Summer Olympics brings USC vs UCLA rivalry into focus

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The Olympic Games are upon us, and a slew of athletes from Southern California will be competing in London. A lot of them have some sort of connection with our two biggest universities.

KCRW’s Matt Holzman speaks to athletic directors at USC and UCLA, and two water polo athletes from those schools, now playing together on the US team.

The University of California at Los Angeles was founded in 1919, and a year later the first Bruin athletes would compete in the Olympics in Antwerp –  Edward Butler was a long jumper and Clyde Swendsen played water polo.  But UCLA’s bitter rival USC – which was established well before the turn of the century – got to the Olympics first.  Emil Breitkrutz won a bronze in the 800-meter run in St. Louis in 1904.  Of course, the Olympics are an international symbol of peace and goodwill, so there’s no competition between the two schools when it comes to the Games. Right?

Okay, so maybe there is a little competition.  And Pat Haden – the Athletic Director at USC – and Michael Sondheimer – the Assistant AD at UCLA – are both quick to admit it.  In the Olympics in London this Summer, there are a couple of UCLA athletes competing against UCLA athletes – but from what I can tell, in no case are they both on the US team.  For instance, UCLA’s Jessica Cosby will compete in the hammer against USC’s Eva Orban. It’s just that Eva will represent her home country, Hungary.

U.S. Olympic water polo player Courtney Mathewson, from UCLA.

The Trojan-Bruin rivalry is legendary – especially in football and basketball.  A little less well known is the intense competition between the two schools in water polo.  UCLA or USC has played in the men’s water polo finals eight of the last ten years and one of the two has taken won the championship seven times of those eight times.  A Bruin or Trojan women’s team has played in the final nine out of the last ten years and one or the other has won it every time.

So, cut to the Olympics, where bitter water polo enemies are now playing together on the US team.  Like Lauren Wenger, the 6’3” all around powerhouse from USC and Courtney Mathewson, a high-scoring attacker who went to UCLA.

And it’s not just cultural inculcation, it’s years of competition.  So given all that history, Lauren told me it was a little weird when she first met the players on the US National Team. But that new focus has created brothers and sisters in arms on a lot of US Olympic teams.  So starting this Friday, whether they once were Bruins or Trojans, they’re now focused on bringing home the gold for Uncle Sam.