Is Congress next for these former Olympic athletes?

Montana rower vies for House; Colorado pentathlete eyes Senate

Montana Democrat Monica Tranel highlights her experience on the Olympic rowing team in a video announcing a run for Congress.  (Video Screenshot Composition/Monica Tranel for Montana)
Montana Democrat Monica Tranel highlights her experience on the Olympic rowing team in a video announcing a run for Congress. (Video Screenshot Composition/Monica Tranel for Montana)
Posted July 8, 2021 at 3:06pm

While the greatest athletes in the world descend on Tokyo in two weeks for the delayed 2020 Summer Olympic Games, a small batch of former Olympians is gearing up for another competition: running for Congress.

“I know what it means to go to the starting line,” said Democrat Monica Tranel, a two-time Olympic rower who is running for one of Montana’s new, yet-to-be-drawn districts after the state gained a seat during reapportionment. “I took my work ethic from Montana to the Olympics.”

Tranel emphasized her time with Team USA in a two-minute introductory video that accompanied her announcement on Wednesday. Even though the state leans Republican, the new district is likely to be competitive. 

Being an Olympian can give candidates a head start with name recognition and goodwill with voters in a partisan environment.

“It’s different from being a pro athlete,” said Republican Eli Bremer, an Olympic modern pentathlete seriously considering a Senate run in Colorado against Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. “You’re representing the United States of America. The vast majority of people enjoy Team USA.”

Another former Olympian, Republican Herschel Walker, is former President Donald Trump’s choice to run for the Senate in Georgia. But even though he was part of the U.S.’s two-man bobsled team in 1992, Walker is much better known as the Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the Georgia Bulldogs and subsequent star of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. 

Trail marked with adversity

Though they come from different parties, Tranel and Bremer each experienced Olympic disappointment along their journeys to politics. 

Tranel’s women’s eight rowing team came into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as the defending world champions and favorite for the gold medal. But it finished a disappointing fourth. Tranel, who also competed in the Sydney Olympics four years later, called it heartbreaking and a life-defining moment.

“Going to the Olympics isn’t magic. It’s something you work up to over time,” she explained, comparing the disciplines and rhythms of Olympic training to those of running for office. “Representing Montana and going to the line for Montana is a process.” 

The Missoula-based lawyer is coupling her accomplished athletic résumé with years of experience in regulatory, water rights and property rights issues. In 2020, Tranel ran for the state’s public service commission. In spite of her 4-point loss, she saw the value of traveling the western part of the state meeting with voters, which also raised her name identification. 

After missing out on the 2004 Olympics due to injury, Bremer had a realistic chance of ending Team USA’s decadeslong medal drought four years later in the modern pentathlon,  a one-day competition that combines fencing, freestyle swimming and equestrian show jumping with a final event that combines cross-country running and pistol shooting. It’s designed to be the ultimate test of mind and body at the games.

Colorado Republican Eli Bremer, who is weighing a run for Senate, competed in the men’s modern pentathlon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Nick Laham/Getty Images file photo)

But a couple of days after the 2008 opening ceremonies in Beijing, Bremer suffered the worst accident of his life while training for the equestrian portion of the event. In the end, finishing 22nd was a profound disappointment for Bremer, although being able to compete at an Olympic level days after suffering a concussion and being in a neck brace was a remarkable feat. 

“I felt humiliated,” Bremer recalled. “It was so far below my expectations.” But he’s turned the circumstances surrounding that training accident into a life of advocacy for athletes and, potentially, future constituents.

While this would be Bremer’s first run for office, he’s not a stranger to politics. He was chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. His father, Duncan, is a former El Paso county commissioner who ran for Congress in 2006 and lost to now-Rep. Doug Lamborn in the GOP primary. And Eli’s uncle is L. Paul Bremer III, who served as presidential envoy to Iraq in the George W. Bush administration.

Past Olympians on Hill often had medals

Tramel and Bremer aren’t embarking on uncharted waters. But most of the previous Olympians who made the jump to Congress were often medal winners who also competed in higher-profile events. 

The quintessential Olympian-turned-politician could be Kansas Republican Jim Ryun. He competed in three Olympics (1964, 1968 and 1972), winning a silver medal in the 1,500 meters in the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Ryun was also the first high school athlete to run a sub-four-minute mile and is the last American to hold the world record in the mile run.

Ryun’s accomplishments earned him national attention — he was Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1966 — and made him a local hero. He was eventually elected to the House in a 1996 special election, aided by the media focus on that summer’s Olympics during the weeks leading up to the competitive August primary, according to a CQ profile of Ryun from that time.

Of course, Ryun isn’t alone in the unofficial Olympics Caucus.

New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley was part of the gold medal-winning men’s basketball team at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. In those same games, future Rep. and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado competed in judo. 

Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun, right, fences with Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell during a 2001 U.S. Olympic Committee luncheon on Capitol Hill. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Wendell R. Anderson competed with the men’s hockey team in the 1956 Winter Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. He was later elected governor of Minnesota and appointed to the Senate (when Walter Mondale was elected vice president) before losing to Republican Rudy Boschwitz in 1978. 

Democrat Ralph Metcalfe was a highly decorated Olympic sprinter. He won silver (100 meters) and bronze (200 meters) medals at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And he won silver (100 meters, when he shared the podium with iconic gold-medal winner Jesse Owens) and gold (4x100 meter relay) medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics before getting elected to Congress from Illinois’ 1st District in 1970. 

Republican Bob Mathias won gold medals in the decathlon at the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Games in Helsinki. He was elected to the House from California’s 18th District in 1966 when he defeated Democratic Rep. Harlan Hagen.

Tom McMillen played for the 1972 men’s basketball team that refused the silver medal at the Munich Olympics after a controversial final game against the Soviet Union. McMillen went on to play in the NBA, including three years for the Washington Bullets, before winning a race for Maryland’s 4th District in 1986. Six years later, he lost to Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. 

Other members of Congress have been Olympics adjacent, such as former GOP Rep. Anne M. Northup of Kentucky, whose sister was a four-time medalist in swimming.

The path forward

Tranel admitted that rowing is not an “organic sport” in Montana, and most people have to Google pentathlon to know what events are part of it. But that doesn’t mean that Tranel or Bremer (or Walker) can’t win.

There are still plenty of unknowns in each Olympian’s path to Congress. Until Montana finalizes a new map, it’s unclear how partisan a district and how many opponents Tranel will face. Should Walker jump into the race in Georgia, not only will he have to move from Texas, but he could face a competitive GOP primary to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in a state Joe Biden won in 2020. 

And a decision by Bremer won’t come until sometime after this year’s Olympics, when he’ll be part of NBC’s broadcast team. While Colorado has been shifting away from Republicans, the midterm political environment could benefit the GOP. If he decides to run, Bremer’s confident he’ll be ready.

“An Olympic athlete is going to overthink and overprepare everything,” he said with a laugh.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.