On his 23rd birthday, in front of nearly 84,000 fans in Birmingham, Alabama, Claudio Reyna stunned world power Argentina with a goal that put the United States ahead 1-0 barely 30 seconds into their match at historic Legion Field.
It was July 20, 1996, and this was the start of the men’s soccer tournament in the Summer Olympics, based that year in Atlanta.
Reyna, a University of Virginia alumnus, is of Argentine descent, and “that was an amazing experience I’ll never forget,” he recalled in a recent interview.
On the field with him that night were several other former UVA stars, including A.J. Wood. The U.S.’s head coach was Bruce Arena, who had won five NCAA titles at UVA.
In the surge of emotion that immediately followed Reyna’s goal, Wood said, he remembers asking himself, “Is this the start of something special?”
Alas for the U.S., Argentina rallied for a 3-1 victory, “but the wins and losses tend to blur as you get older,” said Wood, who now works in commercial real estate in Northern Virginia. “It’s the experiences, it’s the other things you remember, and that’s what I’m looking back on.”
The 2016 Summer Olympics started last week in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and close to 20 athletes and coaches with UVA ties are forging memories they’ll carry with them the rest of their lives.
That’s been the case for other Cavaliers who have competed at the Olympics. Take Paul Ereng, who in 1988, the summer after his first year at UVA, won the gold medal in the 800-meter run at the Seoul Olympics.
“Once you’re an Olympic champion, you’re always an Olympic champion,” said Ereng, now associate head coach for track and field and head cross country coach at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Ereng, who once held the world record for the indoor 800, noted that such feats are usually surpassed.
“Eventually some other people devise other techniques and those records are broken,” he said, “but you’re part of history in the Olympics. You’re always an Olympic champion, and you’re one of the few guys in that club.”
Ereng, a native of Kenya who won three NCAA titles during his Virginia career, specialized in the 200 and 400 in high school. A UVA assistant coach, Fred Hardy, persuaded him to try the 800, and Ereng quickly improved in the event.
He entered 1988 with four goals for the year: to win an NCAA championship, to make Kenya’s Olympic team, to reach the final of the 800 in Seoul, and to win a medal in Seoul.
After winning the 800 at the NCAA outdoor championships in the spring of ’88, he earned a spot on Kenya’s Olympic team, if only barely.
“At that point I looked and I said, ‘Two down, two to go,’ “ Ereng recalled.
There were three rounds preceding the 800 final in Seoul, and Ereng did what he needed to in each one. In the semifinals, he easily finished first, “and I left the track that afternoon thinking, ‘Tomorrow, if I am able to replicate what I did today, I think I will be able to be in the game,’” Ereng recalled.
In the final, Ereng’s fellow competitors included three highly decorated runners, among them Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz, who had won the 800 at the 1984 Olympics. Ereng laid out his strategy before the race. He wanted to run each 200-meter split in 25 seconds.
“The world record was 1 minute, 41.73 seconds then,” he said, “and I thought it was possible to go under 1:41. I would run 1:40.
“That was my game plan, and I kind of decided to do that, and it took my mind off being distracted by other runners, whatever they were doing.”
Early in the race, the rest of the field sprinted ahead of Ereng. “I didn’t panic,” he said. “I was still in contention. I felt good about what I was doing.”
With about 110 meters left, Ereng stumbled momentarily after another runner’s foot hit his right leg.
“I said, ‘God, please, this is the final. I can’t fall down. Please protect me,’” Ereng recalled. “And I gained composure, and I looked at the front. There were two, three guys in front, and all of them looked tired. And I said, ‘What did my coach always tell me?’ He told me, ‘Put your shoulders down and sprint!’ And that was exactly what I did.”
That late kick pushed Ereng across the finish line first, with a time of 1:43.45. As he was circling the track afterward, the magnitude of his accomplishment started to dawn on him.
“I turned around, walked back and said, ‘What if this was just a dream?’” Ereng recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, it could be a dream, but let me enjoy it for now.’”
Another UVA graduate, swimmer Lauren Perdue, won gold at the 2012 Olympics in London in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay.
Now working in commercial real estate in Charlotte, North Carolina, Perdue savors memories of her Olympic experience. She made the Olympic team after her third year at UVA and less than five months after a surgeon removed a small piece of bone from her back.
She’ll never forget the bond among the U.S. swimmers before and during the London Olympics.
“I still get goose bumps just thinking about how close-knit our 2012 Olympic swimming team was,” Perdue said, “just how supportive all of the veterans were: Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, these names that I looked up to and admired really my whole swimming career. And then being able to actually be on a team with them and have them give you advice and encourage you as a teammate, that was just out of this world in my mind, something that I truly will never forget.
“I think at the time I probably took it for granted, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll make another Olympic team.’ I was kind of naïve about the whole thing. But looking back on that, I think that was just the coolest experience.”
Early that summer, Perdue flew back to Charlottesville from the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, “and I had like four days to pack up everything I needed, to be gone for a month,” she said.
“Then, from that point on, you go to two different training trips with Team USA, with the swimming team, and you go to the Olympics. You’re with that team, those 45-plus people, for an entire month, spending every day together.
“I remember after the second training trip, I felt like I had known those people for years, and I had only known them for a couple weeks at that point. Sports in general creates a really unique bond.”
UVA alumna Lindsay Shoop can attest to that. Shoop rowed on the U.S. team that won gold in the women’s eight at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“The most special thing about my Olympic experience, regardless of the medal, was the people that I shared it with, and the girls in that boat,” said Shoop, who’s in a master’s program in kinesiology at the University of Miami, where she’s a graduate assistant on the rowing team.
“I plan to see every one of them every single year, if not more than once a year. We’re scattered throughout the country. Right now a couple of them are actually in Rio to compete, so throughout the world. But I cherish that experience every single day and embrace all the days that I cried and thought my career was over, and I certainly embraced the days that we came out on top, as friends and competitors and teammates. I call them my soul sisters. They are people that are in my life forever.”
Somdev Devvarman, who won two NCAA singles titles during his UVA career, represented India in men’s tennis at the 2012 Olympics in London.
“I was very much in awe the entire time I was there,” Devvarman, who now plays professionally, wrote in an email.
“I remember going to the gym and watching athletes who were the cream of the crop, the greatest athletes in the world do stuff in the gym that was simply jaw-dropping. I remember walking around the days after I was done competing and just following different sports. I felt like I really appreciated what every competitor had been through, their stories, their sacrifices and how their loved ones and their countries were following and supporting them, the immense pressure every athlete felt during their event. It makes you appreciate the efforts of every competitor a lot more.”
Devvarman, who bowed out in the first round of the Olympic tennis tournament, said he won’t soon forget walking in the opening ceremonies, or what followed in London.
“It was always a goal of mine since I was a kid, to be an Olympian,” Devvarman said. “Obviously I would have liked to have done better, but all said and done, I am still very happy that I got to represent my country at the Olympics.”
In 1996, the U.S. Olympic men’s soccer team had a distinct UVA flavor. The U.S. roster included six players Arena had coached at Virginia: Reyna, Wood, Clint Peay, Damian Silvera, Billy Walsh and Brandon Pollard.
Reyna, now sporting director of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, previously had represented the United States at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, where the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team grabbed many of the headlines.
That was the summer after Reyna’s first year at UVA, and he was the youngest player on the U.S. team.
“It was always a dream of mine growing up to play in an Olympics,” he said. “So when I had the opportunity, it was an incredible, incredible experience.”
The ’92 team included four current or former players from UVA: Reyna, Curt Onalfo, Erik Imler and Mike Huwiler.
For Reyna, his Olympic experiences differed significantly.
“The first one, I was the youngest player on the team and was very much more focused on myself and trying to get myself ready to compete at that level,” he recalled. “I had to make sure that I had a fighting chance to get on the field, which I did, and I just did everything possible to, first of all, make the team, and then make an impact.”
In 1996, Reyna was the U.S. captain, “and guys were looking at me as one of the important players on the team,” he said.
“I felt much more comfortable in the second one, but I think at the same time being a bit naïve and young helped me kind of just go out and play with no fear in the first Olympics I played in.”
Playing on American soil in 1996 – the U.S.’s group games were in Birmingham and Washington, D.C. – made the Olympics “obviously extra special,” Reyna said.
Wood felt the same way.
“I think a special memory, or the best thing for me, was the fact that it was in the United States,” Wood said. “Growing up, soccer aside, the Olympics were the No. 1 goal, the No. 1 dream, for me as a kid, and it was because of the pride for the United States and for the country that we live in.
“When you represent your country, it’s not like representing your college or city or your professional team. There is no feeling, and there’s no sense of pride, greater than [the Olympics].”
In 1996, the United States went 1-1-1 in group play and did not advance to the knockout rounds. After falling to Argentina, the U.S. defeated Tunisia 2-0 in Birmingham and then tied Portugal 1-1 before a crowd of 58,012 at RFK Stadium in D.C.
When the U.S. pulled even with a goal in the 75th minute, “the crowd was just bouncing up and down and the stadium was rocking,” said Wood, who grew up in nearby Rockville, Maryland. “Those are things you just never forget.”