Over the course of 18 days in London, Cal’s 38 Olympians won 17 medals in six sports — 11 of which were gold, finishing off a record-tying fortnight with arguably the greatest Olympic performance in school history and one of the greatest showings of any sports institution in America.
Like the world records in swimming, which continue to be broken with alarming frequency, Cal’s Olympians continue to improve on their showing at each summer Games. Since winning seven medals in Barcelona in 1992, Cal has equaled or improved its overall medal count every four years. The Bears’ 17 overall medals tie for the most they’ve ever won, and their 11 golds are the most since the 1948 Games — also held in London — where a dozen of their 13 medals were golds.
But when it comes to Olympic medals, it’s not just how many — it’s how much they mean.
“I almost started crying in the water,” said former Cal swimmer Nathan Adrian after edging out Australia’s James Magnussen in the 100 free by a hundredth of a second on Aug. 1. “I kind of realized that it’s once every four years. And it’s not who’s put up the fastest time of the year or who’s built the fastest time in the world the last four years but who can get their hand on the wall first today — tonight.”
Adrian won three medals and two golds in London, a marked improvement from his lone relay gold in Beijing where he didn’t race in the final. Adrian’s fingertip victory over Magnussen thrust the locally famous swimmer into the national conversation, where he’s become the most recognizable men’s swimmer not named Lochte or Phelps. After a Cal career where he led the Bears to an NCAA team championship in 2011 — its first in 31 years — Adrian won his first post-Cal medal at the 2011 World Aquatics Championships — a preview of things to come.
But Adrian was hardly the only former Cal athlete with a shining moment in London.
With a stunning header in last Monday’s semifinal against Canada, Alex Morgan secured her spot in soccer lore, rising over the Canadian defense in the 123rd minute to bang the ball into the back of the net, giving Team USA a heart-stopping 4-3 victory as time expired. Already one of the most recognizable faces in women’s soccer, the 23-year-old cinched her place atop the sport with her header, earning her worldwide admiration and a place in soccer history.
“I’m still in shock,” said Morgan immediately after the match. “I just got my head on it at the end. I didn’t even see it go in.”
Three days later, Morgan won her first gold medal in a thrilling 2-1 win over Japan, logging an assist on the game’s first goal.
But the most impressive performance might have been the U.S. women’s swim team. With Cal coach Teri McKeever at the helm, Cal’s women’s swimmers picked up eight medals — five gold — more than in any other sport. 24-year-old Dana Vollmer picked up three of those golds, including an individual win in the 100 fly. But it was relays that accounted for six of the eight medals, including Vollmer, Rachel Bootsma and Jessica Hardy in the 400 medley relay.
“It’s amazing that confidence we have in each other,” said Vollmer after winning the 800 free relay. “The adrenalin rush was just amazing.”
For all of Cal’s triumphs at the Games, the Olympics weren’t devoid of moments of disappointment. Milorad Cavic, who lost to Michael Phelps in the 100 fly by a hundredth of a second four years ago, finished fourth in London. Track star Alysia Montano aspired for a podium finish in the 800, but she finished fifth. Of Cal’s 21 non-American Olympians, water polo bronze medalist Aleksa Saponjic was the only one to medal.
But in light of Cal’s gold medal moments, it’s hard to complain about 17 medals.