Villanova alumni stride into Athens

Courtney Scrib

Although more than 5,000 miles separate the two locations, Athens felt particularly close to home for Villanova this summer as it saw four of its alumnae compete in the Olympic Games. All four athletes participating were former Wildcat track and field stars and NCAA champions.

By being named to their respective Olympic teams, Carmen Douma-Hussar (Canada), Sonia O’Sullivan (Ireland), Jen Rhines and Carrie Tollefson (both United States) continued Villanova’s long tradition of Olympic success. There has been a Villanovan in every summer Olympics since 1948, and since 1988 at least one Villanovan woman athlete has competed in the summer games. In its history, which dates back to 1908 with J.E. O’Connell, the school has produced 47 Olympians and collected 12 medals, including eight gold and four silver.

“Having our runners in the Olympics speaks a lot of the tradition and program,” head track and field coach Gina Procaccio said, “and not just of track and field but of all Villanova athletics.”

Making her fourth consecutive appearance in an Olympiad, O’Sullivan was the most experienced of all the former Villanovans competing this year.

After qualifying for the finals of the 5,000 meters, she finished in 14th place with a time of 16:20.90. In the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, O’Sullivan (’91) became the first Villanova female to earn an Olympic medal when she took silver in that same event.

The 1,500 meter run featured both Douma-Hussar and Tollefson. One successful race after another led Douma-Hussar to her first Olympics finals. According to Procaccio, during the finals the current Wildcat assistant track coach thought she was running slower than usual.

Nevertheless, she ended up finishing ninth and beating her best time by over two and a half seconds.

“You couldn’t ask for anything more,” Procaccio said.

To further add to her achievement, Douma-Hussar had never competed in an international outdoor race before coming to Athens. Procaccio has no doubt that with more experience, her friend and colleague will pull away with the lead pack in the next Olympics.

Tollefson (’99), a native of Dawson, Minn., was not added to the U.S. Olympics team until two weeks before she was due to compete in Athens.

Running as the only U.S. entrant in the 1,500m race, Tollefson made an impressive showing, placing ninth in her semifinal heat (4:08.55).

Meanwhile in the women’s marathon, Rhines (’96) placed 34th overall (out of 82 participants) in a time of 2:43.52. It was only her fourth marathon.

The success of the former Villanovans comes at no surprise for the coaches and others who have followed their running careers.

“They were and still are very driven and committed athletes,” Procaccio said, “[and] I expect to see them in four years doing even better.”

The Olympic journey has been rewarding, not only for the athletes themselves but for those watching them, as well.

“[Seeing former Villanovan athletes in the Olympics] is a big motivation for the girls on the team,” Procaccio said. “I tell them all the time that that could be them.”

On Oct. 23, the Villanova Athletics Department will honor its Olympic history by inviting back all Villanova alums who have competed or coached in the Olympics for the “Villanova Olympian Gala.”