CEE alumnus pursues gold-medal career
London in 2012, Sochi in 2014, Rio in 2016 and, possibly, Los Angeles in 2024 — like many athletes, Daniel Zayas (B.S.’12 CEE) long dreamed of Olympic glory. But for Zayas, this goal has unfolded through his flourishing career as an engineer for the Olympic Games, taking him to four countries in the past four years.
As a Berkeley Engineering student, Zayas studied abroad in Spain and Portugal, in addition to “studying his life away” and playing club soccer. But it was a research grant from the Institute of International Studies in 2011 that ultimately unified his triple passions for engineering, travel and sports.
“I knew that the London 2012 Olympic Games were happening the following July and August,” he remembers, “and a vision for my career just clicked.” With support from civil engineering professor Iris Tommelein, Zayas got the grant and spent the summer in London, writing a thesis on successful delivery for venues and infrastructure, which involved interviewing delivery partners, general contractors and construction management firms. The experience was transformative. “I thought, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “I wanted to do it for the rest of my career.”
It wasn’t long before Zayas set the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games as his next professional goal. He reached out to every company involved in the games, along with Brazilian friends he had met at the International House. In January 2013, he flew to Rio with a one-way ticket and a tourist visa, having booked a few job interviews before he left. “It was definitely one of the riskiest and craziest moves of my life,” he says.
But the networking paid off — in February, he was offered a job by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee itself. He accepted on the spot and began work in March. As a project specialist, Zayas helped plan temporary facilities that come down after the games, applying lessons from Tommelein’s engineering project management course.
A benefit of working for the Rio Games was the opportunity to visit the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, as part of the Observer Program — an arrangement that allows future host cities to learn from the current host. “I went on technical visits to competition venues during the day, and partied with the national Olympic committees at night,” he says. “Without a doubt, it was the least I’ve ever slept in my life.”
After returning to Rio to resume work on the 2016 games, Zayas received an unexpected call from AECOM, the engineering firm that had just won a contract with the Los Angeles Bid Committee (LA24). “They won the contract on a Tuesday, called me on a Wednesday and made me a job offer on Thursday,” he says.
This time, he took a little longer to decide. He loved his life in Brazil, but the career opportunity won out. Zayas now finds himself in Los Angeles, working as a consultant, busy with site visits, mapping out locations and potential venues. And his work with AECOM will take him back to Rio for the Games this summer.
It’s been an adventurous four years, and Zayas traces that directly back to his time at Berkeley. Between his engineering degree, his athletics and his international exposure, he says, his undergraduate experience truly “lit a fire under me.”