At the London games, these Gator athletes will have their eyes on Olympic Gold.
By Sarah L. Stewart (BSJ ’05)
Football doesn’t take a backseat very often in The Gator Nation. But once every four years, for a few weeks in the summer, the most celebrated Gator athletes aren’t defending The Swamp before a crowd of 90,000; they’re representing their country with all the world watching.
UF athletes have a special affinity for the Summer Olympics: If it were a country, The Gator Nation’s medal count in the 2008 Games in Beijing would have ranked 18th in the world. This year, Gators past and present are again vying to compete on the Olympic stage (visit magazine.ufl.edu for a full listing once teams are finalized in mid-summer).
Meanwhile, meet four athletes striving to represent the United States in a few of the most popular Summer Olympic sports. If you don’t know these Gators already, now’s your chance — the rest of the world likely won’t be far behind.
Ryan Lochte (BSR ’11), Swimming
The past two years have been good to Ryan Lochte: Swimming World magazine named him World Swimmer of the Year (twice), he’s earned more than a dozen gold medals, and he became the first swimmer to break a world record since the sport banned speed-enhancing bodysuits in 2009. And, he learned how to cook.
The latter may seem trivial in light of Lochte’s aquatic dominance, but there’s a connection between the two.
“I’ve been eating a lot healthier,” says Lochte, a 24-time Gator All-American. “I’m in the best physical shape that I’ve been in a very long time.”
About two years ago, Lochte ditched the fast food, candy and soda that had fueled him to six Olympic medals in 2004 and 2008 in favor of home-cooked specialties such as chicken alfredo. The 27-year-old partly credits the new diet for his blazing success in the pool, including his record-breaking 1:54 in the 200-meter individual medley last July.
“It felt wonderful,” Lochte says of the new record. “I just wanted to prove to everyone after those suits were banned that anything’s possible.”
Now, training in the same Stephen C. O’Connell Center pool where he swam as a Gator, Lochte hopes to maintain his momentum.
“Hopefully that’s just a taste of what’s to come this summer,” he says. “I’m really eager and excited to see what will happen.”
The Rising Star
Christian Taylor (3HHP), Track and Field
At the track and field world championships in September, the former Gator All- American and NCAA Champion soared an astonishing 58 feet, 11 ¼ inches in the triple jump, a series of three striding leaps reminiscent of the long jump. That mark, 7 ½ inches better than the second-place defending world champion, vaulted Taylor into the record books with the fifth-best triple jump distance in history.
The target is on my back, and that’s where I want it to be,” says Taylor, a polite, lanky 21-year-old. Now training at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, Taylor has traded schoolwork for the beach runs, bounding exercises and core workouts required to further cement his place in history. He’s set his sights on 18 meters (59 feet) in the triple jump, a mark only two people have ever achieved. This summer, less than a year since his last extraordinary leap, Taylor hopes his next may land him on an Olympic podium.
“I think about that every day,” he says. “That’s the pinnacle of athletics.”
Heather Mitts (BSADV ’01), Soccer
An NCAA title, two Olympic gold medals and a thrilling World Cup run would be a successful career for any soccer star. But Heather Mitts isn’t quite finished.
“We have a lot to prove,” says Mitts, a defensive player who helped UF to its only soccer national championship in 1998. “We just want to make sure we’re as prepared as we can be.”
The U.S. team enters the Olympics with a chip on its shoulder after last summer’s heartbreaking second-place finish to Japan in the Women’s World Cup. But for Mitts, who will be 34 when the Games begin, the stakes are particularly personal: After battling through hamstring issues last year — the latest in a long line of injuries throughout her career — she’s fighting to regain her starting position for her final trip onto the international stage.
“This is it for me after the Olympics,” says Mitts, one of the self-described “old ladies” of the team. “I don’t have much soccer left in me, and I just want it to be a positive experience.”
Mitts is optimistic that the team, which won January’s Olympic qualifying tournament in convincing fashion, will bring home gold for the third consecutive time.
“We’re all very excited,” she says. “We wish it were tomorrow.”
Bridget Sloan, Gymnastics
“Right now, I feel like I’m 16 and it’s starting all over again,” says Sloan, who earned a silver medal with the U.S. team in Beijing and was the 2009 all-around world champion.
This time, though, Sloan has battled through a spate of injuries, including a tear in her biceps that required surgery last year. But the uneven bars and floor exercise specialist who “fell in love” with the sport at age 4 is determined to mount a comeback: By training virtually full time, she’s closing in on 100 percent as the team selection process draws near.
“This whole year is going to come down to how smart I can train and being able to keep that up,” Sloan says.
Regardless of the result of her second Olympic bid, a more typical teenage life awaits Sloan this fall, when she moves into the dorms as a UF freshman — and Gator gymnast, of course.
“I’m not exactly your normal 19-year-old,” she says. “I’m just excited to start a new chapter of my life.”
UF at the Olympics
The United Kingdom will experience a Gator invasion July 27-Aug. 12 when the 2012 Olympic Games take place in London and around the island nation. Explore the Florida Online website to learn more about
- The Gator band performing at the Opening Ceremonies July 27
- UF alumna Caryn Clark (BA ’94) and her contribution to the Olympic movement
- Gator athletes competing in the games