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Movers & Shakers: Backyard Olympians

by Leslie Katz

With protocols in place and less fanfare than usual, the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games nonetheless offered thrilling competition in 2021. Five athletes with Bay Area connections made their mark.


Katie Ledecky

Her Twitter handle says it all: “Three-time U.S. Olympic swimmer; seven-time gold medalist; 14-time world record breaker in 400m 800m and 1500m freestyle; Stanford graduate.” In Tokyo, the 24-yearold swimming legend from Maryland won two golds (including a historic first ever for the women’s 1500m freestyle competition, which debuted this year) and two silvers, feats that made her the most decorated U.S. female athlete for a second straight Summer Olympics. Last year, virtual studies that led to a fall graduation from Stanford (with a major in psychology and minor in political science) coincided with the onset of the pandemic. With the Olympics postponed, she took full class loads, including a timely course called “Global Change and Emerging Infectious Disease.” During lockdown, Ledecky was able to train in the 25-meter, two-lane backyard pool in Atherton owned by former competitive swimmer and aquatics booster Tod Spieker, whom she thanked at a news conference after winning gold in the 800m freestyle.

Sabine Schut-Kery

In her first Olympics, the Napa equestrian and her trusty stallion Sanceo sealed the deal for the American dressage team: Their performance in the final stretch of the event earned the U.S. a silver medal, in its best finish since 1948. “All I was thinking was, ‘Don’t mess up,’” she told the “Today” show after the victory, adding that she had to “fool” her horse into not feeling similar hesitation. Schut-Kery, who turns 53 this month, and the 15-year-old Hanoverian stallion exuded confidence and calm, according to Olympics commentators. Schut-Kery got hooked on horses as a 10-year-old in her native Germany, where she was classically trained in dressage. In 1998, she moved to Texas, working as a head trainer; and in 2005, she came to California and now runs a boutique training business. In USA Dressage’s “Meet the Elite” series, she discusses her relationship with Sanceo, her partner of 12 years, noting, “We know each other in and out; he’s quite sensitive. I’m the lucky girl that gets to ride him.”

Alexander Massialas

For three-time Olympian and multiple medal winner Massialas, fencing is the family business. The bornand- bred San Franciscan came away with a bronze team medal in Tokyo, where he was joined by his sister Sabrina, who competed on the women’s team, and his dad, Greg, coach of the men’s team and an Olympic fencer himself in 1984 and 1988. Alex, 27, who won an individual silver medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro (“I slept with it under my pillow for God knows how long,” he shares with NBC Bay Area) admits that his experience in Japan was difficult because he was exposed to COVID on the flight there and had to quarantine for 14 days. Though his motto is “Fail early, fail often, fail forward,” the fencer, a fan of the Golden State Warriors and video games, has been top-ranked in the world since 2012. He graduated from Stanford in 2016 with a degree in mechanical engineering and scored another victory of sorts this year when Stanford reversed a 2020 decision to cut 11 varsity programs, including fencing.

Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson

On August 7 in Tokyo, the all-star middle blocker and her teammates reached what she once called an elusive goal: an Olympic gold medal — the U.S. women’s volleyball team’s first — beating longtime rival Brazil. For the three-time Olympian and Stanford graduate (class of 2009, human biology major) it was an especially sweet victory following 2016’s Olympics in Rio, where she injured her knee and the team got the bronze. But the 33-year-old athlete has come a long way since being recruited for volleyball in high school and participating as a “bright-eyed” newcomer in 2012’s London Olympics, where the team won silver. She led her club team, Hisamitsu Springs, to win the national championship in Japan when she was eight weeks pregnant. In a USA Volleyball interview, she credits her success to her Nigerian parents, saying, “Because they made so many sacrifices in their life, it’s the reason why I’m where I am today.”

Timothy Lam

The 24-year-old Mountain View athlete is an intrepid world traveler as well as a world-class badminton pro. The seven-time U.S. National Junior Champion, three-time Pan America Junior Badminton Champion and top-ranked U.S. men’s singles player self-funded trips to Guatemala, Bahrain, Zambia and Peru for tournament competitions, where he found success that earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. And though he wasn’t victorious after two matches in Tokyo, the classy sportsman shared on Instagram, “It was truly an honor for me to represent the US of A at the Olympic stage and I enjoyed every single moment of it.” The Los Altos High and Cal Poly Pomona graduate, who began badminton training at age 6 and has coached at the California Badminton Academy in Fremont, is moving to accounting next with a job as an audit associate at KPMG and plans to study for the certified public accountant exam.

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