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Irish athletes experience 2012 Olympics in London

Kristen Durbin | Tuesday, August 21, 2012

For most college students, summer means time off from school, working at home or completing internships.

But for four current Notre Dame student-athletes, the summer of 2012 meant traveling to London to compete in the Summer Olympics.

Irish women’s basketball junior forward Natalie Achonwa played for her native Canada, and three Notre Dame fencers – seniors Courtney Hurley and Gerek Meinhardt and freshman Lee Kiefer – represented Team USA at the Games.

A four-year veteran of the Canadian senior national team and the second-youngest player in the entire Olympic women’s basketball tournament by 40 days, Achonwa was one of 11 Olympic rookies for Team Canada, who returned to the Games for the first time since 2000.

“We were a very young team in terms of Olympics experience, but we’ve played in the World Championships before, which is harder to get into than the Olympics,” Achonwa said. “The Olympics is a very media-driven tournament, so it seems like a much bigger deal sometimes.”
Achonwa said Team Canada took the “hard route” to end their 12-year Olympic drought after failing to qualify for the Games in a tournament last summer.

“I didn’t play with the team last summer because I was training here with Notre Dame,” Achonwa said. “We had a last chance go-around this summer when five teams were selected [for the Games] from a qualifying tournament in Turkey.”

The top four teams after pool play in that tournament earn automatic Olympic bids, while the last four have to battle for the fifth and final spot, Achonwa said. Team Canada lost by three points to Croatia in the game that would have given them the fourth automatic bid, so they had to defeat Argentina and Japan in two extra games to finally qualify for the Olympics.

Achonwa said beating those odds made her Olympic experience even more special.

“We battled for that spot … so I was more excited than nervous,” she said. “In terms of everyone else, we weren’t supposed to be there. We weren’t supposed to win any games or make it to the second round, so it was a great performance by our team.”

When the women played on the court in London, Achonwa said she was most proud of her team’s ability to deliver on a worldwide stage.

“I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t just go to the tournament and seem like we were just happy to be there,” she said. “We definitely competed in the Olympics. Although we lost in the quarterfinals, I think we brought light to how well Canada can compete on a world stage and to the fact that we can play.”
Off the court, the opportunity to travel overseas gave Achonwa a new perspective on basketball and life in a global context.

“I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to travel to another country and meet many different athletes from other countries and cultures because it broadened my outlook on life, athletics, everything,” she said. “It was a great experience overall and I’m grateful for the chance to represent my country and Notre Dame on a world stage.”

Though she did not meet any high-profile athletes personally, Achonwa said Team Canada had some superstar spectators at one of its games.

“The USA men’s basketball team came to watch our game against the USA women’s team,” she said. “I saw a lot of high-profile athletes walking around the village, though.”

After spending so much time training with Team Canada and traveling to London for the Games, Achonwa said she is looking forward to the upcoming year at Notre Dame.

“I’m definitely happy to be back at Notre Dame, and I’m excited for the season,” she said. “It’s great to be back after going from spending every day with my teammates and friends and then going three months without seeing them while I was overseas.”

In addition to current students, several Notre Dame graduates and former athletes represented their home countries during the Games. Two-time fencing gold medalist Mariel Zagunis, who took a leave of absence from Notre Dame in 2008, bore the flag for the American flag in the Opening Ceremony. Former track star Molly Huddle, a 2007 graduate, and women’s soccer alumna Shannon Boxx, a 1999 graduate, also competed for Team USA.

Alumnae Candace Chapman and Melissa Tancredi, 2005 and 2004 graduates respectively, played on the Canadian women’s soccer team.

Four American athletes with Notre Dame connections were also selected as alternates in three sports – Meinhardt, 2010 alumna fencer Kelley Hurley, 2008 alumna rower Amanda Polk and 2009 alumna pole vaulter Mary Saxer.

An alternate in men’s team foil, Meinhardt was also a member of Team USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He helped his team to an upset of France in the quarterfinals in London on the way to a fourth-place overall finish.

“It means so much to be a two-time Olympian and to have served as a crucial piece in our advancing from the quarterfinals,” he said. “My most memorable moment was the mental zone my team fell into as we came back against France and realized just how … momentous it all was for us. Our team had some remorse in falling short of a medal, but … our fourth-place finish gave optimism as to the future for US men’s foil.”

Meinhardt said uniting with other American athletes to compete on Team USA fostered camaraderie between the teammates.

“It is a great feeling representing your country on such a big stage, giving everything you can to make those at home proud and to compete to your best ability for your team and country,” he said. “I also had the great privilege to attend several events after mine had completed to show support for the rest of our team, including the women’s soccer and men’s basketball gold medal games, both of which Team USA won.”
Now that the Games have concluded, Meinhardt said he plans to focus on his fencing career at Notre Dame.

“I have my remaining two years of NCAA eligibility in my focus, because you never know what can happen in four years,” he said. “I am motivated and excited to be a part of reclaiming the NCAA championship for Notre Dame.”

Contact Kristin Durbin at [email protected]