Sage Hill Yogi Driven by Mom’s Olympic Gold, Life of Service

By Daniel Langhorne
Merja Connolly has a golden pedigree as a founding faculty member at Sage Hill School. Specifically, Olympic gold.

As the daughter of Olympic athletes Olga Fikotová Connolly and Hal Connolly, she carries a champion’s can-do attitude combined with a mastery in yoga instruction of students breathing and stretching through their stress. Sage Hill students, alumni and employees alike recognize Connolly for her radiant personality, complete with her signature “fired-up” high-five and huge smile.

Connolly attributes a great deal of her success to having parents as role models.

Her mother’s death at 91 on April 12, 2024, earned international press coverage. A flurry of interviews focused on her mother’s rare distinction as an athlete who won an Olympic Gold Medal for one nation, Czechoslovakia, and also carried the flag of another, the United States, at an Olympic opening ceremony. A Cold War-era romance between Olga the Soviet-bloc discus thrower and Hal the American hammer thrower was also a common theme in her obituaries.
“I grew up being a coach and an athlete just like her,” Connolly said. “My mom influenced me to always train my athletes holistically from cross training to basic fitness, posture and make it fun and make sure you love what you do. I was always attracted to coaching teams. I think my mom was more one-on-one with people, always trying to get the top fitness out of each person and help them through injuries or whatever.”

Prior to Sage Hill, Coach Connolly served as Women’s Volleyball Head Coach at UC Irvine for four years and previously coached the Women’s Volleyball team at Cornell University for two years. Under her leadership, Cornell won the Ivy League title twice and advanced to the NCAA tournament. During her time as a student athlete for UCLA, she played both basketball and volleyball. She served as captain of UCLA’s national championship volleyball team and Team USA at the World University Games in Japan.

Raising four children in Santa Monica, Olga never said she expected her children to play sports. Connolly fondly remembers rolling a discus back to her mom as she trained. The family also had a high-jump pit in their driveway.

“I grew up jumping over a bar,” Connolly said. “As we got older, she said, ‘I don't care what you do, but you’ve got to get involved in sports, the arts or music to stay busy.’”

Olga also exemplified living in service of others, another trait Connolly intertwines with her work in wellness at Sage Hill. Olga was elected to the Culver City Unified School District Board of Education in 1972 and directed intramural sports at Loyola Marymount University. She also coordinated literacy programs for children and seniors, including at the Toberman Neighborhood Center of San Pedro. Olga was very proud of her stint as Los Angeles County’s head of curriculum and programming for the California Conservation Corps, Connolly said.

“She was working with a lot of youth coming out of jail or earning a college degree after living in poverty,” Connolly said. “She loved that position and really learned a lot.”

As coordinator for Sage Hill’s wellness program, Connolly regularly hosts experts to speak with ninth- and 10th-graders about developing healthy habits around dating, digital citizenship, nutrition, distracted driving and more.

Connolly admires her mom’s relentless work ethic even through fighting breast cancer that spread to her lungs.

“I'm going to miss her,” Connolly said. “She lived a long, healthy life and I just hope to carry the legacy forward by being somebody who can help others, be compassionate and keeping coaching, as well, until I’m 91.”

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