With so many Cal students competing in the Olympics, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Do they eat at the same places I do?” I talked to three Olympic swimmers, Ryan Murphy, Jacob Pebley, and Josh Prenot, to find out.
Here’s the low-down on what it’s really like to eat in the Olympic Village, what Olympic athletes eat on a day-to-day basis, and where they like to eat in Berkeley.
What’s your food story?
Josh Prenot: As an athlete, food is fuel. I never really cooked in high school; I learned how to bake before I learned how to cook full meals. Now, after moving out of the dorms, I learned how to cook, how to make the fuel taste better. I watch a lot of food shows on TV, and it’s fun to explore.
Jacob Pebley: My strongest food memory is Christmas mornings with sticky buns (like cinnamon rolls). We would open presents and smell the buns baking in the oven. At around 10 or 11 am, we would grab them, have sticky hands, eat, and hang out.
Ryan Murphy: I remember in freshmen year, we’d go to CREAM four times a week. We would walk there all the time since we lived in Unit 3. If someone said, “Let’s go to CREAM,” no one would say no.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Prenot: Panang curry from anywhere that’s good.
Pebley: BBQ chicken pizza from Pasta Bene.
Murphy: I’m a big lasagna guy. I really like lasagna.
What would you want for your Last Meal?
Prenot: Nice barbecue feast with brisket — always brisket.
Pebley: Sandwich Spot’s tri-tip sandwich, but like 10 of them.
Murphy: Ribeye, medium rare. I really like steak, and I think ribeye is the tastiest meat there is.
What’s your go-to restaurant in Berkeley?
Prenot: Anything in Elmwood is really good. Not really in Berkeley, but Benchmark Pizzeria in Solano is great. I’ve only been twice, but I got different pizzas both times and both were great. The salads were also really good.
Murphy: Typically, we go to Angeline’s when my parents are in town. That and Trattoria La Siciliana, those are probably my two go-to restaurants. I always get the buttermilk fried chicken at Angeline’s; it just has this incredible gravy that I love, and it has sweet potatoes — that’s a selling point for me too.
What’s your favorite food to cook?
Prenot: Brisket. We have buddies living in the apartment above us, so we go to a butcher shop in Oakland and get a massive chunk of meat and split how we cook it. We got a special sauce and dry rub from Austin, Texas, so we do it right for not having a smoker.
Pebley: Baked Greek food. Salmon with fresh vegetables and quinoa or flatbread with olive oil.
Murphy: I cook almost every meal for myself. I always make it in bulk, so I typically go with pretty normal meals like spaghetti with meat sauce — whole wheat pasta with ground turkey, tomatoes, tomato sauce, and spinach — to get a well-balanced meal. Most of my dishes are a whole mash of stuff. Another dish I make is chicken fried rice, but I substitute the rice with quinoa. So I’ll have quinoa, chicken, broccoli, egg whites, and soy sauce. They’re pretty easy and quick, so those are the ones I make the most.
How did you learn how to cook?
Pebley: We watch, between us, about 10 hours of cooking shows, like Top Chef, every week.
Prenot: When we moved out of the dorms, there was a lot of trial and error. I also watched my parents cook.
Pebley: We made meatloaf for three weeks because we fell in love with a recipe.
Prenot: My mom gave me a cookbook when I came from home. I started there and branched out.
Murphy: When I moved off campus, after my freshman year, I had to cook since I didn’t have a large meal plan anymore. I started by looking at recipes online.
What is your greatest food accomplishment?
Prenot: I baked chocolate chip cookies for my grandma and she said they were good. You know it’s good when you get that seal of approval.
Pebley: I took a cooking class where we made pasta for the first time. Making fresh pasta is very hard; I haven’t done it since.
Murphy: I’ve never even thought of that. I honestly can’t think of one.
What was your favorite part of the Olympics?
Pebley: Just being able to compete at the highest stage of sports. You go to a meet, and you don’t think about the level of competition. But at the Olympics, it’s half of what you’re thinking about. You’re able to compete with the best of the best, and the whole world is watching. Other summers, we go to world championships and not that many people are watching.
Prenot: Piggybacking on that, just being able to be there. Every other Olympics, I was in front of the TV and watching swimming. Just to be there in that moment, right before the race, see the stands, appreciate the moment, and just go. Pretty incredible experience. It’s every swimmer’s dream. If you swim, you want to be in the Olympics.
Murphy: After the Olympics, we got to go to the Team USA house and hang out a little bit and that was just beautiful. That whole road was right along the beach and the views were just incredible.
What was your Olympic diet like? Was it different than what you normally eat?
Murphy: At the Olympics, we ate the same stuff every meal. There were different stations in the dining hall, like the Brazilian station where they had rice and chicken and vegetables, and an Italian station with pasta and sauces. The hardest thing was learning how to each lunch foods for breakfast. We had super late preliminaries — at 1 pm, so we didn’t wake up until 11 am. By then, dining hall had switched from breakfast to lunch food, so we had to learn how to eat rice and chicken for breakfast. In general, I followed the same guidelines — nothing too fatty, lean meats, and balanced meals. This year, I was more aware of how many carbs and proteins I ate, so I ate more than usual to have enough fuel for my body. That’s the only adjustment I made.
Prenot: All the “Michael Phelps eats 12,000 calories a day” talk is all blown out of proportion. You just scrounge for whatever the dining hall has to offer. The food was pretty mediocre, so you find the best of what’s there. The Asian noodle station was pretty good. There was also paella every other day. Those two ran out pretty quickly. There was a good variety.
Pebley: Green smoothies. We’d have a big glass of that throughout practice. The majority of it was spinach with some orange juice, yogurt, and chia seeds. Throughout the day, we ate a lot of produce and carbs (often whole wheat). We had a lot of beets, one to two a day, and a lot of leafy greens. During meets, we also drank concentrated beet juice which had about three beets in it, so we ate about six beets a day.
Prenot: Roasted beets are pretty good. We got used to the taste and made them taste good. Olive oil and beets.
Pebley: We eat pretty similarly. We’re a little less concerned about eating a pound of kale each day.
Prenot: Healthy food still tastes good!
Pebley: The month after, we rediscover sweets and let ourselves go a little bit. I forgot what ice cream tastes like, so I ate a few cups. Have to make up for lost time.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Prenot: Smitten Ice Cream in Rockridge. The seasonal flavors are usually fire.
Pebley: Berkeley Bowl’s mango mochi and mixed berry pies.
Murphy: Oh man, anything. I love ice cream. If I have a sweet tooth, I’ll go for ice cream or cookies. Sometimes I’ll go for sugar. You know those Trolli eggs? Those are another guilty pleasure for me.
What was your favorite food in Rio?
Prenot: Waffles. This place in Fort Copacabana, near the point that extends south, a random little café, had incredible waffles.
Pebley: Nutella and banana. We went the day after we finished competing, so we were pretty excited to have that.
Murphy: There was not much good food. To be honest, I pretty much ate exclusively at the dining hall. The best day was when they had salmon. It was like dorm dining. That’s what people are most surprised about. People think Olympic athletes are served gourmet meals, but we aren’t. It’s mostly food that’s mass cooked.
What restaurants would you recommend to incoming UC Berkeley students?
Prenot: If you’re new to the Bay Area, you need to get on the food truck scene — Off the Grid at Presidio/Fort Mason, especially. Sliver or Cheese Board, pick your favorite. Also, go to Gourmet Ghetto and try everything.
The verdict is in. While these UC Berkeley Olympic swimmers certainly eat a lot healthier than I do (emphasis on a lot), we still eat pretty similarly. Murphy and I both enjoy medium-rare ribeye steak; Pebley and I love baking salmon; and Prenot and I learned how to bake before we learned how to cook.
So, if you really want to eat like an Olympian, it’s time to start cooking for yourself and eating balanced meals (leafy greens and whole grains included).
Ryan Murphy is a 4th year UC Berkeley student in Haas Business School. He swims competitively, specializing in backstroke, and recently won gold in the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, and 4x100m medley relay at the 2016 Summer Olympics. Murphy is also the world-record holder of the men’s 100m backstroke.
Jacob Pebley is a 5th year UC Berkeley student studying Psychology. He swims competitively, specializing in backstroke, and recently swam at the 2016 Summer Olympics. He also enjoys rafting and camping, and is a sucker for pizza on any and all days of the week.
Josh Prenot is a 5th year UC Berkeley student studying Physics. He swims competitively, specializing in breaststroke, butterfly, and individual medley events, and most recently won silver in the 200m breaststroke at the 2016 Summer Olympics. He’s also great at slacklining and cooking brisket.
A huge thank you to Ryan, Jacob, and Josh for taking time out of their day to chat with me about food! Thank you for representing Cal and USA this summer, and see you in Tokyo.