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Gophers going for gold

August 5, 2016

Ben Blankenship runs in a race.

Editor's note: See a summary of the Gopher athletes who earned medals or qualified for their events' final heats at the bottom of this story.

Once again, the maroon and gold will be well represented at the Olympic games for the next fortnight or so. Seven former Gopher athletes will be in Rio, with four competing for Team USA and one each for Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Czech Republic. So if you’re looking for a time to tune in to the thousands of hours of TV and online coverage, keep an eye out for these Golden—and maybe gold-destined—Gophers.

David Plummer – swimming

The 2008 U grad is the first Gopher men’s swimmer in 52 years to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, doing so in his fourth attempt. Plummer finished second in the 100-meter backstroke at the Olympic trials to make the team. The 11-time All-American finished his semifinal in 52.12 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year and the fifth-fastest time ever.

Ben Blankenship – track and field

A native of Stillwater, Blankenship took third in the 1,500 meter final in Eugene, Ore., clocking a 3:36.18. The Gophers alum edged 2012 Olympic silver medalist Leonel Manzano by less than half a second for the final qualifying spot. A four-time All-American for the Gophers, Blankenship still holds school records for the indoor mile, the indoor 3,000 meters, and the outdoor 1,500 meters.

Hassan Mead – track and field

Mead took second in the 5,000 meters in Eugene with a time of 13:35.70 to qualify for Rio. Like Blankenship, he will be making his Olympic debut. An eight-time All-American for the Gophers, Mead still owns Minnesota records in the outdoor 10,000 meters, the outdoor 5,000 meters, the indoor 5,000 meters, and the 8,000 meters in cross country

Lindsay Whalen – basketball

Whalen is a household name in Minnesota. The native of Hutchinson became an All-American icon for the Gophers during their run to the Final Four in 2004 and set a number of long-standing individual records. Since 2010 she has been starring for Minnesota in the WNBA, helping the Lynx to three league titles in the last five years. She’ll be playing in her second straight Olympic games.

Daly Santana – volleyball

Recent U of M alum Daly Santana was named to the Puerto Rico Olympic team as one of four outside hitters on the 12-player roster. Santana will be on the first Puerto Rican team to ever qualify for the Olympic Games, and the last team to qualify for Rio. She helped lead the Gophers to the Final Four in her senior season last year.  

Kierra Smith – swimming

Of the entire Olympics-bound U of M contingent, Smith is the lone current student-athlete; she took the past year off to train for Rio. She qualified to swim for Team Canada in the 100- and 200-meter backstroke. Smith is a four-time Big Ten champion and was the 2015 Big Ten Swimmer of the Year. She also was the 2015 NCAA champion in the 200-yard breaststroke.

Barbora Spotakova — track and field

The 35-year old Spotakova became the first Gopher women’s track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics back in 2004, when she represented her native Czech Republic. She won Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 and is the current world record holder in the javelin. For the Gophers she competed in both the javelin and heptathlon.

Success in Rio
Plummer earned a bronze medal in the finals of the 100-meter backstroke (with a time of 52.40), and later tacked on a gold as part of the 4x100-meter medley relay team. (At age 30, he became the oldest swimmer to medal in his first Olympics since 1912.) Blankenship finished 8th in the 1,500 meters (with a time of 3:51:09) and Mead 11th in the 5,000 meters (13:09.81). Whalen earned her second gold medal for the U.S. team that captured its sixth straight Olympics championship. Smith finished seventh in the 200-meter breaststroke (2:23.19), and Spotakova took home bronze in the javelin with a throw of 64.80 meters. In addition, University of Minnesota student Kelly Catlin (who is not a Gopher athlete) earned a silver medal in cycling when her team finished second in women's team pursuit. 

Learn more about these athletes via


From certifiable classic to state-of-the-art, the U of M is bursting with iconic sports facilities. We have the venerable Williams Arena (aka “The Barn”)—with its unique raised floor—which has seen a century’s worth of hardcourt history. There’s the world-class University Aquatic Center, which has hosted numerous championship events. And our puck fans light up when they walk into Mariucci and Ridder Arenas, the envy of hockey fans everywhere. Discover more about our athletics facilities.

Good Times at ‘The Bank’

On the east edge of campus, TCF Bank Stadium is one of the newest stadiums in the country. It boasts the largest home locker room in college or professional football (you could run a 60-yard dash inside it) and one of the largest video boards. It’s home to the University of Minnesota Marching Band, and hosts big-name concerts and freshman convocation.


The University of Minnesota sporting scene is rich in traditions, from Homecoming (which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014) to homespun chants that get the crowd going.

A Tradition of Excellence

From our seven national championships in football to our 11 combined national titles in women’s and men’s hockey, the University of Minnesota is known for its athletics excellence.

Here’s a snapshot of that greatness. Last year alone, the U of M won four team conference championships along with one national championship in women's hockey. The Gophers also had three individual NCAA national champions—Yu Zhou in 3-meter diving, Kierra Smith in 200 breaststroke, and Luca Wieland in heptathlon.

Our student-athletes also excelled in the classroom. For the second year in a row, the U of M ranked first among public institutions in its Academic Progress Report (APR). Fifteen Gopher programs posted perfect APR scores in 2013-14, and Gopher student-athletes had a cumulative GPA of 3.27.

Colorful Stories

Why are the Gopher colors maroon and gold, you ask? Thank Mrs. Augusta Smith for that. She was an English instructor (with good design sense) who chose those colors for graduation garb in 1880, “which made a favorable impression on the students and faculty,” so the story goes. “Ski-U-Mah” began 130 years ago as a rugby chant, playing off a Sioux battle cry. And legendary radio announcer Halsey Hall coined the nickname “Golden Gophers” in reference to the all-gold attire of the football team in the 1930s. Those years were golden, indeed, as the Gophers won five national championships in football between 1934 and 1941.

Cheerleading was Born Here

One of the most visible traditions in all of sports originated at the University of Minnesota. In the fall of 1898, the football team had lost three straight games and an editorial in the school paper said, “Any plan that would stir up enthusiasm for athletics would be helpful.” Student Johnny Campbell offered to lead organized cheers at the next home game against Northwestern, which Minnesota won 17-6. Much of the credit went to Campbell and his “yell leaders.” At that otherwise ordinary game, the tradition of cheerleading was born.

Learn about the “Pride of Minnesota”—the University of Minnesota Marching Band—and check out the U of M school songs.

Goldy Gopher

When it comes to excellence—and toothy grins—nobody beats Goldy Gopher, the beloved U of M mascot. Goldy is both athletic (how many other rodents can stickhandle a puck on ice or crank out 56 pushups after an eighth touchdown?) and entertaining, evidenced by two national mascot champion titles this decade.

You want entertainment? Goldy’s antics will make your head spin … or is it the other way around?

A Snapshot of Gopher Greats

  • Bud Grant with football
    Bud Grant
    Harry “Bud” Grant was one of the most beloved coaches in the state of Minnesota, guiding the Minnesota Vikings to perennial success and to four Super Bowl appearances. Before that he was the ultimate multi-sport athlete for the Gophers, playing football, basketball, and baseball and earning nine letters. He played professionally in the NBA, NFL, and CFL before becoming a coach.

Big Time in the Big Ten

When you talk about big-time power conferences, the Big Ten tops the list. It’s the oldest Division I college athletic conference in the nation, with a lineage of legendary sports powers—Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, to name a few—and more than a century of athletic and academic excellence.

How big is it? The Big Ten launched the first conference-owned television network in 2007, and the Big Ten Network now has more than 50 million subscribers. And the conference is growing. Penn State became the 11th school in 1990, Nebraska the 12th in 2011, and this year the conference welcomes Maryland and Rutgers.

Welcome to the Big Ten, sports fans. It doesn’t get any bigger.

Recreation and Wellness

It’s not just about the sports that others play at the University of Minnesota. You can stay fit, healthy, and happy, too. Students have access to stunning Recreation and Wellness Centers. Here you can take group fitness classes, join in intramural sports, go climbing, swimming, or spinning, and find just the right exercise—indoors or out—to fit your needs.