Ross Bjork's hiring of Connie Price-Smith in 2015 was a great coup in the world of women's track and field, because Ole Miss historically hasn't stood among the elite of the national track and field stage. Formerly of Southern Illinois, her alma mater, Price-Smith built herself something of a dynasty with the Salukis and contributed in the collegiate offseason to coaching Team USA athletes at international competitions. Now Price-Smith (a four-time Olympian in her own right) heads to Rio as the head coach of the U.S. women's track and field team.
Tagging along with her will be eight current or former Rebel athletes, including Raven Saunders, who will compete in Price-Smith's favored event, the shot put. Besides Saunders, seven other current or former Rebels will compete in Rio, three of whom for countries other than the U.S. Three of the eight athletes will compete for countries other than the U.S. and two will participate in sports other than the track and field.
With the opening ceremony of the 2016 Games set for Friday, let's take a look at the Rebels who will compete in Rio.
(Dates of each athlete's competitions are in parentheses.)
Raven Saunders, women's shot put, USA (Aug. 12)
You need to watch this woman throw the shot. A three-time national champion who began her career at SIU before following Price-Smith to Oxford, Saunders set the US women's record during the NCAA championships in January. Cancel whatever you're doing on Aug. 12 and sit down to watch Saunders do her thing. Her family will there in person, thanks to an awesome Krispy Kreme fundraiser in her hometown of Charleston, S.C.
Sam Kendricks, men's pole vault, USA (Aug. 13 and 15)
Kendricks hails from Oxford itself and attended Oxford High School, so Lafayette County should doubly support this absolute monster in the pole vault. He won the outdoor pole vault NCAA title two years in a row in 2013 and 2014 and in the latter campaign became the first Rebel ever to win a USA Track and Field title. Besides Raven Saunders and Brittney Reese, Kendricks has the best chance at medaling in Rio, if not to outright win his event.
Rafaelle Souza, women's soccer, Brazil (Aug. 3, 6, 9 and TBD)
Playing for her native country in her native country, it's hard to imagine Souza could be any more excited about this year's Games. She's the all-time leading goal scorer for women's soccer at Ole Miss with 44 career goals. She was a first-team all SEC player in 2013, when she didn't play in the conference tournament semifinal against Florida because Brazil was in Orlando playing the USWNT. Y'know, AS ONE DOES.
Brittney Reese, women's long jump, USA (Aug. 16 and 17)
Reese lives in Gulfport and trains under longtime Rebel head coach Joe Walker. She's a six-time USATF outdoor champion in the long jump and brought home the gold in that event in 2012. She's also the current NCAA record holder in the indoor long jump with a distance of 21'4" (6.50m).
Anthony Perez, men's basketball, Venezuela (Aug. 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 and TBD)
Venezuela very likely won't finish with some hardware, but go root for your boy whatever happens. Perez had a herky-jerky career at Ole Miss, never fully playing up to Andy Kennedy's expectations for him (AK once called him one of the "greatest mysteries" he's ever coached) while averaging 4.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game over four seasons. The Rio Games will be his first appearance for his native men's national team, which last played in the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona.
Gwen Berry, women's hammer throw, USA (Aug. 12 and 15)
Berry currently works on the Ole Miss staff as a volunteer head coach, a common enough scenario for athletes recently finished with their NCAA eligibility but still wanting to work out under a trusted mentor. In May, Berry broke the American record for the outdoor hammer throw, but then apparently admitted to using a banned inhaler at the U.S. indoor track and field championships back in March. She received a fairly light sanction that stripped her of the record but expired the day before this year's Olympic trials.
Berry competed on Price-Smith's SIU teams between 2008 and 2011, so it's a testament to her former coach that she should follow her to Oxford. She finished second in this year's Olympic trials behind Amber Campbell, a two time Olympian of 2008 and 2012.
Antwon Hicks, men's 110m hurdles, Nigeria (Aug. 15 and 16)
A native of Hot Springs, Ark., Hicks' father holds Nigerian citizenship, so it's through him that Antwon competed in the Nigerian Olympic trials as a hurdler. At 31 years old, Hicks is certainly in the twilight of his professional career, having run for Joe Walker's Rebel teams from 2002-2004.
While at Ole Miss, Hicks won the program's first individual national title in four years in the indoor 60m hurdles in 2004. He came close to representing the U.S. in 2008 and 2012, placing fifth and fourth in the finals of those years, respectively.
Ricky Robertson, men's high jump, USA (Aug. 14 and 16)
Robertson jumped at Ole Miss from 2010-2013, but sat his last outdoor season while nursing an injury. Rio will be his first Olympics. He's something of an unknown quantity, with spotty personal bests in outdoor high jump set back in 2012 and indoor in 2014.