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In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail. This is the first article in the series.
It’s a feud as old as the Hollywood Hills.
For nearly a century, the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles have engaged in fierce athletic warfare. It’s the kind of rivalry where statues of the school’s mascots get defaced and Victory Bells are stolen.
Some peg the start of this rivalry back to the universities’ first football face-off in 1929, when the USC Trojans pummeled the UCLA’s Bruins, 76-0. Since then, football has been one of the colleges’ main battlegrounds, as they’re both members of the Pac 12 Conference. (To this day, no one has forgotten the 1967 game in which USC running back O.J. Simpson ran 64-yards to make the winning touchdown, 21-20.) The two schools have also waged other rivalries, including in basketball, baseball, soccer, water polo, and volleyball.
Even when it comes to the Olympic medal count, numbers matter. The two schools rank among the top three American universities with the most Olympic medals, with USC coming in at No. 1 and UCLA following at No. 3. The competition between the schools can be especially keen in Olympic sports where teammates not only battle other countries, but also each other, i.e., swimming and gymnastics. In some sports, though, athletes must put all differences aside and literally be team players, as they face off against other nations, with no opportunity to win individual medals.
And so it will be this Saturday in two matches: the USA Men’s Volleyball team vs. France and the USA Women’s Water Polo team vs. Japan. Each U.S. team has a good population of Bruins and Trojans. For Women’s Water Polo, UCLA is represented by Rachel Fattal, Maddie Musselman, and Alys Williams, while USC give us Kaleigh Gilchrist, Stephania Haralabi, Paige Hauschil, and Amanda Longan; for Men’s Volleyball, UCLA players are Garrett Muagututia and Mitch Stahl, while the USC player is Micah Christenson.
To add a little more perspective, UCLA has been the dominant school in both sports: in Men’s Volleyball the university has won 19 NCAA championships to USC’s four; in Women’s Water polo, UCLA has seven championships to USC’s six.
Several players, in particular, will be the ones to watch.
For Women’s Water Polo, UCLA’s Fattal outscored everyone on Team USA in the three preliminary round games at the World League Super Final, finishing the tournament with 15 goals. She's also won gold with the Women’s U.S. Water Polo team, defeating Italy in the 2016 Olympics, and also won gold in the 2015, 2017, and 2019 World Championships. USC's Kaleigh Gilchrist helped lead USC to the NCAA championship this spring, scoring three goals in the national semifinals. And if that wasn't enough, last month, Gilchrist won another national championship—only this time, cruising on the water in the collegiate women’s division of the National Scholastic Surfing Association.
For Men’s Volleyball, Muagututia is following in his parents' footsteps: His mother played the sport at the University of California, Riverdale, while his dad played for the U.S. Navy (and later represented American Samoa in the 1994 Olympics two-seater bobsleigh event at the 1994 Winter Olympics). Garrett, meanwhile, has earned gold and silver medals with the U.S. team at the 2011 and 2012 Pan American Cups. His teammate, UCLA’s Stahl, who played pro in France and Belgium, has been a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team since 2015. USC’s Christenson won bronze with the U.S. volleyball team at the 2016 Olympics.
At the end of the day, though, it really is all about working together. Says John Speraw, head coach of Men's Indoor Volleyball, "If you want your young player of any sport to watch a great team dynamic and how they support one another and make each other better, this is a great team to watch."
Speraw incidentally, also happens to be the coach for Men's Volleyball at UCLA.
Tune in to see how athletes from bitter-rival schools join forces for the sake of Team USA.
For sports excitement, turn to the Olympics. For thrills behind the wheel, click here to see what Nissan has to offer.
Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including Men’s Volleyball, USA vs. France, Saturday at 9:00 a.m. ET and Women’s Water Polo, USA vs. Japan, Saturday at 10:45 a.m. ET.