TOKYO — As president of a very exclusive club, Katrina Radke has been watching the Tokyo Olympics with great interest. She's paid particular attention to the 17 athletes with Minnesota ties who have competed for the United States in these Summer Games.
The head of the Minnesota chapter of the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Association has been on that stage herself, as a swimmer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. And as someone who knows how hard it is to reach the Olympic podium, Radke was mightily impressed with what they achieved in Tokyo. When the Games end Sunday, Minnesota-connected athletes will be taking home 12 medals, including at least five golds.
"It's amazing how many athletes from Minnesota had great, great performances,'' said Radke, of Excelsior. "I am so proud of all of them. They've shown us that anything is possible in any sport.''
Though Minnesota is better known for producing Winter Olympics stars than Summer Games standouts, its athletes provided some of the most memorable scenes in Tokyo — and made a little state history in the process. They contributed to a U.S. haul of 108 total medals, most of any nation, with one day of competition remaining. The Americans have 36 golds, two fewer than China, with 17 more to be awarded Sunday.
Eight athletes with Minnesota connections will leave Tokyo with medals won for the U.S. Gymnast Suni Lee, wrestler Gable Steveson and swimmer Bowe Becker already have golds, and three more competed in Olympic finals Sunday. Edina's Jordan Thompson is part of the U.S. women's volleyball team, which defeated Brazil in the gold medal match, and Lynx players Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier are on the women's basketball team that defeated Japan for the gold medal.
It's impossible to say whether the medal count is the largest ever for Minnesotans at a Summer Games, because record-keepers have different standards for determining which states get to claim athletes. But Patrick Mader, who has written two books about Minnesota's Olympians, said he is convinced the Tokyo Games will be the best showing ever for Summer Games athletes with state ties.
"Just looking at Suni Lee and Regan Smith, that outshines anything I can think of,'' Mader said. "It's been fun to cheer for them all.''
Lee, of St. Paul, won all-around gold in women's gymnastics, silver in the team competition and bronze on uneven bars. Smith, a swimmer from Lakeville, earned silver in the women's 200-meter butterfly and the women's 4x100 medley relay, and bronze in the 100 backstroke. They became the first Minnesotans to win more than two medals at a single Olympics.
Research by Mader and Joel Rippel, author of several books on Minnesota sports history, found no previous Minnesota athletes with three or more Olympic medals in one Games. Skier Lindsey Vonn (2010), speedskater Amy Peterson (1994) and swimmer Susan Rapp (1984) each won two medals at a single Olympics.
Smith learned while she was in Tokyo that her three medals — and Lee's — were a Minnesota first.
"That's so cool,'' Smith said. "It's really special to represent Minnesota this way, and it's really special to be part of such a talented group of athletes. It's really motivating for me to continue to make my neighbors and Minnesotans proud.''
Like other athletes, many of the Minnesotans faced major challenges in preparing for these Olympics. All of them dealt with pandemic-related shutdowns of training facilities and a one-year postponement of the Games. Lee and fellow women's gymnast Grace McCallum overcame injuries, while men's gymnast Shane Wiskus had his training plan upended when the Gophers program was eliminated.
The complications made it all the more satisfying to compete in Tokyo.
"This past year was very hard,'' said Wiskus, part of a U.S. roster that finished fifth in the team competition. "Just being here was a blessing. I'll always remember it.''
Lee and Steveson will be remembered as two of the breakout stars of the Tokyo Games. After Simone Biles withdrew from the team competition, Lee and McCallum helped the U.S. team maintain its poise and earn team silver. Lee's all-around gold was a watershed moment for the Hmong American community in Minnesota and around the world.
In the first week of the Olympics, Lee added more than 800,000 Instagram followers and drove more than 2.86 million interactions on the app, second only to Biles among U.S. athletes. Steveson's stunning rally to win gold in freestyle wrestling — scoring the winning points with 0.2 seconds left — was one of the most dramatic victories of these Olympics.
Steveson mentioned several times in a post-match interview how proud he was to represent his home state and the Gophers on the Olympic stage. That pride extended to his fellow Minnesotans.
"I know who they are,'' he said. "They've done great things. I hope we go back to the city and they remember our names forever.
"Congratulations to them. And I'll bet they've got the same feeling I do. Indescribable.''