Olympians

Former Olympians from Pepperdine speak during a recent seminar.

Terry Schroeder believed his Olympic dream was dashed when the American contingent boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. 

“It was crushing because I thought that would be my one and only chance to make the Olympic team,” said Schroeder, who was added to the U.S. national water polo team in 1978 while he was an athlete at Pepperdine. “Shortly after the boycott, there were many nights of feeling sorry for myself—really sad and kind of depressed about the whole thing.” 

However, four years later, the disappointment Schroeder felt for not being able to compete for a medal was replaced with joy when he and other American athletes competed in the 1984 version of the event in Los Angeles, eventually winning the silver medal. 

Schroeder, now the coach of the Pepperdine Waves men’s water polo team, said taking part in the game’s opening ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum and swimming against international competition in the pool at Pepperdine were moments of pride.

“One hundred thousand people chanting ‘USA, USA, USA,’ was an unbelievable experience. Walking around the track was so amazing,” said Schroeder about the Olympics’ kickoff celebration. “To experience the games right here at Pepperdine with friends and family—the Pepperdine family I love—was really a special event.”

Schroeder went on to win a silver medal at the 1988 summer games, compete in the 1992 Olympics and coach the U.S. team to silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. 

Olympics Chart

Last week, he was one of five former Olympic athletes who competed collegiately at Pepperdine to participate in Pepperdine’s “Going for the Gold: Waves at the Olympics” virtual panel on July 21. Schroeder and the other Olympic Waves—triathlete Jennifer Gutierrez-Hughes, beach volleyball player Nicole Hannan, silver medalist water polo player Merrill Moses, and gold medalist volleyball player Sean Rooney—discussed their Olympic experiences and athletic mindsets during the hourlong Zoom call that was hosted by Pepperdine president Jim Gash and James Gehrels, the director of the Waves Athletic Fund. 

The online video discussion was held two days before the opening ceremony of the COVID-19-delayed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. This summer’s Olympiad features more than a dozen athletes and coaches with Pepperdine or Malibu connections such as swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky, a Malibu High graduate; women’s soccer player Lynn Williams, a 2015 Pepperdine graduate; and Brazilian tennis player Luisa Stefania, who played at Pepperdine for three seasons. 

Gash told the webcast’s watchers that the Waves have a long tradition in athletic excellence. 

“Pepperdine student-athletes are well-rounded, hardworking folks who compete with purpose and compete with pride and have been incredibly successful with 10 national championships in a variety of sports and 59 Olympians,” he said.

Rooney, who won a national title in college before competing in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, said wearing the red, white and blue on the world stage was important to him because it allowed him to serve as an ambassador for the U.S. But Olympians feel ambassadorship in other ways also, he added. 

“For most athletes at the games, the Olympics are the pinnacle of your sport, so the athletes are ambassadors for their sport on the biggest stage and ambassadors for the Olympic movement,” Rooney said. “There couldn’t be a better time to discuss how to build a better world by bringing out the best of the best from all around the planet in the spirit of inclusiveness and competition.”

Hannan, who played indoor volleyball at Pepperdine before forging a decade-long professional beach volleyball career, represented her native Australia in 2004 Sydney Olympics and finished fourth in beach volleyball with partner Natalie Cook. Hannan said watching athletes in the 1980s Olympics inspired her to want to compete in the event. 

“To show the excellence in sport, to show that determination and that unity of bringing the world together to compete in sport is amazing,” she said. 

Gehrels, the director of the Waves Athletic Fund, asked the Olympians what advice they would give young athletes who have Olympic dreams. 

Gutierrez-Hughes, a swimmer at Pepperdine and the first American to qualify as a triathlete for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, said to not fear failure. Basketball great Michael Jordan, she said, has a long list of them.

“Believe in yourself,” she said. “People these days are so afraid to fail, but failure is part of making who you are. Just keep moving forward.”

Rooney recommended young athletes never stop learning. 

“Learning is everything. Learn what makes you tick. Learn about how you learn. Learn about your teammates,” he said.

Schroeder said young athletes should share their goals with people.

“You can’t do this alone,” he said. “You need those people sometimes to push you and pick you up.” 

Hannan said having athletic success isn’t just about physicality. 

“Being an Olympian, that attitude is what gets you success in life,” she noted. “It’s not just about sport, it’s about mindset.” 

Moses, a national title winner in college and now Pepperdine men’s water polo team’s associate head coach, strives for his players to learn from his successes and failures. 

“Being an Olympian comes with a lot of pressure, but also comes with a lot of respect,” he said. “We always try to teach our athletes to do the best they can in and out of the water.”

Moses was a member of the U.S. men’s water polo team coached by Schroeder that won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. 

“We believed in ourselves as a team,” Moses said of the group that was ranked ninth in the world heading into the Olympics. “A bunch of people counted us out, but we shocked the world.”

Rooney called the men’s volleyball gold medal win surreal. 

“That moment happens for a different time for every athlete,” he said. “Some athletes go to four Olympics and they win gold in their last Olympics. You can’t control the timing of when you win and lose. It’s special no matter what happens at the Olympics. It’s so important to be happy in that moment.”

Moses said his hardest Olympic moment was when he was left off the 2004 Olympic team, while his proudest moment was when Schroeder asked him to join the squad four years later. 

“I worked really hard to get on the team and be named the starting goalkeeper,” he said. Moses was also on the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams. 

Gutierrez-Hughes said it took a few seconds for her to comprehend she was going to the Olympics when she qualified. 

“It was quite a big moment,” she said. 

Gutierrez-Hughes worked as a teacher whilst she trained for the Olympics. Then, her father got sick with cancer.

“That was a big challenge,” she said. “His only wish was that I don’t stop training. He just kept telling me that he wanted me to train and not give up. Somehow, it all worked out.” 

Rooney said he’ll never forget standing on the podium after his team downed Brazil to win the gold medal.

“I was really taking in the moment and I thought of everything that had led up to that point,” he said. “Not just representing my country, it had more to do with my hometown, my former teammates, coaches and I thought a lot about Pepperdine. That moment on the podium sticks out more than any other.”

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