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The California Gold Rush of ’84

Published: August 16, 2016

Struck with gold fever, these determined athletes have overcome deformities, sacrificed good jobs and moved miles from family and friends in pursuit of that precious Olympic medal.

The gold rush of ’49 was but a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park compared to the upcoming gold, silver, and bronze rush of ’84 for medals at the Los Angeles Olympics. The hurdles on the road to the Olympics are many. For most athletes, blood, sweat, and tears are just a starter, but for those who are burning with Olympic fever, no hurdle is too great to overcome. Some of the following athletes will qualify for the American team. Others may fail. Some will be back again in ’88, but for others, it is their final opportunity to satisfy the dream of standing in the winners’ circle.

Rowdy Gaines: 1980s Loss

In line for enough medals at the 1980 Moscow Olympics to make him the most renowned swimmer since Mark Spitz, Ambrose (Rowdy) Gaines saw his hopes go down the drain with the American boycott. Along with them went his concentration and boyish enthusiasm.

“I couldn’t believe the United States would actually stick to it,” says this Auburn University graduate from Winter Haven, Florida. “I felt cheated, oppressed, and unwanted. I still think the boycott was a stupid decision; it proved nothing.” Rowdy Gaines, at 24, continues to dream his Olympic dream. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m getting too old, burned out. I think about all my colleagues who didn’t have a chance to swim and turned to earning a living, and I ask myself if I’m not wasting my time. But swimming is what I want to do the most.”

Having used up his college eligibility, Rowdy still trains with coach Richard Quick at the University of Texas. Here, in the pool at Austin, is where he established his world records in both the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events. And if this training results in victories over the American competition of Chris Cavanaugh and Rich Saeger in the U.S. Trials, June 25–30, 1984, at Indianapolis, he will face Jorg Woithe of East Germany and Michael Gross of West Germany, top contenders in the Olympics.

“It’s been tough the last three years,” says Rowdy. We ‘older’ swimmers were supposed to have reached our peaks in 1980. Hopefully, that won’t turn out to be true.”

Mary T. Meaghers Postponed Dream

When Soviet military troops rumbled into Afghanistan in 1979, the reverberations jarred the life’s dream of 15-year-old Mary Terstegge Meagher of Louisville, Kentucky. Mary T., as she is known by her colleagues, became one of the athletic-career casualties of President Jimmy Carter’s retaliatory American boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

“The Olympics had always been my dream,” sighs this dedicated young swimmer who, as a high schooler, had followed her swimming coach from Louisville to Cincinnati to continue her training. “And that is what they have remained — only a dream.”

Bitterly disappointed, she had no more than nicely rearranged her goal and rekindled her spirits when an Associated Press reporter phoned with the results of the Olympic swimming competition and told her she could have beaten their times — and wanted to know how she felt about that.

“I felt like hanging up the phone and crying,” she confesses.

In fact, Mary T. nearly quit swimming altogether. But she decided to plunge ahead for the 1984 Olympics. And her “comeback” has already made quite a splash. She has won an NCAA championship, set world records in both the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events and has emerged as one of America’s brightest hopes for ending the domination of East Germany in her sport.

“My American rivals are the ones to consider first,” says Mary T., looking ahead to the Olympic trials next June 25–30 at Indianapolis. “Not having done my best times in a couple of years, I feel somewhat threatened by the newcomers. But with dedication and plenty of hard work I think I can come back just fine.”

Mary Lou Retton All 93 Pounds

It’s a long way from the coal-mining community of Fairmont, West Virginia, to Texas. But Mary Lou Retton, a ninth-grader at Houston’s Northland Christian School (having left at home her parents, three brothers, and sister Shari — an All-American gymnast at West Virginia University), has come much further in her training since the days she tried to emulate the Soviet crowd pleaser Nelli Kim at the local gym.

Mary Lou’s Texas training, in fact, has unearthed a load of gymnastic talent that, at age 12, has earned her the No. 1 senior-class ranking in the nation. And hopes are high that she will be one of the United States’ most productive natural resources in the 1984 Olympic Games. Standing a scant 4’ 10” and weighing but 93 pounds, her performances combine speed and amazing acceleration with a force that has caused gymnastic experts themselves to flip. Though she believes vaulting and floor exercises to be her best events, an innovative maneuver on the uneven bars has already been named for her.

Mary Lou credits her refinement to coach Bela Karolyi, the Romanian tutor responsible for the stardom of Nadia Comenici in the 1976 Games, before he defected to America in 1981 and opened a gymnasium in Houston. Here, under the eye of this technician, Mary Lou has improved her fundamentals, and here she has benefited from working out with fellow-student Dianne Durham, ranked No. 2.

As to her earlier hopes of emulating Nadia Comenici: “I really don’t want to be a carbon copy of Nadia,” she muses. “That’s a dream only for beginners. I would rather be a gymnast with my own style of performance.”

With Mary Lou Retton, chances are good that coach Bela Karolyi will again strike Olympic gold — only this time for the United States.

Wee Marie Gymnast Giant

Gymnast Marie Roethlisberger’s tiny voice is a perfect fit for her 4’9”, 82-pound figure. She punctuates her speech with shy giggles, typical of an 11th-grader.

She could be the average student from New Trier High School in Northbrook, Illinois. But she isn’t.

As a result of spinal meningitis when she was two years old, Marie is totally deaf in one ear and has less than 50 percent hearing in the other ear. In addition, when she was still a toddler she had to relearn to walk, an ordeal she dismisses by recalling vaguely, “Oh, yeah, my mother told me about that.”

Of her deafness she says, “It doesn’t bother me or affect my balance. I can hear my floor music fine, but they have to turn up the volume a bit.”

Marie also has asthma, which she says is not really worth mentioning. She does mention that “not too long ago I had Osgood-Schlatter disease in both knees, and it used to bother me — but not anymore. I just have a big, ugly bump under each knee.”

Marie has been uprooting herself and following coaches, leaving both parents at home, since she was 12 years old. St. Louis and Omaha were her training sites before joining coach Bill Sands in Northbrook.

Although her father Fred, a 1968 Olympian and current gymnastics coach at the University of Minnesota, has been supportive, Marie insists that she has motivated herself. “It was something I wanted to do,” she says, “not something he pushed me into.” Marie’s most impressive tune-up came earlier this year. In the Coca-Cola International Invitational at London, England, she won the all-around title. She swept all but one event.

Choreography coach Donna Cozzo warns Marie Roethlisberger: “She’s not your little smiling-All-American-girl-with-bouncing-blonde-ponytails. She’s an extremely serious, intense girl who works about 30 to 36 hours a week.”

While Marie may not have lived the life of a typical gymnastics pixy, there is a better-than-even chance she will become the darling of fans across the United States with no more than a bronze medal at Los Angeles.

Boldens Bold Dash

Born premature, asthmatic, and clubfooted, Jeanette Bolden’s leap from life’s starting block was anything but spectacular. For the first 4 of her 23 years, this world-class sprinter was forced to wear corrective braces.

Today, should you happen to be on Los Angeles’ Central Boulevard and spot the 27th Street Bakery, amid the aroma of sweet-potato pies you’ll find three generations of the Bolden family hard at work. Jeanette, who says, “I grew up with flour in my hair,” helps out by making deliveries. Although she uses an automobile, occasionally she could make better time on foot. Some track experts, in fact, give her an excellent chance of capturing the 100-meter gold medal in 1984.

If she does, she first must qualify in the Olympic 100-meter-dash trials next June in Los Angeles. Jeanette, undaunted, has overcome even bigger obstacles.

She not only had to wear corrective braces as a youngster, but several times during grade school she was rushed to the hospital with asthma attacks so severe her life was close to the finish line. At age 12 she was sent to Sunair Home For Asthmatic Children at Tujunga, California, for nine months.

It was there that she had an introduction to sports — first swimming, then branching out to running.

“The more I ran, the more people began taking an interest in me,” she says. “And in 1977, after I beat some pretty good people, I no longer had to hide anything. I just wanted to keep on running.”

Besides filling demands for inspirational talks and doing volunteer work for the American Lung Association, Jeanette can also still be found occasionally delivering a freshly made sweet-potato pie for the family bakery.

Not surprisingly, her favorite passage from the Bible, which she studies avidly, is found in the Book of Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

HardHitting Brothers

Farmer Theodore Gray, Boynton Beach, Florida, raises beans, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, and boxers.

He planted the boxer crop eight years ago by hanging a potato sack filled with dirt and wet towels from a tree in the backyard and convincing his sons that it was a punching bag. Later, he drove them 170 miles a day to Miami for professional training.

Today, Theodore and Anna Mae Gray are harvesting a crop of amateur champions.

Last December, at the U.S.A. Amateur Boxing Federation championships in Indianapolis, the two oldest sons, Clifford, 21, and Bernard, 20, became the first brothers to capture titles in the same meet, vaulting into Olympic contention.

Currently, both boxers are working out at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as part of the U.S.A. Amateur Boxing Federation’s “Operation Gold.” Under this invitational program offering educational and athletic assistance to top American boxers, Clifford studies aerobics and speech at Pike’s Peak Community College; Bernard is registered at Palmer High.

“If I make the team,” says Clifford, “I’ll give 100 percent to win the gold medal. Then Bernard won’t have to cut his medal up to share with our father and mother. They can each have one — for the many things they have done for us.”

Thus the U.S. Olympic boxing team — whose trials are tentatively scheduled for next June 4–10 at Ft. Worth — appears to have a very Gray future — and that is a bright forecast indeed.

James Martin For the Defense

Although James Martin refuses to ingest sugar, white bread, soft drinks, and red meat, opting instead for fresh vegetables, poultry, and fish, there was a period when this nine-time judo All-American wasn’t so particular about what he put into his body. His rocky road to Los Angeles suffered a five-year detour through drug and alcohol abuse.

Spurred by rebellion to the rigid workout schedule set by his father, a Grand Masters champion, James turned his back on judo at age 15. But at 20, suffering ulcers and other symptoms of a badly mistreated body, he was given a shove — which also came from his father — right back into the sport.

“My dad challenged me,” James remembers. “Tryouts for the nationals were a few days away, and he said he bet I couldn’t qualify. With no time to get in shape, I entered — and won.

“I was really lucky, being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “But from it I got the idea that I could come back and go for the Olympics.”

Now 29 years old, the San Gabriel, California, resident has his eye on America’s first Olympic gold medal in judo. And instead of dope, he is injecting himself with doses of confidence from coach Ben Chapman.

James, with an unprecedented six national titles to his credit, says a gold medal itself means nothing. “I’d just like to be the first ever to capture a gold medal in judo for the United States,” he says. “Since judo became an Olympic sport in 1964, Americans have won just two bronze medals.”

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