Sept. 11, 2000
by Alan Wasielewski
The opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games are just a few days away. The best athletes from the United States will take to the fields, courts, pools and courses in Sydney, Australia, to compete against their counterparts from various countries around the world. A trip to Sydney to represent the United States is not an easy accomplishment. Before becoming a member of the United States Olympic team, competition in the U.S. Olympic trials from the greatest athletes the country has to offer must be overcome.
The trials occurred in the months leading up to the 2000 Olympics. Earning a trip to Sydney is not an easy task when the top athletes in a particular sport all converge on one venue for the right to represent the United States. The U.S. Olympic trials were stocked with the elite athletes in the country, including 10 University of Notre Dame student-athletes.
Two-time All-America senior Ryan Shay represented the Notre Dame men's track and field team at the U.S. Olympic team trials July 14-23 in Sacramento, Calif. High jump All-American and 2000 Notre Dame graduate Jennifer Engelhardt represented the women's track and field team at the same meet.
The Irish women's swimming team sent five representatives, seniors Carrie Nixon, Tiffany O'Brien and Kristen Van Saun, along with juniors Kelly Hecking and Allison Lloyd to the U.S. Swimming team trials, Aug. 9-16, in Indianapolis, Ind.
Notre Dame's men's swimming team also sent representatives to Indianapolis, in junior Jonathan Pierce and seniors Dan Szilier and Ryan Verlin.
The Notre Dame Olympic sports program has developed into one of the best in the nation and the strong representation at the U.S. Olympic Trials is a harbinger of even greater things to come.
"The Olympic Trials offer the highest level of competition in U.S. swimming," Notre Dame head men's swimming coach Tim Welsh said.
"For us to qualify three competitors opens the door to all Notre Dame swimmers competing for the U.S. swimming program in the future. That door had not been open before."
Verlin, the 2000 men's swimming team co-captain and school recordholder in the 200-yard butterfly, took 74th place in the preliminaries at the Trials. Szilier, also a school recordholder in the 200-yard breaststroke, placed 29th in the 200-meter breaststroke preliminaries. BIG EAST individual champion Jonathan Pierce swam the 1,650-meter freestyle in 16:19.73, placing him 60th in the finals.
"The meet was fabulous," Welsh said.
"It was exciting, energetic and fast. It was thrilling to be in the room."
Welsh also knows it was a tremendous learning experience for his three returning swimmers.
"Each of them was nervous," Welsh said.
"But they prepared for the competition better than any other meet in their life. They displayed an immense respect for their selection to compete in the Trials. It was also a different kind of achievement level than they have experienced at Notre Dame. The rewards were individual and not geared toward a team goal.
"I was proud of every one of them."
The women's swimming contingent was led by Nixon. She competed in three events at the trials, placing 29th in the 100-meter butterfly, 38th in the100-meter freestyle, and 21st in the 50-meter freestyle.
"Carrie swam two of her lifetime best times at the trials," Irish head women's swimming head coach Bailey Weathers said.
"We still wanted better times for her, though. Carrie is a perfect example of the goals of our program. We want to develop great athletes in our program. Our goal is to develop the talent we have into great swimmers."
Nixon is one of the most decorated Irish swimmers in history. A three-time All-American, she has won eight BIG EAST titles and finished fourth at the 2000 NCAA championships in the 50-meter freestyle.
"Out of all the swimmers on our team, we had 19 kids qualify for the trials," Weathers said.
"But some graduated and moved on to their careers while others chose not to go to the Trials or to concentrate on the upcoming school year."
Nixon's classmates, O'Brien and Van Saun placed 76th in the 400-individual medley and 74th in the 400-meter freestyle, respectively. Lloyd finished 86th in the 100-meter breaststroke preliminaries and also finished 101st in the preliminaries of the 200-meter butterfly. Hecking swam the 100-meter backstroke preliminaries, placing 70th in 1:06.95.
"Making the Olympic Trials is a long-term goal to achieve," Weathers said.
"Tiffany had developed the opportunity to swim in the U.S. Olympic Trials into a lifetime goal. She has dual citizenship in the United States and Canada, but making the U.S. Trials are far more difficult.
"All of the performances from our swimmers were solid and in line with their preparation."
Shay became the first Irish runner to win a BIG EAST cross country championship, finish seventh at the 2000 NCAA outdoor championships in the 10,000 meters, and qualified for the same event at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Shay entered the Trials with the goal of finishing in the top 10. He accomplished that feat, finishing 10th (28:51.74).
"He was the only one of the top finishers that had college eligibility remaining," men's track and field head coach Joe Piane said.
"It really put him in great shape for next year and beyond. He will not be intimidated in any NCAA meet for the rest of his career," Piane said.
Shay also helped enhance the status of the Notre Dame men's track and field program.
"He has raised the bar of competition in our program," Piane said.
"Now, he can honestly say that he is vying for a national championship. For some competitors that is just a pipe dream, but for him it has become reality."
Shay was not the only Notre Dame track and field star to finish in the top 10 at the Olympic trials. Engelhardt, the top high jump specialist in Irish history, placed seventh at the trials, clearing 5-10 3/4.
"It was a great accomplishment for Jennifer," assistant track and field coach Scott Winsor said.
"She jumped from one level to another during that competition. What really impressed me was her mental preparation because it is easy to blowup in a meet of that caliber. She kept her composure and jumped well.
"I know that Jennifer does not want to end her high jump career now. She is going to stay at Notre Dame and train for the next four years and the next Olympics. There are some technical and strength issues we need to iron out, but those are positives considering how high she finished with room for improvement."
Engelhardt's top finish in the Trials has also brought a considerable amount of attention to the Notre Dame women's track and field program, specifically in the high jump area.
"I left a message for the top high school senior high jumper in the nation," Winsor said.
"She called us right back. Jennifer has made this program visible and shown that it is a good mix of academic and athletic excellence. I told Jennifer that, no matter what happens in the future, she set the standard for high jumpers at Notre Dame. She has put our program on the map."
Nine of the 10 Olympic Trial competitors return to compete for Notre Dame this year. The experience they gained competing against the best in the country is invaluable. The attention they brought their respective programs has been tremendous.
The future of Notre Dame's Olympic sports program has never been brighter.