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Rudy Winkler throws the hammer at the 2016 NCAA Track & Field Championships.

Five alumni headed to Tokyo for Olympic Games

The long wait for the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics will finally end this week, and when it does Cornell will be represented by five alumni competing in five sports.

Tracy Eisser ’12 (rowing) and Rudy Winkler ’17 (track and field) are returning to the Games for a second time after competing in Rio de Janeiro five years ago; Kyle Dake ’13 (wrestling), Michael Grady ’19 (rowing) and Taylor Knibb ’20 (triathlon) all will be making their Olympic debuts.

The group will be looking to add to Cornell’s total of 61 medals at the Olympics since 1904 when the Games begin their 16-day run July 23.

Tracy Eisser, center, rows during a Cornell practice in 2011.

Eisser, a sociology and French double major in the College of Arts and Sciences, will become the Cornell women’s rowing program’s second two-time Olympian – though this time she will be competing in a different event. A 2016 qualifier in quadruple sculls, Eisser will be rowing in the women’s pair alongside Megan Kalmoe, another member of that boat that finished fifth in Rio. The duo dominated the event in 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in June.

“Knowing that there’s no guarantee that we were going to get there – to me it felt worth it because it’s the thing I'm most passionate about,” Eisser told usrowing.org about focusing on the pair. “I knew going in, pursuing this 100%, no matter what happens, I would be OK with the outcome if we won or if we didn’t.”

Winkler also will be making a return trip to the Games, after his 18th-place finish in the hammer throw in Rio. An information science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), Winkler has continued to ascend on the world stage after winning an NCAA outdoor championship in 2017 and capturing All-America honors three times in the hammer throw and twice in the weight throw.

Winkler will arrive in Tokyo on a roll after dominating the field at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. He had the top six throws of the night, breaking a 25-year-old American record in the process.

Taylor Knibb competes in the Iona Meet of Champions in 2019.

“It’s a bit unbelievable,” Winkler said in a United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee news release. “I would walk out of the circle after throwing 80 (meters) and was saying, ‘This is crazy.’ It felt effortless and it was good to be able to do it repeatedly.”

Dake’s Olympic debut has seemingly been in the works for a lifetime. Still residing in his hometown of nearby Lansing, New York, Dake is the only wrestler to win four NCAA titles in four different weight classes, posting a gaudy 137-4 all-time record at Cornell while studying development sociology in CALS.

Dake has served as a volunteer assistant coach at Cornell for a handful of seasons while breaking out onto the world scene. He was third in Olympic trials in 2012 and second four years later before really taking off. He hasn’t lost a freestyle match since January 2018, leading to a pair of world titles.

Heading to Tokyo, Dake – the eighth Cornell wrestler in history to qualify for the Olympics – intends to employ an attacking style.

“My sole focus is to go out dominate and really just force the action, not by getting extended, not by taking bad shots or taking unneeded risk, but not allowing them to just stand and play pattycake,” Dake told The Associated Press. “And I want to go out and put them in a position where they feel threatened. I need to go wrestle.”

Knibb is the first Cornellian ever to qualify in the triathlon – and at 23 she is the youngest in U.S. Olympic Triathlon Team history. Knibb studied psychology in A&S while competing mainly with the Big Red track and field and cross country teams. With an eye toward triathlon training, she joined the swimming and diving team as a senior.

Kyle Dake wrestles for Cornell at the 2012 NCAA Championships.

A two-time ITU junior world champion and an ITU under-23 world champion, Knibb won the World Triathlon Championship Series race in May in Yokohama, Japan, to automatically qualify for the Olympics. Even though she currently stands 12th among Elite Women in the World Triathlon Rankings, Knibb felt she had to win in Yokohama to make the U.S. team.

“I’m almost 100% certain that the committee would not have picked me discretionarily, so that was my only way onto the team,” Knibb told the Washington Times. “I was very, very excited, but I was more excited to put together a race that I was happy with and everything that came with it — the win, the qualification — was very overwhelming.”

Grady is another example of a young alum making the jump to senior level prominence just in time for the Games.

Michael Grady rows for Cornell on Cayuga Inlet in 2018.

A gold medalist with the U.S. at the 2018 World Rowing Under 23 Championships in the men’s eight, Grady was announced by USRowing in June as part of the men’s four team for the Olympics.

“There was never a real moment where I thought I could make a national team,” Grady said in a Q&A with row2k.com. “But many small moments and interactions leading up to now convinced me it was possible.”

Brandon Thomas is assistant director of Cornell Athletic Communications.

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Abby Butler