The greatest sporting spectacle in the world, the Summer Olympics, began in a brilliant display of an opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro on Friday night. Despite myriad setbacks in the lead up to the Games, including but not limited to sewage, disease, lack of infrastructure and political unrest, the United States sent 554 athletes to the XXXI Games.
As usual, the Pac-12 is sending a massive contingent, a total of 274 athletes, coaches and delegates among 47 different countries, including 140 who will represent the United States, comprising 21 percent of the roster. Every Pac-12 institution will be represented, though Cal (50) and USC (43) will be the most represented.
That’s a lot to follow. So, to cut it down, we have provided a list of the top five Pac-12 athletes to watch at the Games.
- Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Stanford, beach volleyball
If you have expressed so much as a passing interest in the summer Olympics in any of the past four Games, this name should ring quite familiar. Walsh-Jennings, alongside former partner Misty May-Treanor, won three consecutive gold medals in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012), cementing themselves as the best beach volleyball team in history. Now Walsh-Jennings is partnered up with another alumnus of Newport Harbor High School, April Ross, a former outside hitter at USC. Together, Ross and Walsh-Jennings will be seeking an unprecedented fourth consecutive gold medal for the latter. On Saturday night — or Sunday morning, depending on your time zone — the duo got off to a steady start, taking less than 35 minutes to top an Australian duo in the first round of pool play.
- Katie Ledecky, Stanford, swimming
Katie Ledecky is still a teenager. She is also the most dominant athlete in the world. Making her debut as a 15-year-old in London, Ledecky announced her presence to the world with a blistering performance in the 800, claiming a surprise gold and also the second-fastest time in history. Since then, she has broken 11 world records, won 16 medals in international competition, and has a firm hold on world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle. So impressive is Ledecky that, in the wake of the initial heat of the 400-meter freestyle, a competitor popped out of the pool, beatifically stating: “I was able to see Katie’s feet at the end of the race!”
On Sunday afternoon, she set an Olympic record in the 400-freestyle, touching the wall in 3:58.71, and then followed that up with a world record later that night, popping up in 3:56.46. She will finish off with the 200 meter freestyle and her signature event, the 800-free.
- Hope Solo, Washington, women’s soccer
Carli Lloyd, the 2015 FIFA Player of the Year and overnight phenomenon in the World Cup finals following her blink-and-you-missed-it hat-trick, may be the engine behind the Yanks, and Alex Morgan, a Cal alum, may be the face of the team, Hope Solo is the anchor of this team. While certainly not the most popular athlete in Rio, subject to heavy boos from her social media musings on the Zika virus, it took Solo just two matches to vindicate her value on this team, shutting out contender France in a crucial 1-0 victory on Saturday. It wouldn’t be surprising if the United States wins gold. In fact, that’s rather expected. What might be surprising if any team manages to slip a goal past Solo for the remainder of the tournament.
Colombia will have the next crack, on Tuesday afternoon. Then it’s onto the quarterfinals on Friday, the semifinals the ensuing Tuesday and, if all should go as planned, the finals on Friday.
- Devon Allen, Oregon, track and field
What distinguishes Allen, a wide receiver for the Oregon Ducks, is that he’s still in college, which presents him an opportunity to make history as the first football player to medal at an Olympic Games. There have been former football players to do so, but none during their career. And Allen, who will be competing in the 110-hurdles, has a bona fide chance to finish on the podium. He has already clocked the third fastest time in the world. Do it again, and he’ll win more than a medal – he’ll make history.
- Ashton Eaton, Oregon, decathlon
Like Ledecky, Eaton is in a class of his own, to the point that he is chasing records rather than opponents. An Oregon alum, Eaton holds the world record in both the decathlon and indoor heptathlon, and is one of only two in decathlon history to eclipse the 9,000-point threshold in the event. The 28-year-old won gold in London and, frankly, any less would go down as one of the bigger upsets in these Games.