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Virginia athletes shine at Rio games

<p>Senior swimmer Leah Smith made her presence felt at the 2016 Summer Olympics, headlining the 18 athletes representing UVA at the games.&nbsp;</p>

Senior swimmer Leah Smith made her presence felt at the 2016 Summer Olympics, headlining the 18 athletes representing UVA at the games. 

In sending 18 representatives to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Virginia athletic department had much to be proud of prior to the games’ Opening Ceremony. Just eight years prior, Virginia only had nine representatives at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. However, not only did Virginia have a greater presence at this year’s Olympics, but several athletes made the school known on a global stage, as well, through their successes. Here is a list of the top three Virginia athletes from the Olympics thus far:

1. Leah Smith

On the heels of a phenomenal 2016 season as well as an impressive showing at the Olympic Trials, expectations were high for senior swimmer Leah Smith. In fairness, to be mentioned in the same breath as Katie Ledecky is pressure enough. Thus, when competing in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle as well as the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, Smith not only had the Cavalier faithful watching her, but the eyes of a whole nation as well.

To say that Smith excelled under this pressure would be an understatement. In the 400-meter freestyle, Smith started strong by finishing second in her preliminary heat. Then, in the finals, she won the bronze medal with a time of 4:01.92 — just under .7 seconds behind the second-place finisher, Jazmin Carlin of Great Britain. However, Smith’s most memorable mark came in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Swimming the second leg of the race, Smith helped her team edge out Australia to claim the gold. With a bronze and gold medal to her name, Smith was the only Virginia athlete to make it to the podium during the Olympics.

2. Michelle Vittese

A 2013 graduate, Michelle Vittese competed for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) in field hockey at the 2012 Summer Olympics. While Vittese earned the honor of being the 2012 U.S. Field Hockey National Player of the Year, the 2012 USWNT squad performed abysmally. With a last-place finish and not a single win to their name, the players of the USWNT, including Vittese, left London disappointed.

However, the team rebounded in Rio. With a full head of steam, Vittese was constantly on the attack for her team. As a result, through six games, she scored two goals. Beyond that, she had numerous shots on goal, which kept the pressure on the defense to defend against the onslaught. While the USWNT exited in the quarterfinals on a 2-1 loss to Germany, ultimately taking fifth place, the team made its country proud. Without Vittese at the center of the attack, it is hard to imagine the team could have achieved the same level of success.

3. Morgan Brian

In her four years with the Virginia women’s soccer team, Morgan Brian was always a dual-threat: not only could she score at will, but she racked up assists as well, becoming the first Cavalier to ever score 40 goals as well as complete 40 assists throughout her career. Having seen this dual-threat prowess as a potential asset, the Houston Dash picked her first overall in the 2015 NWSL College Draft.

With that impressive résumé, Brian became an obvious pick to join the prestigious U.S. Women’s National Team for soccer. While the United States met an untimely end in the quarterfinals at the hands of Sweden in a dramatic penalty kick shootout, Brian did not disappoint. With one assist through four matches and a crucial goal in the shootout against Sweden, the former Cavalier midfielder stepped up to the occasion as a leader. In fact, although the United States lost the match against Sweden, Brian was nevertheless named the Budweiser Woman of the Match for her stellar effort.