JULY 17, 1996
Competing in the Olympics has been a dream of athletics since the first modern games a century ago. A group of athletes who were good enough to represent the United States in previous Olympic games share their golden moments with Elizabeth Farnsworth.
A RealAudio version of this discussion is available.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is the centennial of the modern Olympic games. They begin this Friday in Atlanta, and they are very, very big. Big in terms of national pride, international attention, and the number of athletes--11,000 men and women from around the world will complete during the games' two-week run. What is it like to compete in the Olympics? What does it do to the athletes who train for this one moment?
June 24, 1996: Pat Connolly explains how sprinter Michael Johnson achieves his record-setting speed to Jim Lehrer.
We hear now from four people who experienced it firsthand. Nancy Hogshead won three Olympic gold medals and one silver medal in swimming at the 1984 Olympic games. She is currently a law student at Georgetown University and a motivational speaker. Mitch Gaylord won a gold, silver, and two bronze medals in gymnastics at the 1984 games. He will be reporting from Atlanta for a cable sports network. Pat Connolly competed in all three Olympics in the 1960's and the pantathalon and the 800 meters. Now a track and field coach, she has trained a number of Olympians. Al Joyner won a gold medal in the triple jump in Los Angeles in 1984. He also coached his wife, Florence Kersee Joyner, to her gold medal. Mr. Joyner was training to compete in Atlanta until an injury sidelined him. Thank you all for being with us. And beginning with you. What was it like in these days right before the Olympics? Could you train? Did you let up?
PAT CONNOLLY, Olympic Pentathlete: Well, you have to let up because the worst thing you can do right before the games is to overtrain because then you're left drained and flat. And in my case, I had a heightened sense of awareness. I would cry easier, laugh louder, and just the--have a hard time trying to keep myself calm, trying not to think about it too much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Al Joyner, how did you keep yourself calm?
AL JOYNER, Olympic Triple Jumper: (Mission Viejo, CA) Umm, I kept myself calm because the--my event was right after the opening ceremonies, and so I wanted one more event to really make me focus, uh, to make sure that I was standing on one of those podiums and hopefully it would be the top podium, so I missed the opening ceremonies just to get--be mad at myself to say now I definitely got to win to close the ceremonies with a gold medal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you stay focused, Mr. Joyner? How do you keep from just being so nervous. It distracts you terribly?
MR. JOYNER: Umm, the reason I stayed focus was that I told myself all through training and practicing that every day was the Olympic games. I told myself at the Olympic games it was going to be one of my easiest practices because I only had to jump six times and only had to do one-- had to stay out on the track no longer than about a hour, two hours. Normally I'm on the track almost eight to twelve hours a day so I told myself it's a easy day at practice.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nancy Hogshead, how about you? What did you do in these days right before the competition?
NANCY HOGSHEAD, Olympic Swimmer: (Jacksonville, FL): Umm, I was just--I was pretty obsessive. I mean, I used to know exactly how many hours I had before I was going to be competing and what I was going to do in-between all the time and what I was going to eat and when I was going to rest and everything.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That was your way of dealing with the anxiety, to obsess? It works, I know.
MS. HOGSHEAD: No. It was just what I naturally did. I mean, it certainly wasn't what I wanted to do. Umm, I actually worked with a sports psychologist for about four months, five months before the Olympics just so I could learn how to relax and how to, how to really focus, and I--I ended up getting a lot of out of the sports psychologist that I never thought I would. I mean, I ended up learning how to use mental gymnastics or mental techniques to be able to swim much faster than I ever thought possible.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mitch Gaylord, did you let up in your practice in the days before?
MITCH GAYLORD, Olympic Gymnast: (Los Angeles) Absolutely. The few days beforehand you want to really remain focused mentally. That's the main thing. But I think a certain sense of normalcy is what you're looking for. You don't want to really get caught up in the overwhelming bigness of the Olympic games, so you try and do things that you do normally on a day-to-day basis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Mr. Gaylord, I know you and all the other athletes here have won many sporting events before you all got to the Olympics, but it is bigger than all the rest, isn't it? What did it feel like to you to be there?
MR. GAYLORD: It's really an overwhelming feeling because we know going into those games that billions of people will be watching us on TV, not to mention the live crowds that are actually there. So walking into the Olympic stadium and realizing that this huge event has started is really something that is overwhelming. So you really got to remain focused on what you're there to do, which is to compete to the best of your ability.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That must be so difficult to do, though, Pat Connolly.
MS. CONNOLLY: Well, Mitch is right about overwhelming. I remember I was 16 when I walked into the Olympic stadium to run the 800 meters in Rome.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sixteen years old?
MS. CONNOLLY: Sixteen years old, and I walked into this stadium full of people and I heard cheering, "Come on USA, come on USA," and what was going through my mind was I was worried that I wouldn't take my shorts down when I took my sweats off. So, you know, you don't know. You surprise yourself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I bet. I think that's the way it is when you're anxious, isn't it. You just worry about little things.
MS. CONNOLLY: Yeah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I guess that's not so little. (laughter) Al Joyner, Al Joyner, what about you? Was this so different for you from these other sporting events where you'd been a winner too?
MR. JOYNER: Uh, yes, it was definitely the biggest thrill of my life to know that you train really for four years, you know one day that it's all going to come down to one day, and for me one jump and hoping that that would be the perfect jump in your career, and if I looked at it any other way, thinking that, well, I trained four years, eight to seven hours a day for just one jump, it would have shared the living daylights out of me, so I had to put that out of my mind and think about the positive things, what kept me--what kept me going and the things that I had to accomplish to try to--to be the best in the world on that given day.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nancy Hogshead, how did it feel to you to be at the Olympics?
MS. HOGSHEAD: I thought that the Olympics were going to be just like every other swim meet. You know, I had been world class for eight years, and been to world championships and world games, and this was right at the height of the Cold War, and I missed the ‘80 team because of the boycott. And when I got to the Olympics, it made me realize what we had missed by not going to the 1980 Olympics. And in ‘84, it was, I mean--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let's remind people we didn't go in 1980 because of the Russian--
MS. HOGSHEAD: Because of the Olympic boycott.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah.
MS. HOGSHEAD: I sort of , I got to see what I had missed. I mean, at the world championships it's basically the same people. I mean, it's, you know, all your competitors that you've been in many cases trained with for years and years. And--but I tell you, there's just something about the Olympics, it is--it's really--sort of shows you how good people can be. I mean, the Olympics, the aura and the atmosphere there is, it's, it sort of pervades the specters; it pervades, uh, the competitors. I mean, I'm sure everybody else will agree, I was very good friends with most of my toughest, hardest competitors, and, umm, I don't--you know, there's just something about the Olympic spirit, you know, that I wish we could capture more often.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Al Joyner, what was it like to win?
MR. JOYNER: Uh, it was like a dream come true. It was like I always tell kids--they always ask me this question--I say it's like getting everything for Christmas and a little bit more because that was my biggest dream, to be an Olympic champion, just to be an Olympian, to meet the other athletes, and, uh, meet all the other--from the other countries--and I still tell everybody that the 1984 team was the best team. (laughing)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mitch Gaylord, how about you, what was it like to win? I mean, compare it to winning at any other kind of normal event, Mitch Gaylord.
MR. GAYLORD: For us, we were not projected to win in ‘84.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yeah.
MR. GAYLORD: At best, we were projected to take third place. So for us--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Chinese were projected to win, right?
MR. GAYLORD: Absolutely.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And at the very end, you were very close to them.
MR. GAYLORD: We were going neck and neck all the way to the last event, which set it up for quite a dramatic finish, but it was a surprise for us to be standing up there, so we were a bit in shock, and a tremendous amount of pride as we saw the American flag being raised and the National Anthem goes up because that is a dream that every Olympic athlete has for years before they actually compete.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you had to make a difficult decision, didn't you, at that moment? There was a difficult routine, the Gaylord 2, I think it's called.
MR. GAYLORD: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Which you might have not done and had a more assured win. Tell us about that.
MR. GAYLORD: Yeah. Well, we were so close with the Chinese going into the last event, for us it was high bar, and I had a very risky skill on that event, the Gaylord 2. Without the skill, I could probably have still scored a 9.8 and the U.S. could have won, but the coach, A.B. Grossfeld, knew how important it was to me, as well as USA gymnastics, because it put our name in the history book as a gymnast who had a trick named after him. So we kind of had this little stare-down before the actual event occurred, and he gave me the nod to go for it, and I went up there, and there was no way I was going to miss that bar.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you didn't miss it.
MR. GAYLORD: I did not miss it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And this was an event that you--or a routine that you didn't even like to practice that often it was so difficult, right?
MR. GAYLORD: Well, it's a very risky skill, and the thing about the Gaylord 2 is when you miss, you land on the bar, so it's the kind of thing that you really have to be very mentally focused and you have to be totally concentrated.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nancy Hogshead, what was it like winning? You won three gold medals and a silver.
MS. HOGSHEAD: Umm, you know, I've thought about that moment a lot, and there's--there was a big potential for having it not live up to, you know, how I thought about it for all those years, and without a doubt, it was a thrill of a lifetime. I mean, it's something I'll never forget as long as I live, and if you don't remember, I tied for the first gold medal, ever, in Olympic history, so it was myself--my teammate, Kerry Steinsifer, also from America--and just a tremendous amount of pride. You know, when I training, I was not saying "for America!," but when I got there, that really was true. Umm, just so proud to be an American, and then I actually had people from Japan come up and say, wow, you really did it for us. I remember kind of wondering, how well they speak English, but what they're really acknowledging is what people are capable of. I mean, I loved watching Mitch do his, umm, do his routines when I was in-between swimming, and I watched him and teammates, Peter Goodmar, Bart Conners, and, and just thinking, like what--I just can't believe a human being is capable of doing that, and the same thing with Al Joyner. You know, I watched him compete many times, umm, and it's just neat. I mean, that's one of the great things about the Olympics, is it shows us all how good--what people are capable of doing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat Connolly, you did not win a medal, although you were at three different Olympics. Was that terribly disappointing, or was it enough to be there?
MS. CONNOLLY: It actually is a wonderful experience to just be there, to be in the Olympic village. When they talk about the height of the Cold War, we really were against the Russians, and I had gone there with the idea of beating a Russian, but once I started dancing with them, it didn't seem so important, and that's what the real Olympic spirit is about. It's bringing all the people in the world together, and learning respect and mutual admiration, and of course no one really savors that victory as much as the one who didn't get it, and it helped me analyze and understand that more and I guess I became a better coach because of that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you say that's how--how did it change your life? I would imagine it's changed everybody's life. How did it change your life?
MS. CONNOLLY: Well, first of all, it allowed me to become a coach and understand what it takes to become an Olympic champion. Umm, you're--once you're an Olympian, you're always an Olympian, and they can't say former Olympian. It's just something that you've experienced that, that separates you and makes you different than everybody else.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Al Joyner, what about you, how did it change your life?
MR. JOYNER: It changed my life because I wasn't the best athlete growing up. I wasn't a stand-out, and let me know that if you keep believing in your dreams, train hard, that anything can, anything is possible, you can go all the way to the Olympic games and you take that same attitude in business and being a parent and being anything you can be as long as you just keep nourishing dreams and believing in yourself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was there any down side for you?
MR. JOYNER: The biggest down side is that I had the pleasure of knowing what it feels to make the Olympic team and knowing what it feels not to make the Olympics.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So had hoped to make it this year, hadn't you?
MR. JOYNER: Yes, and, and I'm still--I still think I have a little bit ability left in me, and I'm going to take each year at a time, but I know what those athletes go through just to be called an Olympian, and that, uh, it's hard when you put in four years and then it's four years is gone and you have to train four more hard years and you keep asking yourself, can you do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mitch Gaylord, how about you, what was--was there any down side?
MR. GAYLORD: Well, so much happened after the Olympics that when I look back upon it, there's a big period of confusion, let's call it, where I kind of got off the path and got off track, but I thank God for that Olympic experience, and what it made me as a person, that whole journey of training to the Olympic games, and I've really been able to draw upon that, like what Al was saying, you know, the belief in yourself and the fact that we were able to do something like that, that we set out for ourselves. You never ever lose that. So if you can apply that to your life in a different area, you've got yourself going in a very good direction.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So that's the way it changed your life?
MR. GAYLORD: Absolutely. There was a lot of opportunities after the games -- the movies, television shows, commercials. I went on that path, and I found it to be very unfulfilling when compared to the Olympics, of that incredible journey and the character building and reaching goals, uh, that's what I treasure. It's not standing on the victory stand. It's really the process, and that's what I've tried to learn from and apply to my life now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nancy Hogshead, what changed in your life after the Olympics? How did it change you?
MS. HOGSHEAD: Well, about a year and a half before the Olympics, umm, actually I guess about three years before the Olympics, I was raped, and I quit swimming for a year, and by going through the process of going and getting an Olympic gold medal, it sort of gave me myself back. It made me, you know, like that I was in control of my future, and that I was strong and, and that I sort of was back in the driver's seat. I got so much out of --exactly what Mitch just said--going through the process of really putting yourself on the line. I mean, like he said, it's not the victory stand really; it's the going for it, it's the having a really big goal, and so, umm, so after the Olympics, knowing how much I had gotten out of my sports experience, Donna Deverona came and talked to us, um, about women being able to participate in the Olympics, and I went on to become the president of the Women's Sports Foundation out of that. It gave me something out that I felt just as passionate about and just as good about, and now I'm going to be an attorney with Smith, Halsey, and Bussey here in Jacksonville, Florida.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you, Nancy. We have to go now. Thank you all very much for being with us.