Golden Girl

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Editor's Note: Cal sophomore Staciana Stitts recently returned to Berkeley from the Sydney Olympics, where she won a gold medal in swimming. Stitts swam the breaststroke for the U.S. in the qualifying heat of the 400-meter medley relay.

This week Daily Californian Sports Editor Matt Duffy sat down with Stitts and talked about her experience in Sydney and plans for the future.

Daily Californian: What was the Olympic experience like for you?

Staciana Stitts: The village itself was beautiful. I thought it would be huge but it really wasn't that big. They had a main drag down the center of the village where all the buses ran, and houses and streets off each, and it was all built new for us. The United States swim team had three houses, each three stories, all really beautiful. The village got more exciting as people were finishing, more rowdy, people would party. There was a dining hall on one side, 24-hour free food, free McDonald's. It was so great, I ate so much food. The other side had an internet shack, dance club, library, church, photo developing place, post office, pretty much everything you need.

DC: Did you get caught up in the Olympic spirit?

SS: Definitely. I think the biggest thing was the opening ceremonies. Every country was sitting in the gymnastic stadium, the Superdome. Each country was in there sitting in our groups, battling back and forth with cheers in this huge dome, it's amazing. When we finally marched out into the stadium of 110,000 people, you could just feel the energy of all these people cheering for something so simple and so positive. So many of them didn't speak English and it was like we're a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

DC: A lot was made of the swimming rivalry between the U.S. and Australia. Was it really all it was hyped up to be?

SS: It's funny because Australia's press is mainly tabloid so they would be out of control and blow everything up. It started because we came in as the underdogs. The women were not even supposed to get medals. The spirit of swimming and racing hard was great and so I think the rivalry itself was more the media's doing than the swimmers' doing. If anything it was a very healthy rivalry because it made us swim faster.

DC: You qualified for Sydney at the U.S. Olympic trials by only one hundredth of a second. What was it like winning by so narrow of a margin?

SS: Especially because you can't see anyone, I didn't know what was going on, but I could hear the announcer getting more excited as we came into the wall. I never finish really strong, I always just die and I said, "You have to finish this race, this is the one that counts." I remember going into the wall and turning around and not even looking at the times but seeing the No. 2 by my name - you have to get first or second - and it was like, "Oh my God, I made it." The night before I was trying to think if I made it if I was going to stay calm and reserved. I had absolutely no control. It was chaotic, I was crying and laughing. I loved it.

DC: What was the most exciting part of your summer?

SS: Probably trials, because the Olympics were amazing and the experience I won't ever forget. But the trials itself, in the swimming realm, were the best because I was on top of my game and I was ready to go. In general, Australia was the best overall experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I learned a lot about myself outside of swimming that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been there.

DC: What were some of those things?

SS: I grew up really fast, being there, it was the first time I wasn't the center of things and I don't demand to be the center, but it was the first time I was the underdog and I had to really be aggressive to get attention - that was different. Also, just experiencing a different culture makes America look so small because we're so egocentric. I mean really it's not the center. To step outside of that and see a different culture, many cultures, that was really important.

DC: Did you get to hang out with the other Cal athletes that were at the Olympics?

SS: Anthony Ervin was on the team. I hung out with him a lot. Elli Overton was swimming for Australia but she's at Cal. Also Joscelin Yeo was there and she was at Cal last year. Also the two water polo players Ericka Lorenz and Heather Petri - everyone called her "Peti." I had never known her before that. It was really cool to hang out with them too.

DC: What are you doing now swimming-wise? Are you in school?

SS: I am swimming. I'm training and competing in about about two meets (this fall) because I need to get back into it and I want to be a part of the team. But I'm not doing school so I have the perfect college life (laughs).

DC: Cal swimmer Haley Cope had a guest column in The Daily Cal and she wrote about how great it was for her to see you make the Olympics even though she didn't. She is not the only person on this campus that feels that affection toward you. What is it like to be so well liked?

SS: I really try and keep a positive attitude, even with my competitors. It almost hurts me to be enemies with people. I love sharing the joy of what I did with other people, that's why I've been going around sharing my medal. It helps me feel all that excitement and energy. I feed off it. I couldn't have done all that I did without the support that I have. I really believe there was a higher power willing me to the wall. I think that energy coming together helped me more than hurt me.

DC: How has all of the exposure that you have gotten with Olympics effected the way you deal with your alopecia?

SS: It's changed my role with it. Now I'm looking into being a spokesperson for the National Alopecia Foundation. I like it because it has put it on a broader level where now people understand. Previously people thought I was just sick and had cancer. And then coming to Cal it was either a really cool haircut or I was just hardcore swimmer (laughs). I think making the Olympic team put it on a much broader stage, letting people know about it. It was amazing when I made it. Because I got so much coverage I got this huge response from people with alopecia, writing me e-mails and letters saying they were so proud that I could be open with it. Even one woman said, "Because of you, I'm going to go public and go natural." That was probably more important that winning the gold medal because it makes the spirit of the Olympics a lot more than just the material of it.

DC: What are your plans for your future at Cal?

SS: Win NCAAs and stay with college swimming because I love it. I really want to get a national title. I think that's very within range. Beat Stanford. I think college swimming will carry me through to (the 2004 Olympics) in Athens. I'll really only have to swim one year after my eligibility runs out. I'd love to go back, who wouldn't? I'm going to have to see where college takes me.

DC: What's it been like around Spieker Pool since you've been back?

SS: There's a lot of excitement. I've had to be really careful not to steal the show. I don't want to take away from the team at all. I've just been getting back into it and letting people see that I'm a normal person. Sure I'm an Olympian, but I'm still Staciana.


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