I was like this is really happening, we are going to win an Olympic gold medal; it was really amazing. Just seeing my family in the stands and seeing all of my teammates so happy and crying, it was really overwhelming.”

Bonding on a deep level as much as talent proved to be the secret of the team’s success.

“I think that we are really a genuine team and we worked hard to build what felt like a family and not just a team who came together to play a game,” asserts Johnson.

“We knew each other really well, we knew so much about each other. I think in the water we just play the game differently. We are really fast, we play really smart, we make those extra passes. We played unselfishly, it is a really fun way to play.”

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MEDAL REFLECTIONS

In the process of earning gold, Snyder learned a lot about herself and her capabilities.

“There are so many times on the national team where we tried and failed; it is just validation of all those failures,” says Snyder, noting that she didn’t make the women’s eight for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“At the time when I was cut, it seemed so unfair and there were so many other people to blame besides myself. Making the team and winning, I was really able to reflect and learn and realize that all of those failures were not anybody else, it was me learning. Now I am a better athlete and a better teammate. It all worked out.”

For Stone, things could not have worked out any better, particularly considering that she had initially decided that the 2012 London Summer Games would be her rowing swan song.

“It was incredible, it is proof that dreams can come true,” says Stone.

“There was definitely a big mix of emotions up there on the medal stand; it is overwhelming, it is amazing. One of the best things about winning a medal is sharing that joy with everyone else who supported me along the way.”

After originally balking at joining the national program due to the intense commitment that entailed, Johnson now realizes that it was one of the best moves she has ever made.

“When I look back at my time, there is no way that I would have doubted embarking on this journey if I had known what would come,” says Johnson.

“Not just what the ending would be but how many lifelong friends I would make, how many good experiences I would have, and how much stronger I would be at the end of this.”

While Stone will be applying to hospital residencies as she pursues her goal of being an orthopedic surgeon and Johnson is heading back to Princeton for her senior season undecided whether she will continue her international career, Snyder is already primed for another Olympic journey with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games on the horizon.

“I thought once you reach the Olympics, what else is there to do after that,” says Snyder.

“But I realize now so many things I did right and so many things that I did wrong. I just want to go back and do it again. I learned so much from my teammates who have already been to the Games and were there for their second or third Olympics.”