Perhaps none have recently shown as brightly as West Virginia's Olympians. The Mountaineers literally jumpstarted the games with a gold, rifle's Ginny Thrasher winning the 10m air rifle for the first awarded medal, then lauding her school to an international audience. Nicco Campriani then piled on with two more shooting golds before the Canadians took center stage in women's soccer.
It isn't just that Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are representing West Virginia and their home country. It's that they are doing it at a level never before seen by either of their teams. Sure, WVU won Big East titles prior to their arrival, but the Mountaineers had never won four consecutive - three with Lawrence and Buchanan - as they have in the Big 12. And Canada captured a bronze in the 2012 Games in London, but never with a perfect 5-0 record in pool play, and not by beating the host nation at the very game it considers a birthright.
It's become almost ho-hum, this type of success. Buchanan, after all, was named FIFA's Best Young Player during the World Cup. Lawrence is an NSCAA All-American and All-Big 12 first teamer. Both were semifinalists for the Herman Trophy Award, representing the highest level of collegiate achievement in the sport. Buchanan was a finalist. And both took turns defending Brazil's Marta, a five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, in the bronze medal match. It was Lawrence who marked the striker throughout, and Buchanan who made a late sliding stop against the national icon to help preserve Canada's 2-1 win, and bring the nation its 22nd and final medal of the Rio games to tie its best showing since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
"You see the reflection in the mirror, and it's 'I'm an Olympian, and a bronze medalist,'" Buchanan said. "That feeling you get is definitely amazing. I know we're both looking for more medals."
Lawrence noted that four of Canada's six games played were in Sao Paulo, a city that dwarfs New York in population at 11-plus million. Every game sold out, but the atmosphere against Brazil, the host nation, was deafening. That is, until Canada struck in the 25th minute after Brazil lost possession. Lawrence took an outlet feed and and roared down the right flank. Once inside the penalty area, she pushed the ball across the box to 17-year-old Deanne Rose, who slotted home the score. It was just the second goal surrendered by Brazil in the tournament, and it gave the Canadians momentum into halftime with a 1-0 lead.
The Reds kept the pressure on in the second half, doubling the advantage in the 53rd minute when team captain Christine Sinclair, making her 250th cap, took a pass from Rose and found the netting for a 2-0 lead. Brazil would get within 2-1 and bomb forward in the final minutes, only to see Buchanan make a fantastic stop of Marta as the host team was continually stonewalled by the Canadian defense.
"Every game was crazy, but against Brazil, it was that much more intense," Lawrence said. "It was so loud. For us, you could hear a pin drop when we scored. Any type of movement for them, like Marta when she had the ball, they were going crazy. They had that energy behind them but we used that to our motivation to silence the crowd."
The win was the culmination of literally years of collegiate and international work. Both Lawrence and Buchanan played for their national team during the 2015 World Cup, hosted by Canada, then went directly into university play last season. They then trained with the national team prior to the Olympics, and got a brief respite for celebration before returning to Morgantown with WVU's season already underway.
"Our final game was Friday (Aug. 19) and we flew into Rio the next day, so we were there for the closing ceremonies," Lawrence said. "We were able to celebrate with our team and the bronze medal. Then a day later we flew back home. The closing ceremonies are always fun, but to have a medal around your neck makes it that much better. We had the opportunity to celebrate with our team and walk with other Canadian athletes. It was an overall celebration."
Now the attention turns to West Virginia, and a daunting schedule for a program which has won six consecutive regular season titles dating to its final two seasons in the Big East and its first four in the Big 12.
"They couldn't wait to get back to their U.S. home after they took a stop in Toronto to see family and friends," head coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. "They are real excited to be back, and the West Virginia family is excited to have them both. Welcome home."
Just in time. No. 6 WVU (1-0-1) plays host to No. 8 Clemson (2-0) tonight at 7 p.m. The Mountaineers opened with a 1-1 tie against defending national champion Penn State, then beat Buffalo 2-0 to set-up a top 10 showdown. West Virginia is unbeaten in its last 25 home matches and has not lost a contest since a 2-0 defeat to No. 21 Duke on Aug. 29, 2014.
Clemson opened the year with two victories, a 2-0 win at No. 11 Auburn on Aug. 19, and a 3-1 win over Georgia on Aug. 21. It's Dollar Night at the Dick Dlesk Stadium, with tickets, small drinks, popcorn and other concessions available for just $1. WVU students get in free.