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Bruin athletes vie for Olympic glory

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Natalie Golda

If you're cheering for America's best athletes this week as you watch the action from Beijing, they just may be Bruins or Olympians trained by Bruins. As expected, UCLA has once again sent a large contingent to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, with 39 Bruins — current and former athletes and coaches — vying for Olympic glory.

Among them is alumna Natalie Golda, a defender on the 2004 bronze medal-winning women’s water polo team, who said she feels more focused this time around.

"The first time I think I was overcome by the excitement and the achievement of a lifelong dream," she said. "But now it's more [about] seeing what you can accomplish, as opposed to just being happy to be there."

Natasha Watley

The opening ceremony, Golda added, is an experience no one can prepare you for. "It's like a mixture of every emotion that you have. You're happy and you're excited, but you're scared. You don't know if people are going to spit on you or cheer for you. There are wild noises and people cheering and bright lights and every kind of stimulus imaginable. The only word I can use is 'crazy.'"

Alumna Natasha Watley, shortstop for the U.S. softball team, is also participating in her second Olympics — her first one in 2004 netted her a gold medal. This year, four other Bruins have joined her on the U.S. squad.

"It makes it easier in the sense that we have our 'Bruin family,'" she said. "It's nice knowing that there are girls who have had the same college experience that I had, and it makes for good bonding between us because we all get to represent UCLA at the Olympics."

One athlete who won't have the benefit of UCLA teammates is Mike Altman, UCLA's lone representative on the U.S. men's rowing team. While a graduate student at the Anderson School of Management, he trained out of UCLA's facilities.

Mike Altman (wearing cap)

"Everything here is bigger than I have ever seen before — the airport, the security at the rowing venue, our hotel ... everything is brand-new and super fancy," Altman said upon his arrival in Beijing. Ever the M.B.A., he added, "I'm really looking forward to seeing how sports marketing takes advantage of the Games as a chance to reach Asian markets."

Alumna Liz Masakayan's last Olympic competition as an indoor volleyball player was in Seoul in 1988. This time around, she's coaching the U.S. women's beach volleyball team of Elaine Youngs (a 2004 bronze medalist in Athens and a fellow Bruin) and Nicole Branagh.

"If things go as planned and we win our pool, we would have to get past the Chinese," she said. "We're very confident against [American gold-medal favorites] Kerri [Walsh] and Misty [May-Treanor]. We’re lucky; we get to play them almost every weekend. The foreign teams have only seen them 10 times in the past two years. That's the advantage that Elaine and Nicole have."

Jillian Ellis, head coach of the UCLA women's soccer team and assistant coach of the U.S. squad, is equally confident about her team's chances. "The U.S. women's national team is one of the best teams in the world, so I think there is a strong opportunity to win a medal," she said. "The beauty of athletics is that nothing is predetermined, and that's what makes it exciting. So tune in!"

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