February 7, 2018

The gold standard - Wayne State's Olympic history

As athletes from around the world prepare to compete at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, we are reminded of Detroit’s efforts to bask in a similar spotlight. The city tried to host the Olympics nine times between 1940 and 1972. And while Detroit has yet to bring the games here, one attempt had a notable impact on Wayne State University.

Built in 1965, the Matthaei Physical Education Center was part of the city’s bid to host the 1968 Summer Games. Covering 42 acres and nearly 94,000 square feet, the facility was part of the larger vision of Frederick C. Matthaei, who formed the Detroit Olympic Committee in 1936 and served as its chairman until 1964.

Since its dedication in 1967, the Matthaei has certainly changed the face of Wayne State — but it is not our only connection to the Olympics. Warriors have given their all to represent at the games. Here are four alumni who decided to go for the gold:

Margaret Woodbridge Presley

A 1921 swimming letter-winner for the university, Presley is WSU’s first Olympian. She medaled twice at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, earning a gold medal for being part of the winning 400-meter freestyle relay team and a silver medal for her 220-meter freestyle event.

Jeanne Omelenchuck

Omelenchuk won her first national speedskating championship while studying at Wayne State, going on to win 15 more national speedskating titles — more than any other individual in the history of the sport. She holds the distinction of being the only woman to win a spot on three Olympic speedskating teams: the first team at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, and later at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France and the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan.

Greg Benko

Benko represented his native Australia as a foilist at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Moscow before beginning his studies at WSU, where he was coached under the legendary Istvan Danosi. Benko — a member of the 1975 men’s fencing team that earned Wayne State its first national championship — competed in the most Olympics of any Warrior, finishing sixth at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, ninth at the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow and 17th at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Shane Lawal

While earning his master’s in sports administration, Lawal was a standout center for the Warriors during the 2008-09 basketball season. He was the top performer at AfroBasket 2015, where he helped his native Nigeria bring home the championship. The following year, Lawal represented Nigeria at the Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, where he suffered an injury in his home country’s first contest against Argentina. WSU’s most recent Olympian, Lawal is currently signed with the Italian club Sidigas Avellino.

As part of our Sesquicentennial Celebration throughout 2018, Wayne State University will share stories that highlight the people, places and moments that contribute to our 150-year history. Learn more at 150.wayne.edu.

Image courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library.

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