Perhaps the best example of the representation Penn State Athletics hopes to project worldwide came on the world’s biggest stage in August, during the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
The university had a contingent of 25 alumni representing the United States and various other countries during the 17-day event, and when it was all over, the current or former Nittany Lions had earned eight medals.
“Having our student-athletes, our alumni perform on the worldwide stage is always really a neat moment for our community, for obviously those individuals, and for the pride for Penn State,” said Director of Athletics Sandy Barbour, who went to Rio for four days to support the participating Penn Staters.
“It was just a really fabulous experience that I think we have to stop and acknowledge, really, how fortunate we are in the quality and the level of student-athlete that we attract at Penn State,” she said. “(A student-athlete) that then has the opportunity to go on and do something, to be, No. 1, an Olympian, which is just such a huge feat … I think it’s spectacular.”
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Penn State alumni won bronze medals in men’s and women’s volleyball (two alumni earned medals on the women’s side and three on the men’s), a silver medal in men’s shot put, a bronze in men’s fencing and a bronze in women’s fencing.
More than a match for Molinaro
Former Penn State wrestler Frank Molinaro’s storybook Olympic run literally ended by inches in a match for bronze to close the final day of competition.
In the 63 kilograms bout for bronze, Molinaro went for a takedown against Italian Frank Chamizo and was only awarded for a push-out of bounds and not the full two points he needed to win, and fell 4-3.
“A year ago, nobody would’ve thought he’d be competing for a medal at the Olympics,” said head coach Cael Sanderson, who, like Barbour, went to Rio in a show of support. “He showed the world he was right up there with the best of them. He lost the bronze medal to the reigning world champion. … So close to winning a medal. But that’s how things go.”
That wasn’t even the beginning of the theatrics surrounding Molinaro’s Olympic journey, nor those that gripped the wrestling world overall in Rio as the sport’s future in the games remains in question.
Molinaro, whose wife gave birth to their second child while he was in Rio, not only earned a slot in the games by beating two formerly banned athletes, in his 3-1 win to get to the bronze bout he was bitten on the hand by Ukraine’s Andriy Kvyatovskyy.
“Because (Frank) wrestles hard, he gets a lot of people come out right out of the whistle and try to hit him, thumb him in the eye,” Sanderson said. “Biting is a little ridiculous. I mean, what do you even say about that? The referees weren’t even willing to listen when he said ‘Hey, the guy just bit me.’ Then they showed it (in slow-motion) up on the big screen and everyone in the crowd saw it.”
Issues with the wrestling officiating during the Olympics only snowballed from there.
Franklin Gomez, formerly of Michigan State but who wrestles with the Nittany Lion Club and represented Puerto Rico, was not awarded points despite being on the controlling side of a scoring move during a match tie. Instead, his opponent was awarded the points, and Gomez lost the match.
“It’s very disappointing that it’s so blatant, the corruption,” Sanderson said. “Either you have officials doing favors for their friends or being paid. You hear of wrestlers being paid. … After wrestling is almost dropped from the Olympics, none of that is being cleaned up, which is very disappointing.
“How do you justify — you have a kid, Franklin Gomez, who has trained his whole life, comes from nothing. And he was wrestling extremely well. You expect in our sport that the refs are going to give the other guy a point here and there, but to just take the match from him? When it was very clear you could see their communication? It’s unacceptable.”
Another officiating controversy involving Mongolia invoked a protest by two coaches, who stripped down to their underwear in a statement against the referees following an Uzbekistan challenge of the bronze match final score, which was overturned in the latter’s favor.
“It was pretty wild; I was sitting there,” Sanderson said. “There are two grown men rushing to the mat bawling their eyes out thinking they’re gonna get a bronze medal, but we see the official is gonna give the other guy a point and the other guy is gonna win, so they protested. … It’s not good for our sport.”
Ryan rallies at Penn State post-Olympics
Penn State senior Shane Ryan represented his parents’ native Ireland while at Rio, and swam well enough to finish No. 16 overall in the 100-meter backstroke — the highest swimming finish by a Nittany Lion in the Olympics.
“Not only did I make the Olympics, I made the semifinal at the Olympics,” he said. “So all I can do is take what I can from that, even though I didn’t swim as well as I wanted to in the semifinals, you always can learn from a swim. … It was a great ride there. Rio was a really cool experience.”
Ryan has re-enrolled at Penn State to finish out his degree and swim for the Nittany Lions after spending a year in Ireland to ensure he was eligible for the Olympic team (he holds dual-citizenship in both Ireland and the United States).
“It’s been two big culture shocks,” he laughed. “Slowly but surely it’s coming back, but it’s going to be an absolutely awesome year.”
And after that, Ryan has his sights set on Tokyo in 2020.