Men’s swimming captain Geof Zann ’07 said that back in May, Alex Righi ’09 departed New Haven having told a few of his teammates that he hoped to “make a team” this summer. A Team USA for the Pan Pac Games. Or the Pan Am Games. Or the World University Games.
After months of selection meets, the Berkeley sophomore was still waiting for a call as he foraged around his room and piled clothes into his suitcases. Just hours before his flight back to school took off from his native Phoenix, an envelope finally arrived in his mailbox.
“The day before I left for Yale, I was in my room, waiting and packing, then I got the letter,” he said. “I thought it would be the ‘Sorry, but thanks for competing’ type, but instead, it was a ‘Congratulations on being selected for the Pan American Games.’ I spent the next few minutes running around my house and yelling as loud as I could.”
Righi, who racked up a trove of accolades during his first year in Eli blue, was tapped last week to represent the United States at the fifteenth Pan American Games, which will be held next July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. USA Swimming selected Righi to compete on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay team alongside three swimmers all at least four years his elder, including one former Olympian.
“We all found out as a group at the first meeting of the season last Friday,” teammate Dennen McCloskey ’09 said. “It is just a big deal and we were all so happy for him. Lots of teams chose swimmers this summer, and for any of them to select you is a huge honor.”
Although it was all-time school records in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke last spring that landed him in the Payne Whitney history books, both Righi and his teammates always considered the 100-yard freestyle his strongest suit.
“The 100 free is Righi’s specialty, so it did not come as a complete surprise that he made the team,” Zann said. “With his ability, he belongs on a relay with those guys. Nick Brunelli, in particular, is one of the premier sprinters, and I’m sure Righi is very excited to swim on the same relay as him.”
When he crosses the equator next summer, Righi will be the undoubted rookie alongside a trio of seasoned veterans. All three teammates scooped up their bachelor’s degrees well before Righi set foot on the Yale campus, and after a stellar career as a four-year All American at USC, Gabe Woodward competed with Team USA at the Athens Games in 2004. Brunelli was nearly as dominant in his four years at Arizona State, and Wisconsin alum Dale Rogers was picked to compete in three events in Rio.
Righi was both humbled and flattered upon learning of his teammates.
“The caliber of people on the team is something I can only aspire to, and I did not consider myself to be among them,” he said. “Once you get to this level, age doesn’t really matter. I’m still a little bit nervous being one of the youngest kids on the team, but I’ll get to prove myself against guys who are 27 or 28.”
The Pan American Games have been held every four years since 1951, typically in the summer preceding the Summer Olympic games. Almost every country in the Western hemisphere, from Canada to St. Kitts and Nevis, will field a team in at least one of nearly three dozen sports. The United States holds a commanding lead in the all-time medal count, with Cuba and Canada in distant second and third places, respectively.
Zann noted that the United States has historically been particularly dominant in Righi’s event.
“Sprint freestyle, and especially freestyle relays, are points of pride for American swimming,” he said.
Obviously, the goal in the back of every competitor’s mind is ultimately a bid to represent his or her country at the biggest showplace of them all.
“Four years ago, it was Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte competing at the Pan Am, so this is definitely a prestigious meet,” Righi said. “It’s an important staging ground for the Olympic Trials. It’s a good gauge in terms of training, and a good time to gauge your shot at the Olympic team.”
Though a shot at Beijing in 2008 hardly seems outlandish for Righi at this point, for now he has his priorities set.
“I’m really looking to swim better at Yale this year,” he said. “I’m thinking right now in terms of my commitment to my college team, and then after training camp in Colorado Springs after the season ends in April, I’ll be working really hard for the U.S. Team.”