Water Polo

COVID-19 pandemic creates added challenges for USC Olympians

The university’s storied Olympic tradition lives on in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You may have heard the statistic that if California was a country, it would have the fifth largest GDP in the world. Here’s another one: If USC was a country, it would have the 13th most Olympic medals in the world.

The four biggest California schools top the list of American universities with Olympic medals with Stanford, UCLA and Cal trailing Southern Cal. California is a breeding ground for Olympic prospects, but USC especially.

So what makes the Golden State so appealing to Olympic prospects?

Southern California has an ideal climate for preventing and recovering from injuries. Athletes can train outdoors all year in a beautiful setting without the humidity of, say, Florida. Plus, a school like USC has the resources for facilities that attract Olympic-caliber athletes.

The track at Cromwell Field, within the heart of USC’s campus, was completely resurfaced before the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, at no cost to the university. Uytengsu Aquatics Center, also on campus, was originally built for the 1984 Olympics. It is now used by USC’s swim and dive and water polo teams.

But USC’s Olympic history begins long before the state-of-the-art facilities.

The Trojans have a history of outstanding coaches, particularly in track and field, swimming and water polo. One of the most known is the namesake of USC’s on-campus track and field stadium, Dean Cromwell, who coached from 1909 to 1948.

He was one of the first coaches in the sport to recruit. Most others at the time simply took “whoever showed up,” said Rich Perelman, founder and editor-in-chief of the online blog Sports Examiner. In 1912, during the first Olympic Games of Cromwell’s tenure, in Stockholm, he already had a 110-metres hurdles Olympic champion in Fred Kelly. “That kind of stuff makes a difference [in recruiting],” Perelman said.

Soon after, in the 1920 Antwerp Games, Charley Paddock became the fastest human alive. Trojan athletes have won a gold medal at every Summer Olympics since 1912. Australian swimmer Michelle Ford even won gold in the 1980 Moscow Games that the United States boycotted.

One of the most famous USC Olympians never actually wore the cardinal and gold for USC. Allyson Felix was the first significant female high school runner to turn pro straight out of high school. Adidas, her sponsor at the time, paid for her to go to USC, Perelman said. Despite being a USC alumna with a degree in elementary education, Felix never ran for USC. In fact, she trained at UCLA’s Drake Stadium, Perelman said.

These Trojan Olympians walk around campus like everyone else. Well, except in an Olympic year (or two).

Last year, after finishing her sophomore year, water polo player Paige Hauschild used an Olympic redshirt to train full time with the U.S. women’s national team in Los Alamitos, California, about 45 minutes south of campus. That meant seven hours a day, five days a week for an entire year leading up to the would-have-been 2020 Tokyo Games.

About 18 players, four of whom were Trojans, were competing for 13 spots on the final roster.

It was a risk to dedicate a year of her life to a team she might get cut from. “We were supposed to find out the team soon, everything was lined up, we were on the home stretch,” Hauschild said. “It was really frustrating to have all of that taken away from us after a lot of us had sacrificed so much.”

Hauschild had planned to graduate from USC in five years. Now, it will be six as she puts her life on hold for one more year to chase her Olympic dream.

For swimmer Alexei Sancov, though, having the Games postponed until 2021 after weeks of uncertainty was a relief. When the world seemingly shut down in March, he contacted every gym and pool in the Bay Area, where his family lives, explaining that he was training for the Olympics and asking to use its facilities.

His motivation grew lower with each passing day. “I started getting a lot of anxiety and feeling useless,” he said. “I’m trying so hard to find something and I can’t and I’m running out of time.”

When the International Olympic Committee announced in late March that the Games would be postponed until July 2021, Sancov could focus on his mind and his health.

Having already swum in the 2016 Rio Games for his home country, Moldova, Sancov’s Olympic ambitions were a huge reason for choosing USC. He didn’t visit any other schools and committed to the Trojans before taking a recruiting trip. He knew USC’s reputation.

The Olympic dream was also a huge reason for Hauschild’s commitment to the Trojans. “I wanted to be surrounded by girls who were just as committed as I was, to have teammates and coaches who were going to get me to where I needed to be in order to make the national team,” she said. “I felt like USC was most suited for that.”

Playing for USC is “so special,” Hauschild said, and she cherishes winning the NCAA championship with her team in 2018. “That was honestly one of the most fun and exciting and proud moments of my water polo career. But I do want an Olympic gold more than anything.”