Sporting Life

Second chances in Tokyo

Yale alums at the Olympics, on the field and on the water.

Evan Frondorf ’14, a risk analyst in San Francisco, writes frequently about sports for this magazine.

For two of this year’s roster of Yale alums competing at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer, the moment they fell agonizingly short of victory turned out to be the opportunity that would propel them to a chance to compete on the world stage.

After a week of women’s single sculls racing in the US Olympic Team Trials for rowing in February, Kristi Wagner ’15 came up just two places short of qualifying for Tokyo. But the near miss turned into a chance to pair with the second-place finisher, Princetonian Gevvie Stone. The two decided to form a partnership, with the aim of qualifying for the Olympics in the double sculls trials just six weeks later.

“It’s a bit unusual,” says Wagner, who was part of the Yale varsity four that came in second in the 2015 NCAA Championship. “We weren’t even really friends before we started rowing together.” The pairing turned out to be a natural fit, as the two pulled into the lead in the last 500 meters of their final trials race—to punch their Olympic ticket in April.

In 2018, pitcher Eric Brodkowitz ’18 saw his Yale baseball career come to an end in heartbreaking fashion. After 4 hours and 15 innings, Columbia beat Yale 2–1 in the Ivy League Championship Series at Yale Field to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. In the stands was Eric Holtz, father of a Columbia player—and manager of the relatively new Israeli national baseball team.

 “I kind of thought my baseball career was over,” says Brodkowitz. “Then, out of the blue, I get a text.” He connected with Holtz and jumped at the opportunity to join the Israeli team. At the time, chances for Olympic qualification appeared slim. “We had a tournament in Bulgaria, a qualifier in Lithuania, the next tournament in Germany, and the final qualifier in Italy,” says Brodkowitz. “I’m in my head thinking, ‘We won’t qualify, but it’ll be a cool experience regardless.’”

Brodkowitz’s Yale teammate Ben Wanger ’19 joined the team in Italy, where Israel locked in its spot in Tokyo in September 2019. This will be the first time that Israel has competed in an Olympic team sport since 1976, and it will mean the return of baseball to the Olympics after a 13-year absence.

During the yearlong delay of the games due to the pandemic, Brodkowitz has continued his day job at Goldman Sachs, while Wanger has played graduate seasons at USC and Miami. In the end, “it’s all worked out,” says Wanger. “I’ve been able to play baseball at these two universities and just get ready to compete.” When Team Israel’s expanded roster was named this April, longtime major leaguer Ryan Lavarnway ’09 had also joined the team. Three Elis had made it into a roster of just 44 players.

These first-time Olympic qualifiers join a list of participants that includes Stuart McNay ’05, who will make his fourth Olympics appearance in Japan—just the fifth alumnus to hit that mark and the first to do so in sailing. All will have the opportunity to represent Yale, after a year with no Ivy League competition. Kristi Wagner remembers the pictures of previous Olympians hanging in the women’s crew locker room during her time at Yale. Now, she’ll soon take her own spot on the wall. “I’d see them every day I was there, so it’s surreal,” says Wagner. “It feels special that I can still represent Yale on the athletic stage.”

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