Getting the gold

Jaycie writes about how she overcame a loss of confidence and how her perseverance paid off in 1996 with a gold medal at the Olympics.

Jaycie Phelps with her gold medal from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

In 1993, I was a 13-year-old girl who was unsure about wanting to continue on with the sport of gymnastics. I had reached the elite level and qualified for the USA Championships for the first time as a junior. I placed 24th out of 25 girls and in my eyes, I wasn’t any good. I had lost a lot of my confidence and decided to be finished with gymnastics. After about four weeks out of the gym and many long conversations with my family, I knew that I needed and wanted gymnastics in my life.

Who would have known that in three years I would be a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team?

What an experience that was. I remember very clearly the night we won the gold medal. For the July 23, 1996 team finals, there were seven girls so unique and each added something special to that team. It started in the warm-up gym where we walked across the floor and heard an arena of 40,000 people chanting “USA-USA-USA.” 

An overwhelming feeling of pride rolled through my body at that point with the realization that I was representing the USA (the best country in the world) at the Olympic Games.

The entire night was an emotional roller coaster. We started competition on bars, which meant it was the last event to be warmed up. You get two minutes per gymnast to warm up. 

There were six of us competing on bars, which means we had a total of twelve minutes for everyone to warm up. I had my warm-up routine down to where I normally hit two routines to feel really good and ready to compete. 

That day my warm-up didn’t go as planned. I actually hit zero routines and our time was up. This is where the nerves really started to kick in. However, we still got a 30-second touch on the competition equipment, so I knew I would get the chance to do another routine and hit it!  Well, turns out that didn’t happen. I was the lead-off person, first up on bars, setting the tone for the entire competition and it was all riding on what I was going to deliver when I saluted the judge. 

My teammate and the captain of our Olympic team, Amanda Borden, gave me a pep talk and reminded me of how many routines I had done for years prior to this point and I visualized myself hitting my bar routine, and prayed to God that he be with me and give me calmness and help me do what I had worked so hard to do. 

The training was done, the preparation was over and now it was time to perform. I saluted the judge, took a deep breath and YES, I hit the best bar routine of my life and stuck my dismount and started the U.S. team off with a bang. When my feet landed on that mat the biggest feeling of relief took over me. I was so glad to be finished with that routine. And the rest of the team followed with one spectacular performance after another. 

On the vault

We went to beam and then floor after that and our last event was the vault. I don’t normally pay close attention to scores at meets because there really is nothing you can do about them. You can perform to the best of your ability and then the judges decide your score. But on this particular night, at this particular meet, I was a little bit interested in where the U.S. was ranked going into the last event. It didn’t help that we marched straight towards the giant screen with the standings on it. So yes, I looked and saw the U.S. sitting in first place by about .8, which back in my day was pretty substantial. So I got really excited knowing that vault was one of our strongest events as a team. 

I am going to take you through a play-by-play of vault for those of you who have never seen the coverage. I was first up, hit my vault and stood by to watch the night play out. 

The next three vaulters went, they hit and then we had Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug left to go, who were our two strongest vaulters. In the two weeks that we trained together as a team leading into the Olympics, I never saw these two girls miss a vault, and they did about twenty vaults a day. 

Dominique ran down and did her first vault and was trying so hard to stick that she landed a little short and sat it down. You get two vaults, so we knew she would land the second one. She ran down and did the exact same thing on the second vault, tried so hard to stick it that she landed a little short and sat it down again. 

Out of six competitors you get to drop one score, so we are thinking we will drop that score and still have Kerri’s vault to count on. Kerri saluted the judge, ran down the runway and performed her first vault, only it looked like an exact replay of Dominique’s. She was trying so hard to stick that she landed short and sat it down. We knew she had one more vault but she was limping back and shaking out her leg. We didn’t know if she was hurt or what was going on. 

Bela was in the background yelling, “You can do it, Kerri!” and we all hugged each other as Kerri saluted and started running down and did her vault and landed it and started hopping around on one leg and immediately got carried off and taken to the back.

We were all waiting to see where the U.S. finished. The other three events were still competing so we were standing there wondering if Kerri was all right and what the outcome of the competition was going to be. After several minutes of panic, the big screen posted the final standings and the USA was in first place. 

We marched off the competition floor and into the back gym to line up for the awards presentation. We saw Kerri and got to talk to her for a brief minute and they marched us back out to the competition floor. Bela had Kerri in his arms and it wasn’t until they announced the USA as Olympic team champions and we got Kerri onto the podium that we actually got to breathe for a moment and take it all in. 

Standing on the podium with a gold medal around my neck, listening to the National Anthem play, watching the American flag raise and seeing so many fans in red, white and blue singing along with tears in their eyes, that is what it’s all about.  I have never been so proud to be an American!

That is the moment when you look back at the journey and say, “WOW, I am really glad that I never gave up!”

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