I had a dream. OK, it was a really embarrassing dream in retrospect, but one I suspect lurks in every athlete’s mind. As a U.S. Ski Team member, when I closed my eyes and dared to think what my life would be like if I won a gold medal, I saw a world of carefree, mission-accomplished satisfaction. In this dream, the mere act of being me would warrant self-fulfillment-and an appearance fee-for life. Of course, no single thing can guarantee success and happiness. But it’s only human to fantasize, and it’s only American to fantasize, lottery-style-to imagine that one big windfall can change your life for the better forever; one person can make you happy; one idea can make you rich; one accomplishment can satisfy your sense of purpose. In sports, that one feat is the Olympic gold medal.
I asked some gold medalists, who now have a few years of perspective, what this crowning achievement in sports has meant to them. As suspected, my fantasy was just that. Yet a gold medal can’t help but change your life, for better and for worse. As 1984 Olympic GS champion Debbie Armstrong puts it: “Sometimes it’s a burden and sometimes it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card.” In Armstrong’s first years with the gold, it was definitely the former.
Armstrong came into the 1984 Olympics a virtual unknown, with no World Cup victories to her credit. But she was on a roll, and she was fresh. Her philosophy about all the Olympic hoopla was, “Bring it on,” she says. “I was so in the moment, and it was so much fun.”
Armstrong’s joyous memories were as fleeting as they were vibrant. “Once I crossed the finish line, it became a whole new chapter.” Three weeks after the medal, fed up with the fanfare, she decided to concentrate only on ski racing, shunning celebrity and even the idea of an agent. As a result, Armstrong didn’t make a blip on the endorsement radar.
“Looking back, I think that possibly I could have found a way to have a better balance,” she explains. “But I couldn’t at the time.”
As it was, the medal came too soon for the good of Armstrong’s skiing career. She retired four years later at 24, still young by any standard, but feeling the burnout of unrealized expectations based on her one magic day. It took another 10 years for her to put the experience in its place and find a comfortable niche in the ski world. Now, as ambassador of skiing in Taos, N.M., and a PSIA trainer, she is on skis every day in the winter, sharing the sport she loves.
Like Armstrong, Diann Roffe was a surprise gold medalist, but not of the one-hit-wonder variety. When she won the super G in 1994 in Lillehammer it had been nine years since her last win. In 1985, the 15-year-old Roffe became World Champion in GS. From then until 1994 she encountered meteoric ups-including a silver medal in 1992-and disastrous downs, especially right before Lillehammer, when she barely qualified for the Olympic team. “When I finally got to the Olympics I was so fed up. I was on fire and didn’t care about a thing.” For Roffe, winning the gold after so many years of struggling meant she could walk away from the sport happy.
Now, Roffe represents Subaru, Head ski equipment and Snow Time Ltd., owner of Ski Windham, N.Y., and Whitetail, Ski Roundtop and Ski Liberty, Pa. “I found a nice balance of earning a living from skiing while still having a life outside of skiing.” That life is centered on her new passion of three-day eventing. Riding horses owned by former Vail owner George Gillett, Roffe is in the U.S. Equestrian Team’s development program and may have more Olympic appearances in her future.
America’s most successful Olympic skier is undoubtedly Andrea Mead Lawrence, who at 19 won two gold medals in the 1952 Olympics. Even though Lawrence was a favorite in the slalom, her medal-winning performance in the second run demanded an inner power she’d never tapped before. After falling on the first run, she was virtually out of the running. Before the second run, she meditated heerself into a profound calmness. “I didn’t know what it was then,” she admits. “When I was moving into the start, it was like I was in a deep, dark, still black pool of water. That phenomonon was a defining moment of my life.”
The inner strength that made the medals possible-more so than the medals themselves-has influenced the rest of her life. “I had a couple of down times, most recently with cancer, where I had to rebuild myself. My ability to do that came from practicing all those years.” Much has changed since 1952, but one thing about sport has not. “The word amateur comes from the latin root amare, which is to love,” she points out. “What you do out of love for something is very different from what you do for endorsement potential.”
In other words, the Wheaties box may be the outcome-but it shouldn’t be the motivating factor. A gold medal is not automatically worth “millions,” as Bill Johnson predicted of his 1984 downhill gold. In the best-case scenario, athlete and medal work together to find the perfect fit. For Picabo Street, an endorsement-laden life coexists comfortably with her passion for ski racing. Meanwhile, Tommy Moe is golden as Jackson Hole’s ski ambassador, where he can ski, fish and kayak to his heart’s content. “If you win, stay the course,” advises 1984 gold medalist Phil Mahre. “All the opportunities out there stem from who you are, and you’re the same person before as after.”
Mahre doesn’t deny that the gold medal presents unequaled opportunities, even as compared to his 1980 silver medal. But his three overall World Cup titles are a more significant personal accomplishment. Before the Games in 1984, his seemingly apathetic comment that win or lose he was “set for life” earned him a bad rap. But that healthy attitude allowed his Olympic races to be the calmest of his career. “I already had a family, was happy with my accomplishments and with myself. I wasn’t going to ride the coattails of a medal to fame and fortune.”
Nonetheless, Mahre’s gold medal was special in many ways. “It’s been 18 years and I still get choked up talking about it,” he recalls. The win came on the same day his wife, Holly, gave birth to his son Alex. The most powerful moment awaited at the awards ceremony. “Before that night, everything in my career was all about me. I headed to the awards expecting another great moment for me. But when the flag went up and our anthem played, I realized it was America’s moment, not mine. If it hadn’t been for America, my dream wouldn’t have happened. I’ll never hear the national anthem the same again.”
Just as some dreams seem ridiculous, there are times when sports seem frivolous. What makes the Games possible, however, is anything but. A friend of mine is an undercover cop in New York City. In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, he checked in periodically between 18-hour shifts. As the city came back to life, he told me that “the outflow of patriotism on the street makes me feel like I do when our flag goes up at the Olympics.” He then made a request: “If you can,” he said, “tell the athletes how much their performance means to us.” My friend, you just did.
Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in Hanover, N.H., and can be reached at email@example.com. Check out her previous Racer eX columns in the archives to your right.