What does it mean to be an Olympian? What kind of person does it take to be in this elite group? They are the cream of the crop, the best of the best athletes in the world. And as one person in this inner circle says: "Once an Olympian, always an Olympian."
Today, they’re our next-door neighbors, our teachers, our coaches, our motivational speakers. But whether they competed in the Olympics 10, 30 or even 50 years ago, their drive, passion and athleticism didn’t stop when they left the Olympic Village. It followed them right back home.
Olympic Games: 1960 in Rome,
Medals won: Gold in the 4×400-meter relay
Earl Young’s road to the Olympics began early.
“The day I was born, my father turned to the doctor, pointed to me and said: ‘There’s my little quarter-miler,’” Young says. “See, my father was also a great runner, but he didn’t have the good fortune of going to college, so he never had the chance to be a competitive runner — but he made sure I had that chance.”
That chance came in the form of a track scholarship to Abilene Christian University. It wasn’t long until Young’s record-breaking track times gained him national notoriety and an invitation to compete for the U.S. Olympics Athletics team.
“In the Olympics they call it athletics, but it’s really just plain-old-vanilla American track and field,” Young says. “I remember the day I went to qualify, Sports Illustrated was there covering the event. I ended up making the team, and a week later a picture of me crossing the finish line ran in the magazine. The caption below my photo said something like, ‘A grimacing Earl Yong crosses the finish line,’ but let me assure you, there was no grimacing that day — just grinning.”
Young would actually go on to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1961, something he calls “a great honor” but still “no comparison” to receiving an Olympic gold medal. Young won the medal for running the 4×400-meter relay during the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was just 19, the youngest athlete to win the distinction that year.
“When you’re 19, you’re pretty much in awe of everything, but it’s even a different awe looking back now because I have spent years reflecting on it,” he says. “My parents were there to watch me get my medal, and that is still such a special memory for me. There is no comparison to standing on that platform and listening to your national anthem play. You get goose bumps.”
It’s a feeling that bonds Olympians in ways only they understand, Young says.
“We’ve all been through something that we all understand better than anyone else. We understand the highs and lows that come from being a world-class athlete.”
For this reason, Young has stayed active in the Olympian community, serving as founding chairman of Olympians for Olympians, an outreach for athletes who have fallen on hard times.
“Someone recently told me there are more Congressional Medal winners than Olympic gold medal winners, so it’s a tight-knit bunch. When one of us falls on hard times, the rest of us step in to pick them up. That’s the kind of bond that exists between Olympians.”
Olympic Games: 1976 in Montreal,
Medals won: Three gold and one bronze in freestyle swim events
When Jim Montgomery watches the Olympics on television, he can’t help but get fired up when it comes to the swimming competitions.
“I just want to jump in my suit and see if I can help out. Not that I still could today, but I still get the urge.”
That urge is understandable considering Montgomery is an Olympic swimmer who has been competing most of his life.
“I still watch the Olympics and kind of compare their swim times to mine. I guess you could say I’m still pretty competitive.”
It’s that competitive spirit that led him to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, . That’s where he won three gold medals and one bronze medal in freestyle swim events.
“When you win an Olympic medal, it’s a relief physically and mentally,” he says. “There’s a great satisfaction in knowing that you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. And of course, there is a tremendous pride in representing the
“Being up there in front of everyone to receive your medal is great, but coming home is special, too. I was a hometown hero. Everyone in town knew, so I was pretty pumped.”
Other Olympic memories, Montgomery says, still make him chuckle.
“I remember going from my place at Olympic Village to the swim venue where I was competing; it was about a 15-mintue walk. But if you went by bus, it was about 45 minutes because of all the tight security and all the fans who wanted autographs. So instead of taking the bus, I would put all of my Olympic team gear in my backpack and put on jeans and a t-shirt. Then I’d walk to the swim venue, and nobody had any idea I was an Olympian. I didn’t have to deal with security and hardly any fans recognized me. I was able just fly under the radar.”
Today, you’ll still find Montgomery poolside. He coaches the varsity swim team at Greenhill School — and he still competes in master swim meets. He also coaches at Dallas Aquatic Masters, an adult fitness program he founded in 1981.
“Swimming has huge health benefits, and it’s something any body type can do,” he says. “If you ask me, swimming is the greatest sport in the world.”
Olympic Games: 1952 in Helsinki,
Medals won: Silver for shot put
Darrow Hooper’s knack for shot put was one part genetic, one part circumstantial.
“I was in junior high when I started putting the shot — that’s the expression we use in the sport,” Hooper says. “But this was during the later stages of WWII, so athletics were somewhat limited in public schools because the government didn’t want to finance sports equipment during the war. We didn’t have sports like football or basketball.”
Although Hooper says he was an “all-around athlete,” wartime circumstances forced Hooper to concentrate on field events, revealing a talent for shot put. In fact, Hooper went on to break national records throughout his school career.
“I was good at shot put, but I was also much bigger than most kids back then. I was more than 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. They called me ‘Giant’.”
Hooper kept his athletic momentum going strong through college, qualifying for the 1953 Olympics in Helsinki, , during his junior year at Texas A&M University.
“I remember we flew to the Olympics in a propeller plane, so now I’m talking about some real history here. Today, we don’t think about it, but it was pretty unusual to fly somewhere like that back then.
“I also competed in the Olympics when the Cold War was in full swing. All of the Russian athletes did not live with the rest of us in the Olympic Village. They all stayed in a different area that was something like an army post because [the Soviet government] didn’t want them mixing and mingling with the free world. I still remember that.”
But what Hooper remembers most is winning a silver medal for the shot put.
“I think the thing everyone remembers, if you’re successful, is hearing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and seeing your flag go up. Representing your country in a global venue simply can’t be compared. It is a wonderful memory to have.”
And bits of that “wonderful memory” continue to show up in his mailbox frequently in the form of fan mail.
“I still get letters from people asking me for autographs, even after all these years,” he says. “People in Europe are twice as avid about track and field as we are here in the So people from overseas, mostly from and , will still write me regularly. It’s nice to be remembered, and it’s still quite an honor, even to this day.”
THE MEN BEHIND THE MEDALS
Even the most formidable athletes do not thrive on bodily strength alone. To reach Olympic-level success, physical talent must meet with mental discipline. Such a winning combo is seldom achieved without assiduous coaching — that’s where Beijing-bound Southern Methodist coaches Eddie Sinnott and Steve Collins come in.
Men’s head swimming coach Eddie Sinnott is headed to Beijing to manage the U.S. Men’s Olympic Swim Team. Sinnott says it takes a certain type of person to coach. “You have to want and be willing to help someone else achieve their dreams.”
And those dreams don’t necessarily mean Olympic Gold. He spent years coaching children, and then teenagers. Even at SMU, it isn’t as much about winning, he says, as it is getting better every day.
“And that,” he says, “is what all my swimmers have in common.
“These guys are all out there working toward the same thing. Some are good. Some are OK. Some are not very good. Some are Olympians,” he says. “But if everyone is trying to be better than they were yesterday, they are all pursuing their own excellence. Therefore they are all working toward the same goal.”
Coach Steve Collins agrees the shared pursuit of greatness makes the SMU swimming program exceptionally strong.
“It’s the positive, enthusiastic, team-oriented program here that produces great individual successes.”
Collins’ Mustang squad has brought home 10 straight conference championships, plus eight conference Swimmer of the Year honors. He has coached SMU’s women’s team for 22 years and for a fourth time, Collins is coaching the Slovakian women’s Olympic swim team.
Thirty-two-year-old Martina Moravcova has attended five Olympic Games swimming for the Slovakian women’s team, which Collins has coached for the past four years. If Collins hadn’t recruited her to come to SMU, she says, there’s “no way I’d still be competing.”
But for every champion swimmer these coaches lead, there are dozens of others who face disappointment or who fall short of their goals.
“Events like the Olympic trials are stressful,” Sinnott says. “About two percent make it. There’s a lot of crying. [As a coach] you are there to pick up the ones who fall and celebrate those who win.”
Every tear, however, is worth it, Sinnott says.
“When you are there [at the Olympics], you are at the top of the pyramid — you are witness to people achieving their dream.”
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