Friday night, the summer games of the XXXI Olympiad officially begin with the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That had us wondering: How successful have Minnesotans been at the Olympics?
As you might expect, this freezing-in-winter state has been home to a deep bench of winter Olympians: skier Lindsey Vonn, hockey player and former Gov. Wendell Anderson, and more than half of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team among them. But Minnesota is no slouch when it comes to summer games, either.
Eleven athletes who call Minnesota home will represent the United States in Rio in two weeks of Minnesota nice (we hope) competition at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. We’ve got badminton, basketball, cycling, gymnastics, rugby, track and field, swimming, triathlon and wrestling covered.
(The official Team U.S.A. roster doesn’t count as Minnesotans athletes who play or have played for teams here but are from somewhere else, like Somalia-born runner Hassan Mead, who went to Minneapolis South High School and the University of Minnesota and is listed as living in Oregon, and the Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore, but we’ll be cheering for all of them in Rio.)
In the last 120 years, 134, or just over a third, of the 396 Minnesotans who have participated in past Olympic games competed in summer games, according to a list compiled by Sports-Reference.com that tallies Olympians by state. This list counts Olympians starting from the 1896 summer games in Athens, Greece, up through the 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia. The website defined state affiliation as being born in-state, being affiliated with a team in-state or having died in-state, and does not include paralympians.
Of those 396 Minnesotans, 130 were medalists, and won a combined 81 medals in hockey, nine in basketball and seven in rowing.
In summer games, Minnesota-affiliated Olympians have won 52 medals individually or as part of a medal-winning team, including nine basketball medals — eight gold and one silver, according to Sports-Reference.
A full third of those Minnesota basketball medals belong to three-time gold medalist Katie Smith, who played for the Minnesota Lynx from 1999 to 2005 and is now retired from basketball. Current Lynx players Augustus, Moore and Lindsay Whalen have also won gold. All three are again part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team this year.
North Star staters have taken home seven medals in Olympic rowing and six in swimming, according to Sports-Reference.
One summer sport in which Minnesotans have built up a reputation — though not as many medals — is wrestling, said Patrick Mader, author of “Minnesota Gold: Conversations with Northland Athletes Competing on the World Stage.”
Some give credit for Minnesota’s wrestling legacy to Alan Rice, a former Olympian known for Greco-Roman wrestling, a style that allows holds only above the waist. He helped found the Minnesota Amateur Wrestling Club. The Minnesota Training Center in Minneapolis has sent wrestlers to every summer Olympics since 1968’s games in Mexico City.
Minnesotans have won three medals in wrestling, including two bronze and one silver, according to the Sports-Reference list.
Andy Bisek, a 29-year-old wrestler who sports a distinctive mustache, grew up in Watertown and Chaska and will be competing in Greco-Roman wrestling in his first Olympic games in Rio this month.
Bisek, who now lives in Colorado, told MinnPost he learned Minnesota had a wrestling tradition when he was pretty young.
“I've always been in the culture of it,” he said. “My dad wrestled, his brothers wrestled, my older brother wrestled and my younger brother, too.”
“I've kind of always known about that history. It probably wasn't until I went to college and was wrestling Greco full-time when I thought I could be a part of that history as well,” he said.
Lots of hockey
Still, they don’t call Minnesota the state of hockey for nothing. Of the 48 gold medals won by Minnesotans, 22 were for hockey, according to Sports-Reference.
Twelve of those hockey golds went to members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team. That year, Team U.S.A. won the gold at Lake Placid after beating reigning champions the Soviet Union (and Finland in the final). Herb Brooks, the team’s coach, was also a Minnesotan.
“In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, about half the roster or more of the (U.S.) Olympic hockey teams were Minnesotans,” Mader said.
Mader attributes Minnesota’s hockey legacy in large part to the die-hard hockey culture in many of Minnesota’s small towns.
“Particularly on the Iron Range and along the border, the populace there, through community effort, built rinks and the people there were just dedicated,” he said.
In Mader’s book, 1976 Olympian Steve Sertich, of Virginia, Minnesota, remembers his dad heading up an effort to build a full-sized hockey rink on mining land near their home when he was a kid. Residents of the small town spent hundreds of hours installing the rink, which included lights.
“I had a place to play,” Sertich told Mader.
Looking for a Minnesotan to root for in Rio? The Team USA roster (in this case, athletes whose hometowns are in Minnesota only) includes rugby player Garrett Bender of Minneapolis; Chaska wrestler Andy Bisek; Stillwater runner Ben Blankenship; Arden Hills cyclist Kelly Catlin; St. Francis gymnast Kiana Eide; Hopkins rugby player Kathryn Johnson; St. Paul triathlete Gwen Jorgensen; Minneapolis badminton player Paula Lynn Obanana; Minneapolis swimmer David Plummer; St. Cloud cyclist Alise Post; and Hutchinson’s own Lindsay Whalen, who plays for the Minnesota Lynx.
Random Acts of Data is an occasional series by MinnPost data reporter Greta Kaul and news editor Tom Nehil. The goal: to answer questions about all things Minnesota using the vast amount of data at our disposal. If you have a question you’re wondering about, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line, “Random Acts of Data.”