The 2016 Rio Olympic Games have been received by athletes with trepidation and anxiety thanks to the spread of the Zika virus over the past few months. Add that problem to the budget shortfalls and the polluted waters in Brazil, and you will find more than a few raised eyebrows. It is completely understandable that a higher amount of athletes than one might expect have passed on representing their respective countries this August.
Fortunately, Tar Heel fans will see plenty of familiar faces- seventeen to be exact. Competing across six disciplines, and representing four countries.
We have already covered the U.S. Women's Soccer Team here and here. However, Whitney Engen, Crystal Dunn, Allie Long, Meaghan Klingenberg, Tobin Heath, Ashlyn Harris (alternate), and Heather O'Reilly (alternate), are not the only women's soccer players to wear their country's colors on the soccer (football?) pitch.
Katie Bowen, who completed her senior season last fall, will represent New Zealand. This will technically be her second Olympics, having been a 2012 alternate in London for the "Football Ferns". She also was a member of the New Zealand 2015 Women's World Cup team. Ardent UNC soccer fans may best remember her tallying with the assist to the game-winning goal against Penn State in the 2012 NCAA Championship game.
Perhaps just as impressive, however, is the U.S. Field Hockey team selecting five UNC alumnae to their roster. Caitlin Van Sickle and Kelsey Kolojejchick were named to their first Olympics, while Jackie Briggs broke through to the main roster this year after being an alternate in 2012. Rachel Dawson and Katelyn Falgowski both become three-time Olympians with their selection this year.
The U.S. Women's Field Hockey Team has struggled in Olympic competition having not earned a medal since 1984 when they won Bronze. Nevertheless, all five Tar Heels bring either international success from other competition, such as the Pan Am Games, and multiple NCAA Championship experience.
Switching over to the basketball court, the UNC Women's Basketball program will be represented by former ACC standout LaToya Pringles Sanders. The 2008 WNBA #13 overall pick has spent the last six seasons in Turkey, where she obtained Turkish citizenship. Thus, she will be representing Turkey on the hardwood this summer. It is not uncommon for athletes to be awarded dual citizenship for the purposes of participating in international competition. Sanders will be making her first appearance in the Olympics.
The other Olympian in a team sport, Harrison Barnes for Men's Basketball, is coming off a successful stint for the Golden State Warriors, where he won one NBA Championship (2015), and participated in another (2016). His selection is his first and the first for a former UNC basketball player since Vince Carter in 2000.
If you are a frequent participant on twitter (Twitterer? Tweeter?), you would have realized Barnes was perhaps one of the more surprising selections to the roster, after experiencing a rough shooting slump in the NBA Finals this year. However, he brings a versatility that few players currently possess, and as the game of basketball evolves, more coaches and teams are beginning to understand the value of that versatility. Fresh off signing a maximum four-year contract worth $94.4 million, he will be eager to prove his worth at the earliest possible moment.
UNC also has two representatives in Track and Field. Shalane Flanagan is competing in her fourth consecutive Olympics. In 2016 she will compete in the Marathon for the second straight Olympics. In 2008 she earned a Bronze medal in the 10,000m event. She competed in the 5,000m event in both 2004 and 2008. While at UNC she was a two-time NCAA Cross Country Champion, and holds numerous U.S. women's records. Flanagan also has won numerous national titles in both road racing and US track and field events. Distance running tends to be a sport that is favors those with experience and extensive miles in their legs, and Flanagan could be an outside contender for a medal after finishing 10th in 2012.
Finally, UNC's second track and field athlete is also competing in his fourth consecutive Olympics. Vikas Gowda will represent his home country of India. While at UNC, Gowda won the 2006 NCAA Championship in the discus event. He has replicated that success at the 2013 and 2015 Asian Games, and the 2014 Commonwealth Games. That success has not transferred to the Olympics (yet!), but the past few years prove that his skills haven't deteriorated.
When the 2016 Olympics kick off, UNC will be well represented with a mix of Olympic veterans and first timers. Some will earn a medal, and others unfortunately will not. Regardless, some of these events represent the pinnacle of their given sport, and they should all be commended. These athletes will proudly display the colors of their home countries.
I just hope that they have some Carolina Blue in their suitcase as well.
Go Heels. Go America. (And New Zealand. And Turkey. And India).