At the University of Wisconsin, it’s no surprise that football and basketball garner so much support. With a football team that has reached back-to-back Rose Bowls and a basketball team that has qualified for 14-straight NCAA tournaments, the programs deserve every bit of the attention they receive.
But with the presence of two high-achieving, high-profile programs such as these on campus, many other talented UW athletic programs have slipped through the cracks when it comes to receiving some much-deserved attention.
Part of the appeal that college sports have always offered to their fans is the opportunity to see the next generation of great professional athletes in their respective sports. To be able to say, “I used to watch her play in college” or “I saw him play before he was famous,” appeals to the fan in all of us. And while the men’s football and basketball teams have certainly offered their fair share of future talents — Alan Ameche, Michael Finley and most recently Russell Wilson, to name a few — the football and basketball programs only scratch the surface of the athletic talent that this university has had over the years.
One very obvious measure of this largely ignored talent can be seen in one of the oldest of time-honored traditions: the Olympics.
This summer, thousands of the best athletes in the world met in London to compete in the XXX Summer Olympic Games. But what the reader may be surprised to note is that nine of those athletes spent at least a portion of their collegiate careers right here in Madison.
Generally considered as the ultimate test of an athlete’s ability, the Olympics boast a level of competition that no domestic league — the MLB, NBA, or NFL — can rival. And while the NFL might be able to name the best player or team in the nation, the Olympic games provide a platform for naming the best athletes in the world. Since basketball’s debut in the Olympics in 1904, UW has only ever had one basketball player represent the Badgers — Kirk Penny (who played for New Zealand) in the 2004 Summer Games.
So if these UW Olympians don’t play football or basketball, where are they coming from you might ask? Well, they come from a wide array of the athletic programs Wisconsin has to offer. Quite a few of these athletes come from the storied UW men’s and women’s hockey teams — in the 2010 Winter Games alone UW had 13 hockey representatives earn 13 Olympic medals — but Olympians have been scattered across the numerous UW athletic programs in the past 70-plus years.
To put the amount of talent that fans are missing out on in perspective, 23 Badgers have gone on to play in the NBA since 1947. Meanwhile, UW has sent 27 rowers to compete in the Olympics since the 1948 Games — a number that seems even more impressive when you take into account that the summer games take place just once every four years, while the NBA competes every year.
In total, nine different sports — including track, rowing, diving, swimming, wrestling, hockey, curling, basketball and soccer — have been represented in the Olympics over the years by Badgers, with some of the more surprising of the sports to represent Wisconsin being the track and field, rowing and cross country teams.
Of the nine UW Olympians to compete this summer, six of them — Evan Jager, Egle Staisiunaite, Gwen Jorgensen, Matt Tegenkamp, Hilary Stellingwerff and current Badger track and cross country star Mohammed Ahmed — all competed in track/running events. The other three — Grant James, Ross James and Kristin Hedstrom — competed in rowing events.
At first this might come as a surprise, but when you look closer it becomes clear that Wisconsin has been a hotbed for running and rowing talent for years now.
Both the men’s cross country and the men’s track and field teams are the reigning Big Ten Champions, and cross country lays claim to the title of reigning national champions. The cross country team has won the last 13 (no, that’s not a typo) Big Ten championships in a row.
Meanwhile, men’s rowing competed in the National Championships in 2012 and earned two medals including a bronze medal in the open four and a silver medal in the lightweight four. Just four years ago in 2008, they also grabbed a national championship.
And while a name like Mohammed Ahmed might not be as well known as Monteé Ball, it should be. After all, he led his team to a national title last fall, something that Ball wasn’t able to match in the football team’s second-consecutive Rose Bowl loss.
So while many of you may have been unable to get football season tickets this year, it might be worth considering tuning in to another one of UW’s many sports programs instead.
You never know, you might just be lucky enough to witness a future Olympic gold medalist in the making.
Nick is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree that these less-celebrated athletes deserve more time in the spotlight? Or is it fair for football and basketball to remain king? Let him know at [email protected]