The Zika virus seems to have scared some top professional golfers away from the Rio Olympics, but they aren’t sacrificing much, because they’ve got four majors every year. For most athletes in Olympic sports, the Games are their one major every four years. It takes more than the risk of a mosquito bite — diminished by the winter season in Brazil — to make them give up what for many is the chance of a lifetime.
Every Olympics poses hazards to the visitors from around the world. Some cities deal with them better than others. Los Angeles took measures to reduce traffic and effectively erased the fears that the city would be choked with congestion and smog during the 1984 Games.
Santa Barbara has a band of 2016 Olympians who are ready to go all out in Rio. The U.S. women’s water polo team, favored to win its second consecutive gold medal, includes three players — almost 25 percent of its roster — from our town: Kami Craig, Sami Hill, and Kiley Neushul. Hometown volleyball icon Karch Kiraly, who won three gold medals as a player, is head coach of a U.S. women’s team that is seeking its first Olympic gold. The Santa Barbara Track Club’s Barbara Nwaba, the U.S. heptathlon champion, has an outside chance at a medal.
All are prepared to concentrate on the task at hand. “There always seems to be some type of worry going into the Olympics,” said Craig, a three-time Olympian with the water polo team. “The approach is always the same for us. We worry about what we can control. It’s all about preparing our bodies and our minds and focusing on our opponents and the games.”
They should have more favorable conditions than did the late Ernest “Nick” Carter, the first Olympic athlete from Santa Barbara County, at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. The U.S. team’s “hotel” was the SS Roosevelt, the ocean liner that took them across the Atlantic. When team officials caught some athletes in an Amsterdam bar — a scandal in those days of Prohibition — they moved the ship from the dock to the middle of the harbor. “We had to go back and forth by launch,” recalled Carter, a Lompoc native who became track coach at UCSB. “The boat rocked the whole time we were there. So we never got rid of our ‘sea legs.’ ” Carter came up short in the semifinals of the 1,500-meter run. “I always felt that it was caused by staying on board that ship and having it rock all the time.”
Four decades would pass before Bill Toomey, a teacher at La Colina Junior High, won the decathlon at Mexico City to become the first Olympic medalist from Santa Barbara. The L.A. Games marked the beginning of a strong Santa Barbara presence in Olympic sports, especially water polo and volleyball.
HISTORY: Native son Terry Schroeder (San Marcos High, Pepperdine), the model for the male Olympic statue outside the Coliseum, was the leader of the U.S. team that won silver medals in 1984 and ’88. Craig Wilson (UCSB) was their goalie. Chris Segesman (Dos Pueblos) was on the 2004 Olympic team, captained by UCSB coach Wolf Wigo. Schroeder coached the U.S. men to their third silver in 2008. Thalia Munro (S.B. High) started for the U.S. women’s team that took the bronze medal in 2004. Craig, another Santa Barbara grad, nabbed a silver in 2008 and gold in 2012.
NOW: Craig is one of only four returning players from the triumph at London, as the U.S. team has been refreshed by a youth movement. The new Olympians include Hill and Neushul, who were teammates during Dos Pueblos High’s domination of prep girls’ water polo. All three Santa Barbara standouts played for different colleges: Craig at USC, Hill at UCLA, and Neushul at Stanford.
Craig, 29, is a powerful presence at the center position. Hill, 24, is an athletically gifted goalkeeper who’s been backing up starter Ashleigh Johnson, a sensation from Miami. Neushul, 23, is one of the young Americans responsible for revolutionizing the game.
“There’s a lot of energy on this team,” Craig said. “It’s changed the entire style of how we’ve played. This game is faster, quicker, a bit more athletic. We’re playing water polo like no one in the world is playing. It’s incredible. Once this team gets rolling, in that flow, it’s so much fun.”
In 2012, U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said the team’s game plan was “based almost solely on Kami Craig at the center position. We still have an offense that’s geared toward that, but we can do much more with this group and beat you in so many different ways.”
Krikorian, a Golden State Warriors fan, sees their style on the basketball court replicated by the American women in the pool. Neushul is their Steph Curry, and high-scoring Maggie Steffens their Klay Thompson. Neushul, like Curry, had a parent — both parents, actually — who played her sport. Her mother, Cathy Neushul, is a longtime water polo coach.
“I don’t know if anyone plays the game as beautifully as Kiley Neushul does,” Krikorian said. “It’s so much fun for fans to watch; it’s fun for me to watch … the movement in the water, the creativity, the explosiveness, the athleticism … This is a team that shares the ball really well, moves without the ball, is the most mobile team I’ve ever seen in the sport of water polo.”
Craig said, “I remember Kiley growing up, this teeny little towhead girl running around the pool deck, kicking butt in swimming and water polo. I enjoy playing with Kiley, our connection passes, setting each other up. The other day we played a game, and I stuck my hand out and said, ‘It’s always such fun playing with you, Kiley.’ ”
The brief history of Olympic women’s water polo (first played in 2000) indicates there are no guarantees that the U.S. women will win the gold medal on August 19. None of the first three champions (Australia, Italy, and the Netherlands) was able to make the final in the following Games. “Our target was big in 2012,” Craig said, “and now it’s bigger.”
Neushul said, “We all watched the 2012 team. We’ve done a good job of creating our own experience, our own journey, driven by our standards, fixed on playing to our potential.”
The goalkeeping of Johnson and Hill is another plus factor for the U.S. team. “I truly believe we have the best two goalies in the world,” Krikorian said. “If Ashleigh’s not ready, Sami knows this team has a tremendous amount of confidence in her.”
Both of Hill’s parents were college athletes, her mother in basketball and father in football. She was playing basketball with Kiley Neushul at the Page Youth Center when Kiley’s mother saw her potential as a shot-blocker in water polo. Johnson, who played collegiate water polo at Princeton, is the only non-Californian on the U.S. team. She lacked experience against top competition but caught on quickly when she was promoted to the national team. The Santa Barbara trio befriended her. “Ashleigh has become one of our sisters,” Hill said. “She fits right in.”
Krikorian described this team’s quest as transcending a brief moment of Olympic glory: “The dream we chase is more than being at the top of the podium. It’s the way we play, the way we treat each other, and the way we show toughness.”
TRACK AND FIELD
HISTORY: Westmont College had one of the world’s fastest humans with a name to rival the Detroit Tigers’ Jarrod Saltalamacchia: Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa. The sprinter from Madagascar was a finalist in the Mexico City 100 meters but went out in the Munich semifinals with an injury. After Bill Toomey won the decathlon in 1968, many multi-event athletes trained and competed in Santa Barbara. Bruce Jenner spectacularly failed to clear a height in the pole vault at UCSB during the 1975 U.S. decathlon championship, a year before he set the world record at Montreal. Jane Frederick moved here before the 1976 Games and was the seventh-place finisher in the women’s pentathlon, which became the heptathlon in 1984.
She missed the Olympics that year but set an American record of 6,803 points that has been surpassed only by Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Defending Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton and Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton have put in five months of training at Westmont College since 2011.
NOW: Barbara Nwaba continues the multi-events tradition. The Los Angeles native has steadily improved in the heptathlon since 2012, when she finished fifth in the U.S. Olympic Trials after graduating from UCSB. She took second in the NCAA Championships to Oregon’s Brianne Theisen, the future wife of Ashton Eaton and one of the favorites in Rio.
Nwaba broke through with her first 6,000-point score in 2014, and she scored her personal record (PR) of 6,500 at last year’s U.S. Championships, making her the sixth highest-scoring American of all time. In the IAAF World Championships at Beijing, she had a crushing mishap in the 100-meter hurdles that immediately knocked her out of medal contention. She bounced back in the remaining six events and set a PR of 48’½” in the shot put.
Going into the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, Nwaba said, “I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall over the hurdles like I did in the Worlds.” Once she got through that event, she rolled up her second highest score, 6,494, and set new PRs in the high jump (6’2¾”) and javelin throw (161’4″).
The field in Rio will be loaded, with Theisen-Eaton, defending champion Jessica Ennis-Hill of Great Britain, and others in the 6,700- to 6,800-point range. Nwaba, 27, faced several of them in May at the multi-event meet in Gotzis, Austria, where she finished fifth. “I got to know the girls there,” she said. “I’m going to focus on myself and my abilities and not get distracted by how the others are doing.”
A fast-rising star on the U.S. track-and-field team is 18-year-old high jumper Vashti Cunningham. Her father and coach is former All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, who competed in track as well as football at Santa Barbara High. The world junior record holder with a clearance of 6’6¼” at an indoor meet, Vashti has been called by U.S. champion Chaunté Lowe “the young Usain Bolt of the high jump.” Cunningham responded, “That’s crazy, mind-blowing … but I do want to make my mark.”
HISTORY: Karch Kiraly (S.B. High, UCLA) took the U.S. indoor team where it had never been before, winning gold in 1984 and ’88. Doug Partie (Dos Pueblos, UCLA) played on the ’88 team and also in ’92, when the U.S. took the bronze medal. When beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in 1996, Kiraly picked up his third gold. The beat continued at the beach in 2000, when Eric Fonoimoana (UCSB), along with Dain Blanton, surprised the favored Brazilians in Sydney; in 2004, when Dax Holdren (San Marcos) made it to the quarterfinals (and another San Marcos grad, Brook Billings, played on the fourth-place indoor men’s team); and in 2008, when Todd Rogers (San Marcos, UCSB) and Phil Dalhausser stormed to the gold medal. The pair was upset in the round of 16 in 2012.
NOW: Eight Olympic Games have come and gone since 1984, and Kiraly is still pushing for a gold medal. The U.S. women’s team had an ample collection of silvers and bronzes but had never won a major international tournament until 2014, Kiraly’s second season as head coach, when it captured the FIVB World Championship in Italy.
The road to the 2016 Olympic title will go through the host team, Brazil, the two-time defending Olympic champion. The U.S. team settled for the silver medal in both 2008 and 2012. In the gold-medal match of the FIVB World Grand Prix in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this month, Brazil outlasted the U.S. in five games.
“I can’t imagine a more perfect place to make history,” Kiraly said about the Americans’ opportunity in Rio. They expect to encounter much hostility from the South American crowds, but Kiraly, who willed the U.S. men to overcome the former Soviet juggernaut as a player, will have them prepared for the challenge.
Meanwhile, there will be a party scene at Copacabana Beach during the Olympic beach volleyball competition, and pairs from Brazil and the U.S. will again be prominent. Kerri Walsh Jennings will vie for her fourth gold medal, this time with partner April Ross. They made their debut as a team at the 2013 Santa Barbara AVP tournament, winning it, of course.
The top U.S. men’s beach pair is Dalhausser and Nick Lucena. They migrated from Florida a dozen years ago and landed at East Beach. They played as a team until 2006, when Dalhausser began his dominant run with Rogers. Lucena knocked around with many different partners until he and Dalhausser reunited and found bliss the past two years.
HISTORY: Richard Schroeder (UCSB) swam the breaststroke legs for gold-medal-winning medley relay teams in 1984 and ’88. Amy Fuller (UCSB) pulled an oar in the U.S. women’s four who rowed to a silver medal in 1992. Freestyle swimmer Jason Lezak (UCSB) collected eight medals in four Olympics, most memorably in the men’s 4×100 relay that he anchored to the gold medal at Beijing. Also in 2008, Mark Warkentin (San Marcos, USC) placed eighth in the inaugural 10,000-meter open-water swim.
NOW: Maggie Hogan was a swimmer at UCSB, where she impressed Coach Gregg Wilson with her work ethic. Her best race was the 1,650-yard freestyle. Several years out of college, she took up paddling and has won 14 national kayak titles. Now, at the age of 37, she has made her first Olympic team. She will represent the U.S. in the women’s K1/500-meter race at Rio.
HISTORY: “Ferocious Fernando” Vargas, a popular 18-year-old from Oxnard, fought as a welterweight in the 1996 Atlanta Games and was upset by a Romanian in the second round. After he turned pro, he won a world championship, lost it to Oscar de la Hoya, and had his reputation sullied by an assault conviction in Santa Barbara.
NOW: Carlos Balderas, 19, a Mexican-American from Santa Maria, was the first boxer to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. His grandfather worked in the strawberry fields for 40 years while the family settled in the area. Balderas will fight in the lightweight (132 pounds) division. Cuba’s Lázaro Álvarez, 25, a three-time world amateur champion, is favored.
Who to Watch
Ashton Eaton • Decathlon
Ashton Eaton is at the top of his game. He’s been unstoppable for the past four years, ever since he captured Olympic gold in the decathlon. He claimed World Championship titles in 2013 and 2015 — he used 2014 as a “rest” year from the decathlon, instead focusing on the heptathlon, where he claimed the title at the World Indoor Championships. He holds the world records for total points in both the decathlon and heptathlon, and at the track and field Olympic trials last month, he easily came out on top, scoring 325 more points than the second-place finisher. (For reference, the difference between second and third was 12 points.) As he heads into Rio, Eaton can focus on defending his Olympic title, but also has the opportunity to make a little history with his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton. No married couple who has competed together at the Olympics has ever won individual gold medals for different countries, and accomplishing that feat is a distinct possibility for Eaton and Theisen-Eaton.
Carlin Isles • Rugby Sevens
Rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio, and if there’s one man to watch on Team U.S.A.’s rugby sevens team, it’s Carlin Isles — but don’t blink because you might miss him. Isles is considered to be the fastest man in rugby, and the stats back him up. In June, he posted a time of 10.15 seconds in the 100-meter dash, notching a personal best and qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials (he passed on the opportunity to focus on rugby). In YouTube videos, sevens games look as if they’re moving in slow motion until Isles picks up the ball and turns on the jets. For a man who has only been playing rugby for four years, he’s quickly made a name for himself, and is a great weapon for the U.S. team in Rio.
Gabby Douglas • Gymnastics
Like many gymnasts, Gabby Douglas got her start early. Her older sister, Arielle, is a former gymnast, and she helped Douglas learn some early moves like the cartwheel and one-armed cartwheel. It took some convincing to get Douglas’s mother to enroll her in formal training, but thanks in part to Arielle, it happened, and Douglas’s talents were quickly evident. Fast-forward to the 2012 Olympics, and Douglas, only 16 at the time, was making history. All of her training and competing had paid off, culminating in the moment she became the first woman of color to ever be crowned the individual all-around Olympic champion. She also added a gold medal in the team competition as part of the “Fierce Five.” Heading into Rio, Douglas is still at the top of her game, and bolsters a strong U.S. gymnastics team.
Katie Ledecky • Swimming
Katie Ledecky hasn’t even reached the legal drinking age in the United States, but already she’s amassed an impressive résumé in the pool, and shows no signs of slowing down. She’s broken world records 11 times, including a few of her own records; she won gold at the 2012 London Olympics in the 800-meter freestyle event as a 15 year old; she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people this year; and she has more than a dozen international gold medals. She is incredible to watch in the pool, and has the potential to have a long career, in the same vein as U.S. swimming teammate Michael Phelps. Rio will be a test for Ledecky to see if she can repeat as 800-meter champion and also add a few more medals to her collection.
Alex Morgan • Soccer
A best-selling author, occasional TV guest star, and soccer player extraordinaire, Alex Morgan is at her best on the pitch, where she has almost 70 goals internationally, playing for Team U.S.A. The California native has played in two FIFA Women’s World Cups (helping guide the Americans to a win in 2015), an Algarve Cup, and, briefly, in the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, before reaggravating an ankle injury. Rio is her second kick at the Olympic can, her first being the London Games, where she was an integral part of the women’s team, scoring the pivotal game-winning goal in the 123rd minute of the semifinal against Canada. Morgan is riding into the 2016 Games having already had an outstanding first half of the year — she scored 12 seconds into a game against Costa Rica at the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers, setting the tournament and the U.S. women’s national team records; she notched her third career hat-trick in the same tournament; and she was named the MVP and Golden Boot recipient at the inaugural SheBelieves Cup in March.
Kerri Walsh Jenning • Beach Volleyball
Kerri Walsh Jennings has been a powerhouse on the professional beach volleyball circuit for 15 years, but her success reaches back even further. In high school in the mid-’90s, she played basketball and volleyball, taking the volleyball squad to three state championships and the basketball squad to one state championship. She won the inaugural Gatorade National High School Volleyball Player of the Year award in 1996 (an award also won by her current teammate April Ross), and continued her dominance all throughout college. After graduating from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in American studies, she jumped into beach volleyball, partnering up with Misty May-Treanor and carving a path as what many would consider the greatest beach volleyball team of all time. Now, after taking gold in beach volleyball at the last three Olympics with May-Treanor, Walsh Jennings takes to the court with Ross, a stellar player in her own right who lost to Walsh Jennings in London to claim silver.