Why So Many Olympians Come From San Francisco

brandi chastain

Let’s call it the Bay Area Games.

When the Olympic flame comes to life Friday, 71 athletes with local ties will be wearing the red, white and blue. That’s more than 13 per cent of the U.S. delegation, and it doesn’t even include an additional 36 athletes with Bay Area ties who will be competing for other countries.

The Bay Area long has been an incubator of Olympic dreams. If we were a country — say, the Bay Area Republic — we would be a force.

Four years ago at the Beijing Olympics, Bay Area athletes accounted for 24 medals. That total would have tied us with Cuba for 12th among nations, ranking ahead of Canada, Spain and Brazil. Our seven gold medals equaled the number earned by France, a country of 65 million — 58 million more than the Bay Area.

The medal haul is rooted in the region’s postcard weather, first-class training facilities and a competitive culture that breeds excellence.

“The Bay Area is the perfect combination of climate and outdoor space,” said Heather Petri, a water polo player from Orinda headed to her fourth Olympics. “It invigorates you to try sports. People flock here because of the opportunities.”

In San Francisco, there is a 570-foot hill above Ashbury Heights called Mount Olympus. The name symbolizes the games’ link to the Bay Area, which is also a prime Olympic breeding ground for another reason: location. The naturally controlled thermostat makes most days in the Bay Area “play days” as

athletes head out to the pools, tracks, waterways and trails to train.

“We have an environment where we’re blessed geographically,” said Brandi Chastain, the San Jose soccer icon who won three Olympic medals. “It encourages us to be outside playing. Our kids really have opportunities to participate when they’re young and have the chance to fall in love with sports. And we have parents who encourage it because they see the values of sports.”

It’s also not just the stick-and-ball games of football, baseball and basketball.

“I think there are more opportunities to pursue activities that aren’t necessarily mainstream — diving, gymnastics, fencing,” said Olympic diver Cassidy Krug, a Stanford University graduate from suburban Pittsburgh. “The number of successful Olympic athletes here creates publicity for Olympic sports, so kids get excited to try different things.”

And a new crop of potential Olympians is born. Or, like Krug, they migrate here. It has been happening for decades.

In the 1960s, San Jose and Santa Clara stood as the nation’s hotbeds for track and swimming. Former San Jose State coach Bud Winter created “Speed City” by attracting some of the world’s most famous runners, including 1968 Olympians John Carlos, Lee Evans and Tommie Smith.

A decade later the South Bay earned the handle “Weight City” when San Jose cop John Powell joined forces with Mac Wilkins and Al Feuerbach to establish a robust throwing community. Their success attracted Bruce Jenner — known these days as the father figure in the Kardashian family reality series — to San Jose City College, and he made the area his training ground for the Olympic decathlon title in 1976.

Meanwhile, George Haines was laying a foundation for aquatic excellence up the road at the Santa Clara Swim Club he launched in 1950. The seven-time U.S. Olympic coach produced 26 Olympians including Donna de Varona and Mark Spitz, the greatest male swimmer in U.S. history until Michael Phelps came along.

We’ve also been a figure skating centre for the Winter Olympics thanks to the likes of champions Peggy Fleming and Kristi Yamaguchi.

But the main twin engines of Olympic success over the years have been the athletic programs at Stanford and Cal.

Stanford recently claimed its 18th consecutive Directors’ Cup as the NCAA’s top athletic department thanks in large part to its success in traditional Olympic sports. Across the bay in Berkeley, Cal’s campus resembles a mini-Olympic complex with its outstanding training facilities.

Elite athletes from around the world gather at both schools to train with coaches such as Cal’s Teri McKeever, who will be overseeing the U.S. women’s swim team in London.

It helps explain how two of the most decorated women athletes in U.S. Olympic history have Bay Area connections. Stanford swimmer Jenny Thompson won 12 medals during a career that spanned four Olympics, tying her for the most ever. And Cal product Natalie Coughlin heads to London having already won 11 medals.

Athletes embrace the competitive juices that bubble up when so much talent is placed in such proximity — and not just sporting talent.

“I always thought it was awesome to be surrounded by incredible people who excelled in all different areas,” Krug said. “At Stanford, my classmates included concert musicians, textbook writers, novelists and inventors, in addition to some of the best athletes in the country. The common themes were drive and motivation, and I think that atmosphere helps to foster excellence, no matter what your goals are.”

In other words, the same ingredients that have transformed the Bay Area into the world’s high-tech leader also help make it an Olympic juggernaut.

Kevin Compton, the well-known venture capitalist and Sharks co-owner, sees a direct comparison between the mindset of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and elite athletes.

“Anything is possible,” the self-described Olympics junkie said. “It’s about suspending disbelief. It’s about lots and lots of hard work and overcoming adversities. I’ve never seen any Olympic athlete get on a track and say, ‘Wow, I am the fastest in the world.’ That’s just not how it works, and that’s not how it works when you start a company.”

It’s also about innovation. Consider how mountain biking, now a popular Olympic sport, originally got its start on the trails of Marin County.

“People here are driven by the possibility of what could be, not as much by what already exists,” said Chastain, who will be a broadcaster in London. “They want to push beyond what’s already here and create the next big thing. It’s how Northern California is recognised all over the world.”

Now a mother, Chastain is hoping that athletic spirit spreads to other parts of the country.

“In the long run, it’s not about how many Olympians we have, although that’s nice,” she added. “It’s about a healthier lifestyle for the entire country.”

But for now the attention turns to Bay Area athletes, including an additional 11 alternates. Some could end up winning America’s heart, such as Clayton diver Kristian Ipsen or young Alexander Massialas, our 18-year-old fencer from San Francisco.

And Compton, who helped launch Google, Amazon and AOL, is ready for a new undertaking. This one involves a sense of regional pride and a lot of chutzpah. But it’s no more radical than any other idea hatched in Silicon Valley.

“Let’s secede from the Olympic union and form our own country — and go get them,” Compton said.

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