Among the over 11,000 athletes competing for their countries at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil were four who have called Brown their home.
Representing the United States in rowing were Tessa Gobbo ’13 and Anders Weiss ’15, while Louisa Chafee ’14 competed in sailing. Swimmer Sovijja Pou ’17 was the only current Brown athlete to compete in Rio, where he represented Cambodia.
Gobbo had the most successful Olympics of the four, taking home gold in the women’s eights competition. Though she is the first American gold medalist from Brown since 1932, she is no stranger to winning in this event. Gobbo was a member of the 2011 women’s NCAA championship crew team at Brown and also collected a title in the eights competition at the 2015 World Championships. The gold in Rio marked 10 straight races at the World Championships or Olympics where the American women have won the eights, continuing a dynasty that has drawn comparisons to the Soviet hockey teams of the ’60s and ’70s.
“It definitely feels like I am a part of something so much bigger than just the one year’s race,” Gobbo said. “It’s a bizarre and awesome feeling.”
Despite all of her success at the international level, the NCAA championship team at Brown was especially memorable for Gobbo because contribution was required from every member for the team title, she said.
“All of the boats counted, and we had to support each other (at Brown),” she said. “Whereas on the national team, we’re all competing for the same seat, so the team atmosphere is different. It’s hard to pick the more important win for me because both were so crucial and exciting.”
Considered a long shot to qualify for Rio, Weiss was cut from consideration for a spot in a larger boat but salvaged his Olympic hopes by earning a spot in the pair event, an experience he described in a TIME Magazine article: “Training for the Olympics Taught Me the Secret to Life.”
Weiss ultimately finished 11th in the final standings with his partner, Guregian Nareg.
Forced to make the most of his chance in a pairs race, Weiss recognized the heightened responsibility of being one half of a two-man team.
“In a two-man pair, it’s all on you. You’ve got your partner and yourself, and that’s it,” he said. “We didn’t have great success, … but that was our best shot. The Olympics was a very special competition and will hold a very special spot in my heart for a very long time.”
Weiss raced for the varsity eight team during his years at Brown, twice finishing second at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association national championships and earning All-Ivy distinction.
In the pool, Pou was one of only six Cambodian athletes at the Rio games, an experience he said led him to meet athletes from different teams while away from competition.
“The athletes in other sports seemed really confined,” he said. “I was forced to branch out to other countries and make other friends, while in a bigger team you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that.”
Pou is somewhat of a prodigy on the small Cambodian national team, as he currently holds six national records, including the 100m, 200m and 400m freestyle. He competed in the 100m freestyle in Rio, finishing 57th in preliminary rounds. While competing for the Bears, he also swims in short-distance butterfly events and individual medleys.
Given his youth and status in Cambodian swimming history, Pou hasn’t yet ruled out a run at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, though his status as a student in the Program in Liberal Medical Education could influence that decision.
Rio “was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” he said. “I would love to (compete) if the stars align that way. We’ll have to see given my career choice.”
Chafee competed in the mixed multihull division of the sailing competition, which is scored with an aggregate system in which boats earn points toward qualifying for the final race and for the final standings. Chafee and her partner Bora Gulari finished fourth in the final race and eighth on aggregate points in the overall competition.
“It’s a very surreal feeling the entire time,” she said of the Olympic experience. “You really can’t believe it’s happening.”
Despite being a native Rhode Islander, Chafee had little sailing experience before coming to Brown. She found her niche as a decorated member of Brown’s sailing program, earning All-American honors three times and competing in three different national regattas.
A successful career in college made dreams of competing on the highest stage seem that much more attainable, Chafee said.
“I thought, ‘If I can do that, maybe if I work really hard and with a little bit of luck, I can make the Olympics,’” she said.
Though all four athletes took unique journeys to the Rio games, they all credited their shared experience as a Brown athlete as being formative for their rise to the highest stage in athletics.
Gobbo and Weiss both attributed their strength, speed and desire to continue improving to Brown’s nationally respected crew program and its coaches.
“The coaching staff whipped me into shape,” Weiss said. “I wasn’t always the best rower at Brown; there were some ups and downs in my career there. Brown really teaches you how to race, and that’s what I held onto when I went to the national team.”
“Something I learned from (Brown) was that no matter how fast you are, you can always be faster,” Gobbo said. “They did a very good job preparing me for a very difficult transition that all athletes go through when they join a national team.”
Like Chafee, Pou said coming to Brown made all the difference for his being able to continue with his sport.
“If I didn’t have the opportunity to swim at Brown, I probably would have had to train by myself or eventually quit the sport,” he said. “My time at Brown has helped me significantly. My teammates and coaches push me constantly.”
Even seeing Brown students who are driven by academic or entrepreneurial goals at the school served as inspiration for Chafee to make the Olympic team.
“Everyone’s pursuing their dreams and doing their own thing — it just reinforces what you want to do,” she said. “If they’re going for their dreams, why can’t I go for mine?”