Gophers going for gold

August 5, 2016
Ben Blankenship runs in a race.

Ben Blankenship joins Hassan Mead as former Gopher track athletes to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Blankenship won three individual Big Ten titles while helping the program to five total conference crowns.

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.