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Irish Olympians: 'Let's Do It Again'

Oct. 15, 2016

By John Heisler

They ranged from 2016 University of Notre Dame graduate and track and field standout Margaret Bamgbose all the way to fencer Mariel Zagunis, a comparative grizzled veteran who already has competed in four Summer Olympic Games and won the same number of medals.

Yet, no matter where they stood in their respective lives and careers, they shared a common bond.

Five former Irish student-athletes spent Friday evening in the Purcell Pavilion Monogram Room, offering their thoughts on their 2016 Olympic experiences in Rio de Janeiro.

And, whether that was their first taste of the Olympics-or, for Zagunis, her fourth-the consensus opinion was that they can’t wait to do it all over again.

Notre Dame had 12 participants in the 2016 Summer Games-10 competitors and two coaches. Six of those individuals returned to be honored this weekend by the Notre Dame Monogram Club and the athletics department–and they’ll be recognized Saturday night during the Notre Dame-Stanford football game.

All five present Friday night suggested they are not yet ready to stop competing.

Said fencer Kelley Hurley (a 2010 Notre Dame graduate), who helped the United States epee team take fifth in Rio, “If I do go to Tokyo (in 2020), I will think back to Beijing when I was young and did not know what to expect. In London I got a bronze (in team epee), and I thought I should really just quit while I’m ahead. Then I thought, I really don’t want to be an adult yet. What’s the rush? So I decided to try for Rio. Then Rio just left me hungry for more. I feel like I can accomplish more ââ’¬” there’s more out there.”

Gerek Meinhardt, a 2013 graduate, helped the U.S. foil team win a fencing bronze in Rio.

“I was 10th in Beijing and I didn’t belong on the podium,” he said. “I got off the strip knowing I had so much work to do. I came right to Notre Dame then for freshman orientation. In London we finished fourth in the team competition, I was coming off knee surgery and I didn’t qualify individually. So I was still really motivated for Rio. This time I qualified for both the team and individual and I finished fifth individually and won bronze in team.

“I thought sure I’d retire after Rio but, after doing as well as I did, I think I have the potential to do even better. That’s going be hard to make that decision.”

Offered Bamgbose, who advanced to the 400 meter semifinals while running for Nigeria in Rio, “That was my first Olympic experience, so I feel like, ‘Why not go for another one or two?’ I know I can do more. It makes be want to try again. I feel like I’m not done yet.”

Even two-time gold-medal winner Zagunis isn’t ready to walk away from her sport:

“People say to me, ‘You’ve won everything there is to win in fencing. When is enough going to be enough?’ But it’s never enough. You always want to keep winning, even if you are at the top of your game. If you win the Olympics, you want to win again. There’s always something more to strive for. You never have an identical day. There’s always something you can improve upon.

“Tokyo seems like a long time from now, but I’m still hungry for more. I know I have more in me, and I’m not going to quit. Age has nothing to do with it. You have to seize the moment when it’s fresh.”

Said 2008 graduate Polk (she helped the U.S. eight boat take gold in Rio): “My London experience kept me humble to find the next level. The most dangerous athletes are the ones who fall and the ones who are hungry. I can attest to that. Over the last four years I overcame a lot of obstacles. There’s so much sacrifice, time and energy. It really is a lifestyle, and for me it was so overwhelmingly wonderful to reach my goal. I had a moment in Rio when I was at the starting line, I saw the statue of Christ the Redeemer in the distance and I thought, ‘God, Country, Notre Dame–here I come.'”

All five Olympians appreciate what their Notre Dame experiences have contributed to their success.

Said Hurley, “I had not been very aware of Notre Dame until I received a scholarship. I’ve had so many people send me letters and support that offered help–it’s been a great experience. Such an awesome family. I’m full of warm memories. It’s hard to describe the feeling to people who haven’t been to Notre Dame. These Ohio State people or Penn State people just don’t understand what it’s really like.”

Added Meinhardt: “I really haven’t left Notre Dame. I was here as an undergraduate, came back for graduate school, went to Rio and I’m back again now working for the University. It just had a huge impact on me personally.”

Bamgbose received tangible assistance from her alma mater.

“I really saw the support of the Notre Dame family when I was trying to raise funds this summer so my family could come to Rio and see me compete,” she said. “My mom and brother were able to come to Rio, and I owe a lot of that to Notre Dame.”

Said Zagunis, “The first time I set foot on this campus was a little over 12 years ago. I always come back and always feel the support.”

Polk experienced the extremes of emotion along the way:

“There is a special spirit to the Notre Dame network. For me it’s been very apparent for me, especially in the hard times. Leading to London I had great success and my Notre Dame coaches were very supportive. But I didn’t make a boat in London and went as an alternate. Being on the sidelines was a very difficult time for me.

“I came back to Notre Dame and my coaches helped me regroup and get going again. Because I was convinced I was done. I was convinced my dream was shot. They helped me re-motivate myself and give it another try. The Fighting Irish are with you in good times and bad.”

Polk’s Rio experience literally left a mark on her.

“I made a promise to myself that if I made a boat and competed in the Olympics that I would get the five (Olympic) rings tattoo. It was about five or six weeks after returning from Rio, and I was with my sister and one of my teammates. I just decided it was time. We were in Florida, and it was crazy because the tattoo artist was from Brazil. It was a very in-the-moment, meant-to-be experience.

“Tears started coming down my face when they were doing it and my sister thought that it was hurting me and I said, ‘No, this is nothing.’ I was experiencing my journey all over again and you realize how much work and sacrifice there is and all the support you have along the way.”

Zagunis also had the opportunity to experience yet another Olympic high point in London where she was the U.S. flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony.

“I knew the fencing representative was going to the meeting to put in my name, but I really didn’t think I had a chance. There were so many incredible athletes on Team USA. But I did have a pretty good story, a pretty good record. To be selected by your peers-that was one of the most amazing, humbling experiences of my life. You are the representation of all the dreams of those walking behind you. It’s kind of a blur-I smiled a lot and focused on not tripping.”

Former Irish volleyball standout Angie Akers (she helped coach the Netherlands beach volleyball team in Rio) will be recognized Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium along with Polk, Zagunis, Meinhardt, Hurley and Bamgbose.

The six other Notre Dame Rio Olympians unable to return this weekend are Natalie Achonwa (she helped Canada to the women’s basketball quarterfinals), Molly Huddle (she set an American record in taking sixth in the 10,000 meters), Courtney Hurley (she competed in the individual and team epee in fencing), Lee Kiefer (she participated in the individual foil fencing competition), Melissa Tancredi (she played for the Canada women’s soccer squad) and Monty Williams (he was an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s basketball team that won gold).

Tokyo, here they come.

Not done yet.