Former Wildcats head to Beijing

Thomas Celona

Every four years, one event has the power to bring the whole world together for two weeks. Crowded around TV sets all over the globe, people focus in as the best of the best compete in the Summer Olympics …

This year, the world watched as the Games played out in China in one of the most riveting spectacles in both sports and culture. And as the eyes of the world looked upon Beijing, Villanova found a place in the spotlight yet again. Three athletes represented ‘Nova Nation at the 29th Summer Olympiad, continuing a strong Villanova tradition.

As the Beijing Olympics kicked off with the events in the Water Cube, one Wildcat was right in the mix, competing in her first Olympiad. Kristina Lennox, a 2007 Villanova graduate, represented Puerto Rico and swam in both the 200-meter butterfly and 400-meter freestyle events. While she did not qualify for the final race of either event, Lennox’s performance at the Olympics was the culmination of years of hard work and exemplary swimming.

Lennox had a standout career during her time as a Wildcat. In 2007, she won the Big East title in the 200-meter butterfly – a championship that had she nearly claimed in years previous. She then capped off her Villanova swimming career by being named the season’s MVP.

Lennox was able to share her experience in Beijing with her younger brother Doug, who also competed in the pool for Puerto Rico, swimming in qualifying heats in both the 100- and 200-meter butterfly. After he joined the Puerto Rican national team, Lennox was contacted by the team and was asked to compete alongside her brother.

While Lennox was the first Wildcat to compete in Beijing, Villanova was also well represented as action shifted to the track and field events at the Bird’s Nest. Adrian Blincoe, Class of ’03, also competed in his first Olympiad this year after just barely missing out on the Athens games four years beforehand. Blincoe missed the qualifying time for the 5,000-meter run in 2004 by a mere 0.3 seconds, a near-miss he was determined not to repeat. Earlier this year, Blincoe ran a qualifying time of 13:10.19, setting a national record for his home country of New Zealand in the process. In Beijing, Blincoe placed 27th in the qualifying round of the 5,000-meter run.

By reaching the Olympics, Blincoe achieved a goal he has been dreaming of for the past decade, building upon a history of great achievements in track and field. During his time as a student at Villanova, Blincoe competed in cross country and both indoor and outdoor track. He was a seven-time All-American and claimed three NCAA championships. Blincoe also set the Wildcat record for the 3,000-meter run, which he still holds. Blincoe has continued his success with Villanova track beyond graduation, joining the team as an assistant coach in 2006. He currently helps with recruitment and training for the team, along with his own training with Head Coach Marcus O’Sullivan, who is a four-time Olympian himself.

The final Wildcat to hit the track in Beijing was Jen Rhines, one of the most celebrated athletes to come out of Villanova. This year marked Rhines’ third consecutive appearance at the Summer Games. What makes that achievement even more remarkable is the fact that she has qualified for a different event each time. In 2000, Rhines ran in the 10,000-meter run in Sydney, which she followed up four years later by running in the marathon in Athens. This year, Rhines competed in the 5,000-meter run. Rhines had a stellar performance, qualifing for the final race among a field of over 30 runners and placing 14th in the final.

Rhines, who graduated in 1996, has earned a place on the Villanova Wall of Fame for her excellent performances both after graduation and while she attended the University. Rhines won five individual NCAA titles, including three straight in the 5,000-meter event. She was also honored in 1994 with the Honda-Broderick Award for cross country, a prize given to the top female collegiate athlete in each sport.

With their achievements in Beijing, Blincoe, Lennox and Rhines continued a Villanova Olympic tradition that dates back 100 years. In 1908, J.E. O’Connell became the first Wildcat to compete in the Olympics, participating in the long jump in London. After O’Connell, there was a bit of a drought, until 40 years later when the games were again held in London. Five Villanovans competed in track and field events at the 1948 Games, and since then, each Summer Olympiad has featured at least one Villanova athlete. In total, 53 Wildcats have competed in the Summer Games, claiming nine gold and four silver metals.

Villanova first struck gold in 1956, when Ron Delany won the 1,500-meter run and Charlie Jenkins claimed two first-place finishes in the 400-meter run and the 1,600-meter relay. The most recent Wildcat to stand atop the Olympic podium was ’92 grad Mike Neill. Neill took home the hardware as a member of the U.S. baseball team in 200 and was instrumental in the win, hitting what turned out to be the gold medal-winning home run in the first inning of the 4-0 victory over Cuba.

So as the world watched and the best athletes in the world battled it out, Villanova was right in the thick of it all – just as it has been for 60 straight years. And if history is any indicator, the 2012 games in London wouldn’t be complete without even more Wildcats going after gold.