For most GW athletes, their final game in a buff and blue uniform marks the end of a career in competitive sports. But for some of the University’s former and current standouts, college has been just one step to a much bigger stage: the Olympics.
After years of training, four graduates and one current GW student are representing their respective countries in Athens this summer at the XXVI Olympiad.
Current student and K-1 kayaker Brett Heyl, former women’s basketball players Ugo Oha (’04) and Elisa Aguilar (’00), former rower Aquil Abdullah (’96) and modern pentathlete Chad Senior (’97) are all representing their respective countries – and GW – in Athens.
Heyl, the only current GW student in Athens, finished fifteenth overall in the K-1 semifinal heat Aug. 20. However, to Heyl’s father Mike, the competition was secondary to his son’s overall Olympic experience.
“To see the smile on his face and the obvious excitement of the moment made it worth it,” Mike Heyl said.
The Heyls saw little of the anti-American sentiment many people predicted would be prevalent in Athens. At the opening ceremonies, Brett stood directly behind the bearer of the American flag.
“As soon as the flag hit the stadium, the place erupted,” Mike Heyl said.
Brett said he was dismayed to read a report saying the U.S. received a “cool” reception from the Olympic Stadium crowd.
“I guarantee the reporter wasn’t even there,” he said. “What was reported didn’t do it justice. (The U.S.) received one of the loudest ovations.”
One did not have to be on the United States team to be moved by the opening ceremonies. Just ask Oha and Aguilar, who are respective members of the Nigerian and Spanish national teams.
“When you go inside the stadium and that crowd … you have a thousand feelings,” Aguilar said. “I mean I thought about my family, my friends and people who help me to be there.”
“It’s amazing,” she added, “because it’s the kind of thing that only happens once in life.”
The Spaniard has also been star struck. Just seeing athletes like tennis player Venus Williams and NBA player and countryman Pau Gasol has been a thrill, she said. Aguilar’s squad had a strong showing in the preliminary rounds, going 4-1 and advancing to the medal round, where it will face Brazil in the quarterfinals Aug. 25.
Individually, she has played in four games and scored 15 total points. Although she is only averaging about 11 minutes per game, she said she is just grateful for the opportunity to compete.
“I’m very proud to be a Spaniard and to be here represent my country,” Aguilar said. “There is no better feeling. I think that for an athlete to be in the Olympics is a dream that everybody has.”
In 2002, she played for the WNBA’s Utah Starzz and currently plays professionally in Europe. At GW, the 5-foot-8-inch guard was an all-conference first team member and was named the A-10 Rookie of the Year in 1997.
Oha, a 6-foot-4-inch center on the Nigerian team, racked up a school record 355 blocked shots at GW and was selected by the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun last spring. However, she was cut during training camp.
In four preliminary round games, Oha averaged more than 20 minutes per game, scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. But her team did not fare as well as Aguilar’s.
Nigeria finished 0-5 and failed to advance to the medal round. No African women’s basketball team has ever won a game in Olympic competition.
But despite her team’s struggles, the excitement of the Olympics was not lost on Oha.
“Being a part of the Olympics was a dream I had as a little kid,” said Oha, who grew up in Texas as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. “It happens once in a blue moon. I feel honored to be considered a prime athlete.”
Sometimes lost among the extraordinary athletes of the Olympics are small moments of respect and admiration between nations. According to the Heyls, when the U.S. team passed by the Iraqi team and applauded, the Iraqis applauded right back.
After Athens, Heyl plans to return to GW and on Sept. 18 will compete in the kayaking national championships in Dickerson, Md.
The 22-year-old has been on hiatus from school for a while. After deferring his freshman year to compete in 2000, the he came to school in fall 2001. After three semesters, he took a leave of absence from in 2003 to train full time in Bethesda, Md. with America’s top rowers.
“It’s never crossed my mind to not finish college,” he said. “But there’s definitely a bigger time constraint with my paddling.”
Heyl was joined by two more GW graduates, including one whose march to Athens was unprecedented.
Aquil Abdullah (’96) qualified to compete as a rower in the double sculls event and is the first African American to compete as a rower in the Olympics.
After advancing to the final heat, Abdullah and his partner finished in sixth place with a time of 6:36.86, less than four seconds away from a medal.
Chad Senior, a modern pentathlete, is the last GW alum to compete. On Aug. 26, he will try his luck in an event that includes shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and running. Neither Senior nor Abdullah could be reached for comment.