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6 Elite Athletes Going for Gold at Rio

These six elite athletes hope to bring home the gold in Rio. Plus, a few things you may not know about rhythmic gymnastics.


The Summer Olympics begin August 5, and the East Bay has a slew of elite athletes hoping to make it big in Rio de Janeiro, in sports ranging from diving to rowing to synchronized swimming. We asked six local stars what it takes to be an Olympic contender.


Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

The Veteran

Natalie Coughlin  /  33
12–Time Olympic medalist

She’s at it again! After breaking the American record for the 50-meter backstroke last year, Lafayette’s Natalie Coughlin is hoping to return for her fourth Olympics by qualifying to compete in the individual freestyle and backstroke races. This would give her a shot at raising her 12–medal record—shared with two other female American swimmers. We talked with Coughlin about her veteran status, how she keeps breaking records, and what’s next for the champ.


Q: This could be your fourth Olympics. How have you managed to continue training for 12–plus years?

A: The biggest challenge has been recovery. So I see my physical therapist every week and my massage therapist every two weeks. And I make sure to take good care of myself outside of training. I make sure to get lots of sleep and eat well.


Q: Are you training as hard now as you did for your first Olympics?

A: Oh, yes. The training is always going to be different because it evolves as I evolve, but I’m training just as hard. If anything, I’m more focused with all the details, with my time both in and away from the pool.


Q: What does it take to make it to so many Olympic games?

A: I’ve always been an athlete: I started swimming when I was six. But there are things I have given up. I don’t go on vacations every year. And if friends go to Tahoe for the weekend, I can’t go when I’m training. I’ve had to make sacrifices, but in the end, it’s all been worth it.


by Aaron Okayama

Q: You broke the American record for the 50–meter backstroke last June. How do you keep breaking records?

A: Learning is the biggest thing. I don’t dwell on what made me fast in the past. But I work to get faster by looking at subtle changes in my form and then constantly making tweaks. [My coach and I] watch video of races to see what worked and what didn’t. So I’m never resting on my laurels but constantly looking at how I can get better.


Q: How do you handle the pressure of competition?

A: Having a routine is the most important thing for me. I know exactly what time I need to start stretching, get in the pool to warm up, and get out of the water to put on my suit and get to the waiting room.

And I always have coffee. I get to the pool early so I can relax and have my sitting time before warm-ups. I can just sit there and have my coffee.


Q: What are you looking forward to in Rio?

A: Well, I haven’t qualified officially yet, so hopefully qualifying. [Laughs] I want to see Copacabana and go to a churrascaria for a good meal. Of course, I’ll do all this after competing.


Q: Will we see you at the Olympics in 2020?

A: You never know! I’ve learned not to make plans—to go with the flow.


by Aaron Okayama

The Synchro Duo

Mariya Koroleva  /  26 and Anita Alvarez  /  19
Team USA qualifiers

In the pool, they function as one, but on dry land, these teammates are very different people. We asked synchronized swimmers Mariya Koroleva—a member of the Walnut Creek Aquanuts—and Anita Alvarez, both representing Team USA in Rio, a few questions to see just how in sync they really are.


Q: How did you get into synchronized swimming?

A: Mariya Koroleva: Six months after I moved to the United States from Russia, I saw a flier for a course in synchro with the Walnut Creek Aquanuts. After two weeks, I joined, and the rest is history.
Anita Alvarez: When I was six, I decided to try it in a summer program. I made my first USA National Team when I was 16 years old, the year I moved from New York to train out here in California.


Q: What goes on in your head when you are “in the zone” of competition?

A: Koroleva: If I ever start getting nervous or thinking that I’m tired, I just start counting the music. That usually gets me back on track.
Alvarez: I am constantly thinking of certain corrections, but I also try to remember to swim from my heart and not be a robot going through the routine.


Q: Finish this sentence: When I’m not training, I . . .

A: Koroleva: cross-stitch.
Alvarez: watch a movie.


Q: What’s your favorite movie?

A: Koroleva: Step Brothers.
Alvarez: Whiplash.


Q: Favorite East Bay restaurant?

A: Koroleva: The Counter in Walnut Creek.
Alvarez: Lettuce in Walnut Creek.


Q:  Athletes have to make sacrifices when training. What are you most looking forward to after the Olympics are over?

A: Koroleva: Taking a vacation somewhere tropical and seeing my family in Russia.
Alvarez: Going home to see my family for the first time in eight months.


Q: What do you like most about your teammate?

A: Koroleva: We have fun but can still push each other during training.
Alvarez: We have a bond that is needed to help us swim well together in our routines. —Rachelle Cihonski


courtesy of U.S. Rowing

The Rower

Kara Kohler  /  25
Olympic bronze medalist

This isn’t Kara Kohler’s first stab at the Olympics, and rowing wasn’t her first sport. Clayton’s Kohler was a competitive swimmer through high school and transitioned to rowing her first year at UC Berkeley. She was later invited to join Team USA for the 2012 Olympics in London, where her team took home the bronze.

Since graduating from Cal in 2014, Kohler’s full-time job has become rowing. From January to March, she trains in Chula Vista at the Olympic Training Center. The rest of the year, she trains in Princeton, New Jersey. The professional rower shared a day in her life.

5:30 a.m. When the alarm goes off, Kohler reluctantly gets out of bed. Despite more than 10 years of morning practice, the Olympic rower still isn’t used to the early wake-up call.

6:30 a.m. Within the hour, she has packed her practice gear, eaten an energy-fueled breakfast—oatmeal topped with coconut oil, berries, and nuts, and a cup of coffee—and is ready to head out the door.

7 a.m. First stop: a two-hour rowing session. Before Kohler jumps into the boat, she stretches and uses a foam roller to prepare her body for the work ahead, and for better recovery postworkout. “Recovery is just as important as the training hours we put in,” she says.

8 a.m. Time to row. Kohler’s position in the bow has her in charge of making logistical decisions, including steering calls when there are no buoys to mark the course. (They row backward, which increases the difficulty level.)

10:30 a.m. Morning practice wraps, and Kohler heads home to refuel with her second breakfast: eggs, sweet potatoes, and sometimes pancakes. Kohler has to be sure she is never calorie deficient, which can lead to poor performance and injury. She maintains a diet rich in protein and high in essential vitamins and minerals needed to recover and rebuild from the hard training.

11:30 a.m. Nap time. Then, a light lunch, such as a smoothie.

1 p.m. Back to the boathouse for a 90–minute row, but these practices aren’t always on the water. The team practices every day on the erg machine, indoor rowing equipment that increases fitness and allows athletes to get in a good rowing session even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.

3 p.m. A meal on the go—usually leftovers from the night before.

4 p.m. An hour of weightlifting to help build strength follows the afternoon row, and then Kohler ends her training day by stretching, and again using the foam roller on her tired muscles.

5 p.m. Kohler returns home for a warm meal and some rest time.

9:30 p.m. After a bedtime snack, it’s lights out.


by Peter H. Bick

The Perfect Diver

Kristian Ipsen  /  23
Olympic bronze medalist

Clayton-raised diver and Olympic bronze medal holder Kristian Ipsen is returning to the Olympic trials in hopes of competing in Rio, in both the solo and synchronized diving competitions. And while his dives take only seconds to execute, the prep work takes years. Here’s how Ipsen masters his perfect dives.

Put in some serious work
Mondays through Saturdays, Ipsen logs time both in the pool and on the ground to perfect his performance and fitness. Time in the pool is dedicated to dive work, but conditioning happens on dry land. Ipsen reports for core work and trampoline acrobatics to fine-tune his dives. And he’s made a new addition to the routine: yoga to keep him limber.

Face setbacks with a plan
After taking six months off from diving in 2014, Ipsen felt the pull of the high dive once more, and later that year, Ipsen returned to train for another shot at an Olympic appearance. But the plan didn’t unfold as expected: Ipsen was sidelined by a broken hand in September of 2015. Forced to spend two months out of the pool to recover, he turned his attention to what he could do. “I did a lot of training outside of the water as I was healing.” When nationals arrived, he was ready to compete, taking home two gold medals.

Tune it all out
“I don’t like to think too much,” says Ipsen. “If you think about too many things, you get caught up in it.” Ipsen considers one or two key points before he steps on the board. But once he walks out to begin his dive, Ipsen empties his mind. “When I was younger, it was harder. Now that I’m a more experienced competitor, I’m able to tune it all out.”

Save the best for last
Jumping on the trampoline as a young boy—with his parents watching nervously from the kitchen window—Ipsen taught himself the key dives he continues to use today. “I always end in a twist, and the reverse twist is one I’m most comfortable with,” he says. Because he thrives on the adrenaline rush that comes later in the competition, Ipsen likes to save his more complicated dives—like a twist—for the end. “If someone in front of me does an amazing dive, there’s more pressure on my next round. As the competition goes on, I do my harder dives to keep me excited.”

Enjoy it
The drive to make Team USA motivated Ipsen in his first shot on the Olympic stage. “I wanted it so badly; it was my reason for training every day,” he says. This time, he feels differently. “I’m enjoying the sport,” he says. “I’m at the tail end of my career, so I’m soaking it up.”

Make time for family—and guilty pleasures.
Whenever Ipsen makes it home from training at Stanford, the first thing he does is grab a pizza from Skipolini’s, his family’s pizzeria. His go-tos: the combo and the Hawaiian. “Usually, I get two individuals and eat them both.”


TYR Sport

The Comeback Kid

Dana Vollmer  /  28
Four-time olympic gold medalist

At age 16, Dana Vollmer won her first Olympic gold medal and helped set a world record in the 200–meter freestyle relay in 2004. At age 24, Vollmer won three more golds and set an individual world record at the 2012 Olympics. But in between highlights, the Danville swimmer faced challenges—including not making 2008’s Team USA. After retiring to start a family, she’s back in the pool, training for Rio. Vollmer shared with us why she loves to compete and what it takes to come back at age 28.

— “When I first started swimming, I loved being outside in the sun and spending time with my teammates. I have to remind myself of those things sometimes. If I need a mental break from an intense training session, I’ll go to the pool on a really sunny day and splash around. That rejuvenates me.“

— “Going into the 2008 trials, I crumbled under the pressure. I was more afraid of failing than I was excited. But that was the key to making it in 2012. I had to deal with the pressures and rediscover that childhood fun of being in the water, instead of viewing it as a way to fail.”

— “After 2008, I had to change the way I looked at the pressures and expectations people had of me. I had to simply embrace nerves and think of them as a good thing. I learned to say, ‘Oh, good. I’m nervous,’ not, ‘Oh, no. I’m nervous.’ ”

— “This time around, I feel that there is actually another layer of pressure removed. I retired, had my son, and now I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do in a year. Instead of swimming being my whole life, it is something I love and I get to do.”

— “The first swim back after two years out of the pool was humbling. Part of me still felt like the person that went 55 seconds and broke the world record [in the butterfly]. But then I got in my warm-up and started a pool session, and my body felt huge, and my arms felt like little toothpicks trying to pull me through the water. It’s good to reflect on that now to see how far I’ve come in eight months.”  

— “After all these years of training, I know my body better than I ever have before. I am in tune with knowing where I can push the limits and when my body needs rest. I want to go faster than I ever have before, but I’m doing it in a way that allows my body to respond.”

— “It’s hard to put into words what it’s like to win gold. Thinking about it gives me goose bumps. There aren’t many times in life when you get to say you are actually the best in the world at something. That feeling is what made me want to come back to the sport.”


Our New Favorite Event: Rhythmic Gymnastics

Gravity-defying flips and tumbles, artful ribbon twirling, and glittering leotards— those should be more than enough reasons for rhythmic gymnastics to be on your radar. The Olympic sport has long been a favorite in European countries, but this year, Team USA is making a name for itself—and it’s time we started paying attention.

Not only has the United States qualified for Rio in the group competition for only the second time in Olympic history, we could have an individual contender—for the first time since 2003.

To get some insight into sport, we chatted with Marina Shel Kolt, coach and owner of San Ramon’s American Academy of Rhythmic Gymnastics, who shared with us what it takes to be a rhythmic gymnast. arclub.net.

1. The costumes are not only amazing, they serve a purpose. Each solo athlete chooses her own costume as a way to set herself apart from the competition and express herself in the performance.

2. Rhythmic gymnasts perform from the moment they begin to walk to the performance floor until they walk off to return to the waiting room. Notice the confident swagger as each gymnast approaches the floor. It’s all part of
the routine.

3. After each Olympic competition, the rules change a little bit. As the athletes conquer more difficult moves, the level of difficulty rises.

4. Rhythmic gymnastics requires more than just athletic ability. With a combination of dance, ballet, and tumbling training—in addition to hand-eye coordination and quick thinking—rhythmic gymnastics is one of the more complicated sports in the Olympics.

5. The control the gymnasts have over each piece of equipment used in the Olympic competition—a hoop, a ball, a set of clubs, and the recognizable ribbon—displays their athletic and reactive abilities. And each element, in addition to the gymnast, must stay in constant motion during the routine. Shel Kolt’s favorite: the clubs, which she finds to be the most playful piece.


Tod Fierner/SMC Athletics

Keep an Eye on: More East Bay Alums

Team Cal: Watch for now-professional Missy Franklin’s performances in both the 100– and 200–meter backstroke. And fellow Cal alum Nathan Adrian will most likely gun for more medals in his signature freestyle events.

Team Basketball: Five of our hometown Warriors are on the potential roster for Team USA, which will be finalized in June. Team Australia will most likely pick up a few Saint Mary’s alums to boost their roster: Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova. And Stanford alums, and sisters, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike hope to join Team USA’s women’s basketball team.

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