The road to Olympic gold often runs through UCLA. Since 1920, the year after the university was founded, Bruins have participated in every Summer Olympiad save one (1924). Even in 1980, during the U.S.-led boycott of the Games, foreign athletes who studied at UCLA competed for their home countries in Moscow. That lofty lineage continues to this day, connecting our first Olympians — long jumper Edward Butler and water polo player Clyde Swendsen — to athletes such as Ato Boldon, Rafer Johnson ’59, Dwight Stones, C.K. Yang ’64, Evelyn Ashford, Gail Devers ’89, Florence Griffith Joyner, Walt Hazzard ’78, Ann Meyers Drysdale ’79, Peter Vidmar ’83, Kerri Strug, Lisa Fernandez ’95, Dot Richardson ’84, Shirley Babashoff, Donna de Varona ’86, Karch Kiraly ’83, Holly McPeak, Jackie Joyner-Kersee ’86 and Joy Fawcett, among many others.

It will be no different in Beijing, with stars such as Jeanette Bolden ’85, track coach for the U.S. Olympic women’s track and field team and UCLA’s squad, and four of the 15 women on the U.S. women’s softball team who will compete for a fourth straight gold (Stacey Nuveman ’02, Natasha Watley ’05, Tairia Mims Flowers ’05 and Andrea Duran ’07) representing Westwood.

At press time, 34 current and former Bruins had either earned the right to compete in Beijing or were in hot pursuit of a spot, including swimmer Kim Vandenberg ’07; pole vaulter Yoo Kim ’04; hammer thrower Jessica Cosby ’05; soccer star Lauren Cheney; and hurdler Jonathan Williams ’05.

“UCLA is a great place to train,” says John Powers, sportswriter for the Boston Globe. “If you take into consideration the facilities, the climate, the caliber of the coaching and the competition, you can see why they do so well,” he says. “UCLA is almost a country unto itself in terms of the athletes it fields and the medals it wins.” During the 2004 Games in Athens, current or former Bruins captured 19 medals, which would have placed it 14th in the per-country medal count.

The Campus Advantage

Rich Perelman ’78, who served on the Organizing Committee for the Los Angeles Games in 1984, agrees that UCLA has a lot to offer aspiring Olympians. “UCLA fields a large number of sports and the money made by the Athletics Department, because of football and basketball especially, doesn’t just sit in some account somewhere. It gets plowed back into the department to create opportunities for more kids and more sports.”

Perelman and Powers both point out that the very existence of sports in the collegiate setting gives the U.S. a huge advantage in any Summer Games. “We start out 50 medals ahead because of track/field and swimming alone,” says Powers, “and those athletes are almost all coming out of the university system.”

This tying of sports to academics is indeed a uniquely American phenomenon, abetted by the passage of Title IX in 1972, which dramatically increased opportunities for women athletes at UCLA and college campuses across the land. In instances where schools chose to drop some men’s sports in order to stay in compliance with the act (such as UCLA’s controversial decision to cut men’s swimming and gymnastics, in which the school had long been a dominant force and produced many Olympic medalists), “it’s hard to say if there would have been an overall net gain or loss, although if they’d kept all the [men’s] sports and added the women’s, you can be sure that there would have been an even richer haul for schools like UCLA,” Powers says.

Rafer Johnson ’59, two-time Olympic decathlete and former ASUCLA president, says that two complementary forces are at work in the scenario whereby Olympic-caliber athletes are drawn to UCLA, and UCLA knows what to do with them once they arrive. “We get a very high caliber of athlete because we get a very high caliber of person,” he notes. “This starts long before they get to UCLA, or they wouldn’t get in, and it is fostered while they are here.”

Johnson won a silver in Melbourne and a gold in Rome, and held the Olympic torch on the final leg of its global journey at the 1984 Games in L.A. But his greatest Olympic memory isn’t even about himself. “Of all my Olympic experiences, none can compare to watching my daughter compete in Sydney,” says the proud father of Jennifer Johnson Jordan ’96, who competed in beach volleyball in the 2000 Olympics.

Eastern Promise

Another legendary Bruin playing a role in the Beijing Games is Ann Meyers Drysdale ’79, who won a silver medal in women’s basketball in the 1976 Olympics. This summer she’s juggling her duties as general manager of the WNBA’s reigning champions, the Phoenix Mercury, and her seventh Olympics broadcasting women’s basketball for NBC. “From the time I can remember, I wanted to compete on the world stage in a U.S.A. jersey,” Meyers says, “and UCLA helped me to achieve that goal; there’s no doubt.”

The prevalence of high-caliber international students on campus is another reason UCLA has spawned so many Olympians. In 2004, 13 of the 69 Bruins in Athens represented a country other than the United States. Next month in Beijing, Bruins Nicolette Teo will swim for Singapore, Yoo Kim will compete in the pole vault for South Korea, and hurdler Jonathan Williams will represent Belize.

As far back as 1948, UCLA’s Lloyd La Beach won a bronze medal in the 100m dash representing Panama, and in 1960, C.K. Yang, Rafer Johnson’s Westwood teammate, friend and rival, competed for Taiwan in one of the most dramatic finishes in the history of Olympic track and field. UCLA Track Coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake ’27 coached the Taiwanese team.

UCLA gymnast, sophomore Anna Li, will not be competing in the 2008 Games, but she has another reason to be proud — and nervous. Her father is the director of men’s and women’s gymnastics for the Chinese National Team, and she’ll be in the stands cheering him on. “His job is going to be keeping his athletes focused and not distracted. This is especially hard when your country is the host.”

Not to mention a controversial host. Athletes, however, are leaving the politics to the politicians and the protests to the protestors. Swimmer Teo perhaps put it best: “I’m just going to focus on myself and what I need to do in the pool … that, and get to bed on time.”

Jonathan Williams ’05 — 400m Hurdles

Competing for Belize — 1st Olympics

Jonathan Williams got yelled at a lot when he was a kid, “not because I was in trouble, but because I was always running, to my room, into the kitchen, across the yard, down the street. The thing that still rings in my ears is my mom’s voice yelling, ‘Slow down!’” Luckily, he did not.

As the 2008 Games approach, Williams is one of the fortunate athletes who has known for more than a year that he would be going to Beijing. Taking advantage of rules that allow the offspring of Belizean citizens to compete for that country’s team, the two-time All-American met the “world qualifying standard” for the 400m hurdles when he ran 48.88 seconds last July and secured a spot on the Belize National Team.

Jonathan Williams concluded his Olympic competition Aug. 16 after finishing sixth in heat two and 13th overall (49.64) in the semifinal rounds of the 400m hurdles.

Jessica Cosby ’05 — Hammer Throw

Competing for the U.S. — 1st Olympics

Cosby can’t let go of the hammer throw. That’s because the 8.82-pound metal ball and four-foot wire is her constant companion, her likely ticket to Beijing … and something she never intended to pick up.

“I was a sprinter as a kid and then a shot-putter in high school, but when I got to UCLA, Coach said everybody needed at least two events. I tried the hammer and I was just so bad. It would go everywhere but where it was supposed to go, but he kept saying he saw something in me and I had to keep at it. Then, I started to get good at it and I was stuck with it,” she says with a smile.

Jessica Cosby did not advance past the Aug. 18 qualifying round.

Yoo Kim ’04 — Pole Vault

Competing for South Korea — 2nd Olympics

Yoo Kim knows firsthand how valuable the UCLA athletic experience can be for honing and challenging athletic skills. He set a Korean National Record for the pole vault in 2003, and then broke it as a Bruin at an NCAA meet the following year, “which only got me second,” he recalls.

Today, he still holds the Korean record (18 feet/4.5 inches), some 2 inches higher than his 2003 mark, and credits the training and competition that came with college sports for making that possible.

Yoo Kim did not advance past the Aug. 20 qualifying round.

Lauren Cheney, UCLA Student — Soccer

As the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of her Indianapolis high school, Lauren Cheney has heard more than once that she plays with a lot of heart — a poignant irony, since the 20-year-old Olympic hopeful was born with a congenital heart defect and had open-heart surgery when she was 3 years old. Cheney’s medical team encouraged her parents to keep her active and get her involved in sports to keep her heart strong, and she was a soccer standout before her sixth birthday.

“I think I’ve wanted to go to the Olympics since I was 7 years old, and the 1999 Women’s World Cup win only made me want it that much more,” Cheney says, but for her, “UCLA is not just about soccer, it’s about learning how I can contribute to the world.”

Gold Medal. Cheney played 49 minutes in the gold-medal match against Brazil on Aug. 21. The U.S. women played to a 1–0 victory. The medal match was Cheney’s longest stint in these Olympic games: She appeared briefly in the Aug. 15 match vs. Canada and the Aug. 18 match vs. Japan.

Originally named to the team as an alternate, Cheney was a late addition to the 18-player U.S. squad following an injury to forward Abby Wambach.

Kim Vandenberg ’07 — 800m Freestyle Relay

Competing for U.S. — 1st Olympics

If swimmer Kim Vandenberg is surprised to find herself still in Westwood, still waterlogged at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, she doesn’t let on. “A lot of my friends have moved on and have started their ‘real lives,’” she says, “but this is ‘real life’ for me. Swimming is my job now.”

Between coaching, swim lessons and competing for prize money at international meets, Vandenberg says she’s “going to try and make my living at the pool for as long as I can.” Of course, she says, that will be a lot easier if she comes home from Beijing with a medal around her neck. “Just making the team is nerve-racking. This will be my third Olympic trials, and I think I finally feel like I really deserve to be there. But anything can happen.”

Bronze Medal. Vandenberg competed for a spot in the 100m and 200m Butterfly and the 200m Freestyle. She was selected for the 4x200m Freestyle Relay and swam in the qualifying round, thus earning a Bronze Medal when the team finished third.