Feb. 15, 2013
STANFORD, Calif. -
Every four years the Olympics attempt to unite the world through the spirit of competition. Athletes compete for pride, their countries and the pursuit of perfection.
The road to the Olympics is a long one, consisting of a lifetime of training and preparation, and that certainly was true for Stanford gymnasts Shona Morgan, Rebecca Wing and Kristina Vaculik. The Olympic journey was a special one, if only for its role in winding their paths to Stanford.
A place they now call home, and with teammates they now call family.
Stanford has a storied Olympic history boasting 335 Olympians in a variety of sports. However, rarely has Stanford had a team that included three Olympians from three countries competing at the same time.
Morgan, an Australian native, and Wing, of England, competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics for Australia and Great Britain, while Vaculik, of Canada, competed in the 2012 London Olympics.
While each gymnast tells a unique story of their Olympic journey and is proud to have had the opportunity to represent their country, all three agree their time at Stanford has provided some of the best experiences of their careers.
So how did they all end up at Stanford?
"I don't really know," said Morgan, laughing.
Morgan helped lead Australia to a fifth-place team finish and competed in the individual all-around final, finishing 15th. As she prepared for the first round of Olympic competition, Morgan remembers the anticipation and atmosphere inside the arena as her most vivid memory.
"I remember waiting before we stepped out for the march out and we were just standing behind this curtain and we could hear the crowd. It was surreal," said Morgan. "You can hear the crowd, you can feel the environment, but you can't see anything and you're just like, `Oh my gosh, what's happening?'"
Though they didn't know each other, Morgan was joined on the competition floor by Wing, who was the youngest competitor on her Great Britain team, turning 16 in July, becoming eligible just in time for the Olympics.
Wing believes her youth helped her perform well, as she did not fully realize the scope of the stage she was performing on.
Don't mistake her youth for inexperience, however. Wing considered herself mature for her age and says that maturity is why she was placed atop three of Great Britain's event lineups and was expected to get the team started with good scores.
"At the time, I didn't really think about it," said Wing. "When I was competing, it was just another competition, the same as any other one. If I had actually thought about it, I might have gotten too nervous or excited, so I tried to do the same thing I did every day. After the competition, when it finally sunk in that I competed in the Olympics, it was a cool realization.
"I had been training my whole life for that one moment, so to accomplish my dream at 16 was awesome."
After the 2008 Olympics, Morgan and Wing continued competing internationally but eventually had important decisions to make: would they continue competing in the sport they loved? And, if so, where?
"I wanted to do something more with my gymnastics," Morgan said. "College in Australia is very different than here [in the U.S.] ... so if I wanted to keep going, I had to go overseas. I told my coach in Australia I was thinking about doing college gymnastics and he told me to go to Stanford. He was asking people in the U.S. which program has the best coaches and strength academically. He kept hearing Stanford."
Wing had a bit of a different experience as she began considering Stanford when contacted by head coach Kristen Smyth.
"At first I was a little hesitant about moving to the U.S., so I took some time to think about it," said Wing.
After a couple months, she decided Stanford was the next step in life and began preparing for the SATs.
Morgan arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2010, while Wing began in 2011. Another aspiring Olympic gymnast joined the Cardinal in 2010, Vaculik.
Vaculik missed an opportunity to make Canada's 2008 Olympic team because of an injury. But she was determined to compete in London in 2012. She made the decision to attend her freshman year at Stanford and defer her second year, instead of deferring her first two years.
During her freshman year, Vaculik contributed right away, posting personal highs of at least 9.825 on all four events.
Vaculik returned home after her freshman year to prepare for the Olympics. This time, she made the team and helped lead Canada to a fifth-place team finish - the highest Olympic finish in Canadian women's gymnastics history.
"It was incredible to be there and have that opportunity," Vaculik said. "It was tough being away from the team at Stanford, but it was nice to make it to the Olympics. It was like the light at the end of the tunnel and it was a nice payoff."
Vaculik says she often has difficulty describing exactly what it felt like to finally make it to the Olympics and compete because it was such a unique experience and something she had never felt before.
"So much goes into the preparation for that event," Vaculik said. "It's like a lifetime sport and going up there for the first time when you step in front of the crowd and the lights come on and your country is announced, it's an incredible feeling."
When Vaculik returned to campus in the fall of 2012, it marked the first time all three gymnasts were at Stanford at the same time.
But the question lingers: what was it exactly that brought the Olympic trio from three different countries - a total of roughly 15,520 miles of combined travel - to Stanford?
Each of the three provided a similar answer consisting of elite academic and athletic opportunities, the beautiful campus and the fact that Stanford is universally recognized.
Perhaps the most important answer is found in the passionate response each gymnast provided: the team atmosphere in collegiate gymnastics that is embodied at Stanford.
"A lot of competition when I was younger had a little bit about the team but was also about the individual," said Morgan. "Since I've come here, there's been a lot more focus on the team and making sure that everybody is looked after and all the decisions are made for the team and not for the individual."
Wing and Vaculik echo Morgan's sentiment and believe this has been the most important and enjoyable difference from international competition.
Similar to the Olympics, Stanford has served as a medium for the three gymnasts to utilize their skills developed in different parts of the world, and come together to compete as a team toward a common goal.
They might not know exactly how they ended up in the same place, but each athlete takes comfort in knowing they are still competing for pride, pursuing perfection and, now, doing it completely for the team.
--Greg Marsh, Stanford Athletics