By Tamira Madsen
Competing in the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of an athlete’s career.
With the pandemic hitting full force in 2020, the 2020 Summer Olympics* — which were to take place in July 2020 — were postponed until July 2021. With this delay, athletes worldwide had to regroup and keep their training momentum going for another year.
For a mid-sized Midwestern city, Madison has no shortage of awe-inspiring female athletes who are past Olympians or are giving it a shot in 2021. Here, we tell stories of Madison’s Olympic hopefuls, as well as past and present Olympians.
*Note the 2020 Summer Olympics are being held in 2021, but are still officially referred to as the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The splendor of winning a medal at the Olympic Games is an experience like no other.
Elite athletes devote their lives and train for these moments. They stand on a medal podium in front of their country’s flag and soak up the triumphant celebration.
The Olympic ties that bind Wisconsin and Madison female athletes are one and the same. They toil tirelessly for the love of their sport, and aspirations are realized when they reach their athletic pinnacles.
One athlete that trained close to home for a shot at the Olympics is Madison native Beata Nelson, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2020. The 22-year-old is working with the Badgers swim team and was also coached in the past by Shane Ryan — who co-founded the Madison Aquatic Club with his wife, Carly Piper Ryan — and Janis Katz.
To increase her chances at making the Olympics, Nelson attempted to qualify in multiple events at the 2020 Olympic Team Trials on June 13-20 in Omaha, Nebraska. She competed in the 100M backstroke, 200M backstroke, 100M butterfly, 200M individual medley (IM) and the 100M freestyle. (See sidebar, P. 54).
With the pandemic, the Madison resident’s college and Olympic pursuits were cut short in 2020 when the NCAA swimming championships were canceled and the Olympics postponed, but Nelson put the disappointment aside to condition for the Olympics in 2021.
Nelson already has a legendary swim career and family ties to the sport. Her father, Andy Nelson, also swam for the Badgers. She started swimming at the age of 6 at Ridgewood Pool, a private facility on Madison’s southwest side.
She joined the swim club at the YMCA, with Shane Ryan as her coach, and eventually flourished as a high school athlete. She won 12 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 1 state swimming titles with Verona-Mount Horeb’s swim team. Nelson proceeded to UW-Madison, where she claimed three individual NCAA titles in the 100-yard backstroke, 200-yard backstroke and 200-yard IM events. Besides Shane, Nelson attributes Badgers swimming coach Yuri Suguiyama and his staff for helping her achieve success in her swim career.
Though it was tough to be prohibited from the pool for a period during the pandemic, the Olympics postponement was helpful for Nelson in one way: She now trains in the brand- new Soderholm Family Aquatic Center at UW–Madison’s University Recreation and Wellbeing building, which has a 50-meter pool. The Center opened in September 2020 and replaced the old Southeast Recreation Facility on Dayton Street.
One adjustment for Nelson has been swimming in a long-course Olympic distance pool at the 50-meter length, as opposed to collegiate and high school events, which take place in short- course pools that are a 25-yard distance.
She says she has enjoyed the all-encompasing aspect and intensity of her training regimen. Nelson spends six to seven hours each day working out, swimming twice per day three days a week, and does a longer swim workout the other three days a week. She also lifts weights three days a week.
“It’s all about feeling your body and preparing, but also keeping your mindset right, being excited, having fun and not letting the pressure dictate how you’re training or what you’re preparing for,” Nelson says. “I love the sport of swimming. It’s definitely a grind. It’s definitely hard. In the peak of training when things are tough, you have to remind yourself what you’re doing it for.”
Post-Olympics training, Nelson anticipates continuing to swim at the professional level with the International Swimming League (ISL). She earned money by participating in races in Budapest, Hungary, for a couple months last winter with a California-based ISL team.
Nelson, who obtained a psychology degree in 2020, says ISL has been a good development since financial assistance and earning a living can be tough as a professional swimmer, unless you’re a USA Swimming national team member. She also wants to try to make another run at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
When her competitive career is finished, Nelson foresees attending graduate school and potentially working as a sports psychologist.
Former Badgers soccer star Rose Lavelle, 26, will be a key player when the U.S. women’s national soccer team plays its first Olympic match on July 21 against Sweden. (The soccer portion of the Olympics begins two days before the Opening Ceremony.) This will be the first Olympic Games for Lavelle, a Cincinnati native.
Lavelle competed with Manchester City in England this season before returning to America and the OL Reign, a squad in the National Women’s Soccer League. The Reign are based in Tacoma, Washington.
Lavelle scored a goal against the Netherlands to help lift the U.S. to a 2-0 victory in the World Cup Final in July 2019. She received the Bronze Ball trophy in that tournament and was also named the sixth best player in the world at The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019.
Prior to her professional career, the midfielder played with the Badgers from 2013-16 and earned first-team All-American honors from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America as a junior in 2015. Lavelle obtained a sociology degree from UW–Madison in 2017. She served as commencement speaker for UW-Madison’s virtual winter commencement this past December.
Carly Piper Ryan
Swimmer Carly Piper Ryan (formerly Carly Piper) was a UW–Madison student when she won a gold medal in the 4x200M freestyle relay at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, with her teammates Natalie Coughlin, Kaitlin Sandeno and Dana Vollmer.
Not only did Ryan and her teammates win the 800M freestyle relay, they also broke a world record with a finish of 7 minutes, 53.42 seconds. The previous record was 7 minutes, 55.80 seconds by East Germany in 1987. That 2004 record by the U.S. women’s relay has since been shattered many times.
“Going to the Olympics was always something I wanted to do ever since I was little and the dream kept growing, [getting] closer and closer every Olympic year,” says Ryan, a Michigan native, who grew up swimming in youth summer clubs, year- round competitions and high school.
Ryan swam in Athens prior to her senior season at UW–Madison, where she earned Big Ten Conference swimmer of the year accolades in 2003 and 2005.
Now when she watches the Olympics, she gets emotional. Television highlights of the opening ceremony, medal celebrations and athlete profiles are moments that she fondly recalls.
“It always makes me tear up a little bit, too,” Ryan says. “It’s so cheesy, but I did that too.”
Ryan retired from professional swimming in 2008, shortly after failing to qualify in the 200M freestyle at the 2008 Olympic trials. She didn’t make the finals.
She works as a unit clerk at Group Health Cooperative and is raising two young daughters in Madison with her husband, Shane. (Shane was also a collegiate swimmer at UW-La Crosse). The Ryans also own the Madison Aquatic Club in Madison, a swim club for all ages and abilities, from parent- child swim classes up to high school and collegiate level training.
Waukesha native Gwen Jorgensen won a gold medal in the women’s triathlon in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Summer Olympics. The competition consists of a 1.5K swim, a 40K bike race and a 10K run. She’s the only American athlete, female or male, to earn gold in the triathlon in the Game’s history.
In order to find success in Rio, Jorgensen relied on her five years of experience competing in triathlons. The two-time world champion triathlete didn’t stay in the athlete’s village in Brazil and treated the Olympic event like any other race.
“There was a lot riding on the line,” Jorgensen says, now 35. “Before the Olympics, I knew, for me, a silver or bronze medal would have been a failure on that day. That’s a lot of pressure, but thankfully I had the right tools, such as making process-based goals to be able to compete with ease and comfort.”
Before her 2016 triumph, she finished 38th in the triathlon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, after getting a flat tire in the bike portion of the race. This year will mark her third attempt to make the Olympic team. At the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, which took place June 18-27, she ran in the 5K finals and finished ninth, not qualifying for the Games in that event. She ran the 10K on June 26 (after press time). The top three finishers in each event will go to the Summer Games in Tokyo. (See sidebar, right).
Jorgensen, who joined the UW–Madison swim team as a walk-on, and also ran track and cross country at the university, is still incredulous about her gold medal victory. She says putting in the hard work and her past competition experience made the difference.
“What is it like competing for and winning an Olympic gold medal?” Jorgensen reflects. “It’s a hard question to answer, and still seems almost silly that I could do that. To me, I knew I just had to do what I’d done before.”
Madison native and Middleton High School graduate Vicky Opitz didn’t entertain thoughts of reaching the Olympics until her senior year at UW- Madison. Opitz, 33, is the granddaughter of former Badgers rowing coach Randy Jablonic, and daughter of ex-Badgers rowers Konrad and Kay Opitz.
Opitz joined the Badgers rowing team as a walk-on in 2006 and earned a scholarship two years later. After graduating from UW–Madison in 2011 with a political science and communication arts degree, she relocated to Princeton, New Jersey, to live and train. The four-time world champion in the women’s eight (which is a boat with eight rowers plus a coxswain), Opitz was selected as an alternate for that same event in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
She had mixed feelings about the 2016 Games, where the U.S. women’s eight boat won gold medals.
“I loved being there and loved being with the team part of the experience,” Opitz says. “But on the other side of the coin, it was very difficult because I wanted to compete; I wanted to be in those boats. So, it was hard being there to support but wanting to be racing as well.”
Opitz was sidelined in 2017 after her left arm swelled during a race in Poland. A three-inch blood clot was removed from her chest in addition to the first part of her first rib, when it was determined she suffered from thoracic outlet syndrome. This condition is a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between the collarbone and first rib are compressed, causing pain and numbness in the neck, shoulders and fingers.
That same year she picked up her fourth world championship as a member of the eight boat. She also rowed in the women’s pair that year.
Opitz, a starboard competitor, says that 26 rowers competed for 14 spots on the Olympic squad, seven spaces for a port (left) rower and seven for a starboard (right) rower. In June 2021, Opitz qualified once again to be an alternate on the 2020 Olympics squad (see sidebar, P. 54).
Two other rowers with Wisconsin and UW–Madison ties are Neenah native Maddie Wanamaker and Franklin’s Sophia Vitas. The former Badgers rowers, along with Opitz, participated in Olympic selection camps in Princeton. In rowing, athletes have one oar each, and in sculling events, rowers have two oars each. Happily, Wanamaker qualified in June 2021 for the Olympics in the four, a four- rower boat. Vitas did not secure a spot.
Training in rowing is a rigorous and exhausting process where 12-hour days are a part of the normal routine. It also includes appointments with a physical therapist a couple times per week. Opitz says rest and recovery are important after difficult workouts. Going hard every day is expected, especially considering what’s at stake.
“It kind of feels like you’re almost sick all the time is the best way I’ve explained it to people,” she says. “This also sounds bizarre, but you kind of get used to it. And, you learn how to manage it well.”
Opitz confirms she’s “pretty sure” she’ll be done rowing after the 2020 games, but qualifies it, saying, “I don’t want to close that door forever … but, I’m pretty sure.” Also on the horizon is working toward a master’s degree in business.
The support Opitz and many athletes receive during their careers make up for the low moments and sometimes excruciating workouts they endure.
“Dealing with some of my ups and downs has definitely been challenging,” Opitz says. “I want to be here. I’m willing to do what I need to do to achieve that. It’s definitely not easy, that’s for sure. There have been some low moments, but at the end of the day, it just comes down to love of sport.”
Trying for the 2021 Games
The U.S. Olympic Trials for the athletes we featured took place in June 2021. How did Madison’s athletes do?
Beata Nelson had a solid showing at the 2020 Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, but didn’t make the U.S. women’s swimming team. In event finals, Nelson finished seventh with 2 minutes, 11.96 seconds in the 200M individual medley (IM) and 16th with 2 minutes, 12.70 seconds in the 200M backstroke. Nelson also swam in the semifinals for the 100M butterfly and 100M freestyle.
Badgers swimmer Phoebe Bacon, a sophomore from Bethesda, Maryland, will represent the U.S. in Tokyo after posting a runner-up finish (2 minutes, 07.46 seconds) in the 200M backstroke final.
Vicky Opitz celebrated a second Olympic berth in June, when she was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. women’s rowing team. Another ex-UW–Madison rower, Maddie Wanamaker, 26, made the team. Wanamaker, a Neenah native and former UW walk-on rower like Opitz, will make her Olympic debut competing in the women’s four, which is a four- rower boat.
Aiming for her third Olympic Games, Gwen Jorgensen posted a ninth-place finish in the 5K finals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Jorgensen was also scheduled to compete in the 10K race.
Rose Lavelle will make her Olympic debut with Team USA’s soccer team. Lavelle was a member on the American team that won the World Cup in 2019.
— Tamira Madsen