Throughout 150 years in Southern Illinois’ history, several athletes have made their mark – not just in Carbondale, but on the international stage.
In track and field alone there are 20 athletes, consisting of 14 men and six women have made it to the Olympics, representing Southern Illinois University.
Phil Coleman was the first Olympian from SIU, competing in track and field. He tried his luck in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in both the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. While did not medal in the Olympic events, he did finish first in the 1959 Pan-American Games, setting a record time for Americans with a mark of 8:56.4
Coleman participated in Southern’s track and field team until graduation in 1952, leading the track team to 24 consecutive dual meet wins. He was honored for his contributions to Saluki athletics with an induction into the hall of fame in 1981.
Cameron Wright is the most recent of men in Southern’s track and field team to compete internationally for the United States.
Wright competed in the Olympics in 1996 in the high jump, but failed to reach the finals in the long jump in the one year he competed.
Wright was a five time All-American during his time at Southern, was a four-time MVC champion in the high jump and is apart of the 2011 class for the SIU’s hall of fame.
In women’s track, six have reached the Olympic level heralding from Southern.
Connie Price-Smith is one of the most recognizable names among women’s track at SIU. She is a four-time Olympian competing in the shot put and discus throw in 1988,1992, 1996 and 2000.
In 1992, Price-Smith became the first women Olympian in 32 years to win both the shot put and discus at the Olympic trials. In 1996, she finished fifth in Olympic games in Atlanta finishing just four inches short of a bronze medal in the shot-put.
Price-Smith then coached track and field in Carbondale for 15 years, coaching her last season in the 2015-2016 season. She is now the head coach at Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi.
DeAnna Price is the most recent Olympic competitor from the university, competing in the Summer 2016 Olympics. She competed in the hammer throw for the United States and placed third in the Olympic trials just behind both of her teammates.
Price finished eighth in the 2016 games and is on track to compete again in 2020, setting an American record at the 2018 national championship with a hammer throw of 78.12 meters.
Price competed for SIU from the 2011-2012 season through the 2015-2016 season, winning back-to-back NCAA championships in the hammer throw in 2015 and 2016.
Track and Field is not the only sport at Southern has generated Olympic level talent, swimming has produced 23 Olympians – 19 men and four women.
Mazen Aziz joined the national stage for the 2012 Summer Games in Egypt, competing in the men’s ten kilometer open water finishing 24th.
Aziz swam in Carbondale from 2009-2012 under head coach Rick Walker who recently announced his retirement. Aziz swam in ten meets his senior year at Carbondale in 2012, finishing second in the 500 freestyle in the dual meet against Evansville.
Across the women’s side for swimming there has been four women athletes to compete at the International level, including Pamela Benitez in the 2012 Olympics.
Benitez competed for El Salvador in the Olympics swimming in the 800 meter freestyle, coming to the university in the spring season of 2012.
She competed from 2012-2015 earning first team all conference selections each year, posting 17 top-three finishes in her final season at Southern in 2015.
SIU had a men’s gymnastics program from 1956 until the program was cancelled in 1989, yet in the programs 33 year history it produced two Olympians.
Fred Orlofsky was a member of the 1960 Men’s Gymnastics team for the United States, his team finished fifth that year. He competed for Southern from 1960 through 1963, in 1961 he won an NCAA title in rings and parallel bars, and finished second for all-around. Orlofsky was honored for his achievements in Carbondale by earning an induction into the hall of fame in 1980.
Rusty Mitchell was also a member of the SIU men’s gymnastics team and he competed in the Olympics for the United States in 1964. Mitchell’s best finish in the 1964 Olympics was his team’s seventh place finish in the men’s all-around. During his time at Southern, Mitchell specialized in tumbling and he was a three-time NCAA champion, the last two years tumbling was an NCAA event.
After his Olympic and SIU career, Mitchell went on to coach at the University of New Mexico for 33 years bringing the gymnastics program to national relevance compiling a winning percentage of 71.3 percent in dual meets – helping lead New Mexico to 11 Western Athletic Conference championships.
Mitchell was honored for his accomplishments at Southern and gymnastics as a whole with his induction into the SIU hall of fame in 1978.
Across Southern’s 150 year history 51 Olympic athletes have called Carbondale home ranging from track and field to gymnastics, including wrestling and even on bobsled.
Sports editor Adam Warfel can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @warfel_adam.
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