One of the biggest impacts that COVID-19 had on the professional athlete world was the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While Tokyo may seem a long way from Columbia, Missouri, for three athletes — and one former athlete — it felt much closer.
Three of the 2020 Olympians have not only been to Columbia, but called it home for several years as Mizzou undergraduates. Karissa Schweizer, Mikel Schreuders and Fabian Schwingenschlögl brought worldwide recognition to our small, but not-so-small-world town during the global competition.
The athletes, along with Natasha Brown, an MU alumna, prior Olympian and current MU coach, reminisce about their athletic adventures, times spent on-campus and goals going forward.
Athlete to Coach
For Natasha Brown, assistant head coach of sprints, hurdles and relays at MU — and an MU alumna — the Olympics hold very special memories.
She competed twice, in 1992 and 1996, but says it wasn’t something she had been pursuing as a childhood dream. “I knew it was the epitome of the highest level as an athlete, and thought it would be cool to get there but I didn’t really think about what it would be like to become an Olympian. When I tried out for the team, it was this unique situation where all the finalists in the 400 meters virtually crossed the finish line at the same time. There was a clear winner, but we weren’t sure who was second or third,” she says. “I was handed a flag and told to take a victory lap, still not knowing for sure that I had made the team. I didn’t think of myself as an Olympian until I ran the first round at the Olympics.
“I ran the first leg of the 4×400 meter relay. I spent a lot of time out on the track setting blocks and waiting for the announcement of the participants. People were chanting ‘USA’ and in that moment, you feel so connected to our nation. It’s like wow, we (meaning our relay and the United States) are going to do this. When I look back at the experience, to be representing the U.S. at that level, it’s pretty emotional.”
Her second Olympic competition, four years later, brought bigger obstacles. “I had been injured in 1995 with stress fractures in both feet,” she says. “Normally if you’re trying to make an Olympic team, you have a year to hone things, but I was just trying to get back to where I could run. 1996 was toward the end of my career, so when I was selected for the Olympics, I was excited because I knew what that meant.”
When Brown was training while attending MU, she didn’t use the same track that athletes do now. In fact, she doesn’t remember MU having a regular track at that point. There were three lanes around the football field with one curve, hidden under the stands.
“I like the fact that I made an Olympic team and did not have all the things people clamor about,” she says. “My competitors had state-of-the art facilities, great weather, massage therapists … yes, all those things are nice and definitely make it easier to run fast but the truth is you, the athlete, have to put in the work. I had access to that 3-lane track, to our weight room, to coaches and trainers who knew what they were doing and that worked for me.
“Iowa and Missouri aren’t track meccas of the country and I wasn’t amazing,” she says. “I was a pretty good athlete who just worked hard. That’s kind of the way I coach. I’m not saying everyone I work with will make an Olympic team, but you never know. I try to instill a consistent work ethic in my athletes that could lead them to be champions. My philosophy is there’s so much more to track and field than being the best on the team — can you be the fastest in the nation and can you be the fastest in the world?”
It Runs in the (MU) Family
Brown attended MU for her undergrad, but is from Des Moines, less than 10 minutes away from where Karissa Schweizer, another MU alumnae and Olympian, grew up.
Although the 2020 Olympics was the first time Schweizer competed in the Olympics, she has been running across headlines for years. “When I was working at Drake, we tried to recruit her, but she didn’t come,” Brown says. “I’m a little biased and thought, well if she’s not coming here, I can only be so upset seeing that she’s going to my alma mater.”
While Schweizer was a student at MU, she was named an NCAA All-American 11 times and has more NCAA National Championship titles than any other MU graduate. She’s also won numerous titles from the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association and the SEC.
When Brown returned to Columbia to coach at Mizzou in 2016, she says Schweizer was sort of at this turning point where things were starting to click. “Coach Mark Burns had set Karissa on a path of unimaginable success. As a six-time National Champion collegiate record holder … she was understanding what she needed to do to be great,” she says.
In the 2020 Olympics, Schweizer placed 11th overall in the women’s 5,000-meter run and placed 12th in the 10,000-meter run. Columbia Mayor Brian Treece recently declared August 7 as Karissa Schweizer day in honor of the athlete.
When it comes to her and Schweizer’s relationship, Brown says she tries to stay out of her way. “When you see an athlete doing great things, the last thing they need is someone coming in with their own ideas. I just try to be supportive; there were times when races didn’t go the way she wanted, but my job was to simply offer encouragement.”
Diving into Fame
Although the University of Missouri may be one of the most land-locked college campuses in the country, it has no shortage of swimming talent. Both Mikel Schreuders and Fabian Schwingenschlögl graduated from MU and competed in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Schreuders, a swimmer on Aruba’s team, is no stranger to the Olympics. He competed in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro as a sophomore in college (at MU, of course).
His professional swimming ambitions began sometime in high school but became more concrete once he was at MU, he
says. “Once I realized I was becoming better and better, especially when I went to college, I had a dream to be a professional swimmer. I didn’t think it was possible. During my freshman year of college when I made the Olympic B standard, I realized it may come true.”
Since his freshman year, Schreuders has competed in multiple world championships, the Pan American games, NCAA and SEC championships. His two most-swam events are the 100- and 200-meter freestyle. At MU, he currently holds the record for the 200-meter freestyle, one of the same events he competed in for the 2020 Olympics.
Although he had competed in the Olympics before, his second time was very different. “With all the uncertainty that there was last year,” he says. “Competing in the Olympics is a great honor, and a relief that it’s happening.” Although concerns of COVID-19 outbreaks made the news, Schreuders says the event’s restrictions and rules made him feel comfortable and at-peace.
During his time at MU, Schreuders studied engineering. “As a young swimmer, I had decent times but at Mizzou, I really excelled into this professional swimmer,” he says. “That’s where I reached all of my best times, and I took the experiences and knowledge that the coaches there gave me, and it’s something I use every day during practice or competitions.
“I really liked my experience at Mizzou academically — it wasn’t all about swimming. I’m really glad I got my degree while I was able to swim, and I will cherish my experience there for the rest of my life.”
Schreuders competed in both the men’s 200-meter freestyle and men’s 100-meter freestyle in Tokyo, but did not advance to the final round. His plans for the immediate future include finding a new place to train in — he’s been in Aruba since May — and continuing to swim professionally until 2024.
For Schwingenschlögl, a swimmer for Germany in this year’s Olympics and an MU student from 2013 to 2017, his professional athlete goals began much earlier than Schreuders. He first thought of the Olympics as a goal in 2008.
“My first possibility to make the
Olympic team was in 2012, but at that time I wasn’t ready, mentally or emotionally,” he says. Although being a professional athlete became his ultimate goal while in high school, he began swim training at age 8 and first competed in 2004.
By the time he graduated college, he was a 12-time All American athlete, held Mizzou’s 100-meter breaststroke record and had competed in the NCAA and SEC championships several times. But, he says, the Olympics are on a different level.
“Competing in the Olympics this time around is definitely something special,” he says, “but for me, it didn’t really matter if it was in London, Rio or Tokyo.”
Schwingenschlögl earned his bachelor’s in industrial engineering from MU, and says his time there helped get him to where he is today. “My time at Mizzou put me in the position to fight for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, and ultimately the experience for Tokyo 2020. Without my experience at Mizzou, I wouldn’t be in such a comfortable position.”
Schwingenschlögl competed in both the men’s mixed 4 100-meter medley relay and the men’s 100-meter breaststroke, advancing to the semifinal round for breaststroke. He says he may pursue a master of business arts to round out his education, but regardless will “definitely be doing more swimming.”