On July 12, 1912, at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, USC freshman Fred Kelly readied himself to compete in the 110-meter hurdles against four other Americans and Great Britain’s Kenneth Powell.
It was expected he’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. But the preemptive favorite, 22-year-old John Nicholson, tripped over the eighth hurdle, and Kelly sprinted ahead of his opponents to take the gold medal with a time of 15.1 seconds. Not only did Kelly become the winner of the school’s first gold medal, but he unknowingly started a rich tradition of success unparalleled by other universities.
One hundred years after Fred Kelly won gold in Sweden, native Frenchman and USC alumnus Clement Lefert served as a member of France’s 4×100-meter swimming team that defeated Team USA in the closing seconds of the race. Lefert’s win at the 2012 London games continued the streak of at least one gold medal by a Trojan dating back to Kelly’s victory one century prior.
USC’s prowess at the Olympics is well documented — following the 2012 London games, the Trojans had accumulated 135 gold, 87 silver and 65 bronze medals for a total of 287. That puts them 16th overall when compared to every other country in the world, ahead of Canada, South Korea and Greece.
With 418 Olympians, USC has produced more Olympic athletes and medals since 1904 than any other college in the country. In comparison, UCLA has accumulated 250 medals (125 golds), Texas had 73 gold medals and LSU, rival atop the latest college football polls, had 30 medals overall (15 golds).
One reason for USC’s Olympic success is the diversity of its athletes: In total, USC has fielded Olympians from 59 different countries.
In the 2012 London games, Cristian Quintero and Emir Bekric became the first Trojans to participate for their respective nations. Quintero, a sophomore, competed in the 200-meter and 400-meter freestyle swimming events for Venezuela but did not place. Bekric, also a sophomore, finished 14th in the 400-meter hurdles for Serbia.
Allyson Felix, who attended USC but did not compete for the Trojans, won gold medals in the 200-meter, the 4×100-meter relay and the 4×400-meter relay. Three USC players were on the gold medal winning women’s water polo team, while the men’s 4×400-meter relay team, which had Trojans Bryshon Nellum and Josh Nance finished in second place.
Apart from USC’s collective success at the Olympics, individual Trojans have carved out impressive legacies worthy of recognition in their own right. Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller and Tina Thompson combined for eight gold medals and one bronze medal in women’s basketball, spanning from 1984-2008.
Leslie’s run was especially impressive, as the three-time All-American won four straight gold medals with the U.S. Her streak began in 1996 in Atlanta and ended shortly before retiring in 2008.
Swimmer Janet Evans took home four gold medals between 1988 and 1992 and also set a world record for the 400-meter freestyle that stood until 2006. She is one of six Trojans to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, joining swimmer John Naber, three sprinters (Charles Paddock, Parry O’Brien and Frank Wykoff) and diver Sammy Lee.
Lee had a particularly accomplished career, becoming the first Asian-American to take home a gold medal, a feat he accomplished twice. USC’s all-time leader in medals is swimmer Murray Rose, who won six (four gold, one silver and one bronze) between 1956 and 1960.
The 2012 games were the latest example of USC’s Olympic turnout. Since 2000, at least 40 Trojans have participated in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London. This year, there were 41. And if the last 100 years of gold medals prove anything, it’s that the Trojans will continue to be an Olympic force well into the next century.