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Memories, not medals, tops for Olympians

While  it’s the achievement of a lifetime to win an Olympic medal, many Olympians say their fondest memories are the sights, sounds and people they encountered at the games.
Image: Shannon Miller
Shannon Miller, then 19, won the gold medal on the balance beam at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.Eric Feferberg / AFP-Getty Images file
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Shannon Miller is the most decorated gymnast in American history. Today, she is 31 years old and works as a television host and motivational speaker in Jacksonville, Fla.

Miller knows she owes her fame to her triumphs in the gym: 16 world championship and Olympic medals, including an individual gold on the balance beam in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics. That was where she led her teammates — forever after known as the Magnificent Seven — to a shocking upset for the gold medal in the team competition.

But when she looks back on her Olympic career, it’s not the medals she remembers first.

“The prize possession is the memories, memories of that night with the team,” Miller said. “In some ways, it feels like it was a different lifetime. In other ways, it feels like it was yesterday.”

Certainly, it’s the achievement of a lifetime to win an Olympic medal. Nobody knows that more than those who lived it. But like Miller, they say their fondest memories are the sights, sounds and people they encountered at the games.

“It’s a gathering of everybody from all the different countries, the champions of all the different countries, coming together, and so it is something,” said Tommy Kono, a weightlifter who won gold in 1952 and 1956 before adding a silver in 1960.

‘It’s not about that one moment’
For John Macready, the youngest member of the U.S. men’s gymnastic team that finished fifth at the 1996 games, “it was amazing to actually see it from behind the scenes, when you’ve watched it your whole life as a young kid wanting to be involved with it.”

That sense of wonder is what Macready, 33, tries to pass along to the youngsters he coaches today. Winning is nice, he tells them, but “what we try to bring forth for these kids is that, whether you want to go to the Olympics or you just love gymnastics, what you’re learning in this sport is going to take you further than you’ll ever imagine.”.

Kevin Asano, 45, who won a silver medal in judo in 1988, also counsels today’s athletes to keep the competition in perspective.

“I realized in life that it’s not about that one moment, being at the Olympics,” Asano said. “It’s the whole journey that makes it so important.”

Charles Austin, who won gold in the high jump in 1996, has a somewhat different take. For him, the games were always a means to an end.

“My whole thing was, OK, win as many championships as I could, and hopefully get the name recognition, so once I retired from the sport, I would have other opportunities come my way,” Austin said.

Austin, 40, coaches aspiring Olympians as a fitness trainer in San Marcos, Texas. He says it’s more rewarding than any athletic honor he won on his own — even the gold.

“Helping others, I get more joy out of that,” he said. “I’ve been involved in athletics all my life, and I’ve been fortunate all my life to where it just came easy. So winning at that stage didn’t surprise me. ...

“But to come in and work with my clients and take them from one level to a higher level, that’s a great feeling. It’s unbelievable," he said.

Teammates remain close after all those years
Today, Shannon Miller hosts a gymnastics television show. It keeps her in the gym, and she says she makes it a point to keep up with her teammates from that special night in Atlanta.

“We still talk a lot. I see them at different appearances at gyms, or they coach or they judge,” she said. “It’s fun to see everyone grow up.”

Although she still occasionally checks out her historic performances on YouTube, “I just laugh,” she said.

“It’s like: ‘What was I thinking? How could I possibly wear my bangs like that? And what’s with the white scrunchy?’

“But it’s fun. It’s fun to look at the old memories and kind of relive those moments.”

Kono, the gold medal-winning weightlifter, looks back from an even longer perspective — he’s 78 now. He has this advice for the athletes in Beijing:

“Absorb everything, take in everything and do your best. That’s all you can do.”