Four for London: Villanova's 2012 Olympians Treasure a Rare Experience
July 26, 2012
Villanova Media Relations
The nearly three weeks of events at the Olympics are about many things, of course. There is the competition and athletic achievement, in both individual and team settings. The spectacle of an international community gathering to celebrate sport is present as well.
The quality that tends to stand out for American audiences, though, is the revelatory nature of these games. Via our HD screens, tablets and cellular devices we will be introduced to stories and people who in many cases have honed their craft in obscurity.
It may sound trite but it is nonetheless true: the athletes on this giant stage are the best of the best. The point is beyond debate.
As we prepare for these introductions and performances, this much we know for sure: four of those in the community of the world's finest athletes were taught and nurtured right here in the Nova Nation.
Lisa Karcic (women's basketball), Marina Muncan (track), Sheila Reid (track) and Andrew Sullivan (men's basketball) are on tap to compete in their respective sports, extending a streak of representation for Villanova at the Summer Olympics that dates to the first such gathering held after the end of World War II (1948). Another former Wildcat, goalkeeper Jillian Loyden is an alternate on the United States' women's soccer team and could be activated to become the fifth VU product in London if circumstances dictate. Adrian Blincoe qualified to represent New Zealand in the 5,000 meters before announcing on July 19 that an ankle injury would prevent him from competing in his second Olympics.
Those are the bare facts.
But as is the case with every Olympian, there are stories among this contingent that speak to the loftiest aspirations of the Games, with tales of grit, commitment and substance.
Lisa Karcic arrived at Villanova in 2004 from New Hyde Park, N.Y. She redshirted in 2004-05 and then spent four years playing for head coach Harry Perretta. In 2007-08 she averaged 12.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game as a junior and then helped lead the `Cats to an NCAA Tournament appearance in her final season of 2008-09. Her calling card was a rare combination of size (6-1) and 3-point shooting that made her an invaluable cog in Perretta's offense.
"I learned so much about myself throughout my career at Nova," says Karcic. "I came in a shy, timid player and left a confident one."
When Karcic graduated with a degree from the Villanova School of Business, she hoped to find an outlet to continue playing professionally. There were no guarantees and the native of Nassau County, N.Y., knew full well that any opportunity which did arise would necessarily be far from the eastern United States. Yet Perretta was convinced that with the unique combination of size and perimeter skill, her game was well-suited to Europe.
"Her skill set is perfect for the international style of play," states Perretta. "She is a versatile player who can shoot, pass and dribble."
Karcic adapted well to the professional game and believes the lessons learned from Perretta, associate head coach Joe Mullaney and the staff served her well.
"I knew I had the ability to take my talents overseas and Villanova gave me the tools I needed to make sure of that," Karcic says. "I developed an all-around game, which is beneficial for the Euro style of play.
"Playing for Harry and his system you become a mentally tough player both on and off the court and I carry that with me to this day. Basketball wise no one has been tougher on me than Coach Perretta. I've seen it all with him and he gave me the skills I needed to be able to succeed in the professional world."
Karcic credits Perretta for helping guide her through the process of selecting an agent and the appropriate leagues to focus on in her three pro seasons (in 2011-12 she played for Caja Rural Tintos de Toro in Spain). It also helped that her family has roots in Europe, which led to the opportunity to become part of the Croatian national team. Once selected, she focused her energies on helping it earn a slot in the Olympics, which it did earlier this year with a victory over Canada.
The specter of the being an Olympian was nearly overwhelming, says Karcic.
"I've watched the Games growing up and even remember joking with my friends and teammates in high school that one day I will play in the Olympics," she states. "It was such a far-fetched dream at the time but when I got the call to play for the Croatian national team it became more of reality. Since winning that game against Canada in Turkey qualifying us for the Olympics, I have been on an emotional high. I remember calling my mom right after the win and just started to cry."
"To call myself an Olympian is surreal and I don't think it will feel real until I'm actually there and surrounded by world class athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. It is something I will carry with me for a lifetime."
The excitement, though, will be met with the reality of attempting to advance. Croatia's first opponent in the Games is the U.S. team.
"Well, they are four time defending gold medalists and we are the newbies," she says. "But mostly our challenge is that we are new to the Games. A lot of these teams/players have gone numerous times and we are inexperienced in that area."
The international stage is something Muncan, 29, has come to know since graduating from Villanova with a degree in Italian Studies and International Language. A native of Pancevo, Serbia, she has represented her country at the World Championships and qualified for the Olympics in June when she ran a 4:08.33 in the 1,500 meters at an event in New Jersey. In addition, she holds the Serbian records in both the 1,500 meters and mile.
As an undergraduate, Muncan was a 10-time BIG EAST champion and eight-time All-American. Her anchor lap at the 2006 Penn Relays helped Villanova secure its ninth distance medley relay title in the event.
Like Muncan, Reid is an accomplished product of Villanova's Track and Field program who anchored the Wildcats to a DMR title at the Penn Relays in her final spring as a collegiate competitor. That helped cap a remarkable career which include three Honda Sports awards, five individual national titles, 12 All-American honors and 12 BIG EAST titles.
The path for the Newmarket, Ontario native to London was filled with hurdles as she spent the better part of the spring and early summer chasing the Olympic `A' standard in the 5,000 meters that would have guaranteed a slot in her first Olympics. Even after winning the 5,000 m at Canada's Olympic Trials in June she appeared destined to miss the Olympics as she had not yet posted the `A' time.
Finally, on July 12, Athletics Canada announced that Reid, who turns 23 during the Olympics on Aug. 2, would in fact race as Canada's representative in the 5,000m under its "Rising Star" provision, given that she had achieved the `B' standard.
"It was stressful but the fact that things were compacted so tightly together here in the spring kind of worked to my advantage," Reid says. "I almost didn't have time to think about some of the stuff. At the beginning of the year, without an indoor season, all I was thinking about were the standards. I think anyone who knows me knows I race to win and when you are thinking about the times it kind of makes it a different race. So I'm excited that now that I have reached this place I can do what I do best, which is run for place instead of time."
Reid has represented her nation at the junior level but knows this will offer a whole new kind of experience.
"I have had a very small taste of what this will be like but it's just a fraction of what the Olympics is," she says. "I haven't worn a Canadian jersey in five years. I have been in America (for a while) and it's been very good to me. But it's kind of nice to go home, back to my roots, and put on the Maple Leaf."
The quest to reach London - which included hop-scotching to various events across the nation in an attempt to attain the Olympic standard in May and June - underscored to Reid the value of those closest to her. Her parents, Tommy and Ginny, lead that contingent.
"My dad worked tirelessly on my behalf to make sure that I can get there," Reid says. "My high school coach helped work as a liaison with Athletics Canada."
"Gina and Marcus had many conversations on my behalf to Athletics Canada," states Reid. "I've obviously never questioned why I came to Villanova. But it's times like these where I realize what a great place this is. They care for you so much - not only when you do well but when you're kind of having a hard time. They really fought for me and had my back. I thank God every day that I chose Villanova."
The final active participant in London is actually a native of Great Britain who will represent his nation on its home soil. Sullivan came to the U.S. in 1995 to pursue both education and basketball. At 6-7 he quickly became a key cog at St. Augustine High School and helped lead it to a State Parochial B title in 1999.
Sullivan's athletic gifts helped him crack most top 100 recruiting lists as a senior and his decision to enroll at Villanova was considered a coup for head coach Steve Lappas. When Jay Wright was named head coach in 2001, Sullivan adapted as quickly as any of the Wildcats to a new system that placed a premium on defensive tenacity.
"Andrew is long and very athletic," recalled Wright this week. "He really became a defensive stopper for us and had a great junior year. He was one of the guys that took what we were teaching to heart."
"It took a little while for us to pick up what coach Wright wanted us to do," said Sullivan as an undergraduate, "but once we did, it felt good. It probably helped my game."
Sullivan, 32, graduated in 2003 and is the oldest of Villanova's 2012 Olympians. Where Reid is just beginning her international career, Sullivan is appreciative of this opportunity at a later point in his career. In the nine years since his departure, Sullivan has played all over Europe, most recently in England with the Leicester Raiders. He remains in contact with Wright and former teammate Ricky Wright and is planning to make his first foray into coaching next season at a university while also maintaining his playing career.
"I was just happy to hear he's still playing," says Wright with a smile. "It's been a few years."
By virtue of the fact it is hosting the Olympics, Great Britain gained a berth in the Olympics. Sullivan serves as the team's captain and is an elder statesman of sorts for a group that will be dipping its foot into the deep waters of Olympic basketball for the first time. The forward scored 11 points in the fourth quarter of what turned into a 118-78 loss to the Americans earlier this month in an exhibition battle. Prior to that he had four assists in a win over Belgium.
Despite featuring Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls and some notable former American college players, the task before Great Britain figures to be formidable. It opens up against Russia on July 29 and then meets Brazil and Spain.
Yet for Sullivan, a man of few words during his Villanova career, the chance to be a part of the Olympics in his home country will be priceless.
"I have been lucky enough to represent the U.S. as a coach at the Pan American Games and World University Games and they were both amazing experiences," notes Wright. "But for Andrew to have this opportunity as an athlete, in his own country as a team captain, is something he will never forget. It means so much to him and all of us in the Villanova family are thrilled. He's worked hard for this and earned it."
Villanova's London contingent features uniquely accomplished individuals. One is closer to the end of his career than the beginning while another has been tabbed a "Rising Star" by her country's athletic federation. One is a seasoned international performer while another is helping her adopted country make its first foray on to the Olympic stage. One has been forced to the sidelines by injury while another waits patiently as an alternate, eager to help if the opportunity arises.
These are women and men whose eras cover the last decade of Villanova athletics but barely intersect. Six athletes are affiliated with six separate countries.
And yet they are linked.
Both by the excitement that lies ahead and the shared collegiate experience that helped lay the groundwork for their Olympic dreams to be realized.