California Gold Prospects: Olympic Hopefuls on 1983

For some athletes, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games was the death of a dream. But these four set their sights on a gold rush at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

1984 Olympic Stadium in LA
By unknown, U.S. Air Force -; VIRIN: DD-SC-85-08929, Public Domain,

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Some group is always calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games, but it rarely actually happens. Backing out of the 1980 Olympics in response to the Soviet war in Afghanistan was a rare instance of follow-through by more than 60 nations, including the U.S. Of course, that left many a yearning athlete high and dry on glory, followed by a difficult four-year wait for the next opportunity — if that opportunity still existed.

Three years later, the Post highlighted a number of athletes — some of whom had been favorites to win in 1980 — with their eyes set on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team. Four of them went on to strike Olympic gold at the Los Angeles Games the following year.

The California Gold Rush of 84

By S. Lamar Wade

Excerpted from an article originally published on July 1, 1983

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 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.”

[Gaines won three gold medals at the 1984 Games, in the men’s 100meter freestyle and as part of the men’s 4 x 100 freestyle team and 4 x 100 medley team.]

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.

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.

[Meagher won three golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, in the women’s 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly and swimming the butterfly leg of the women’s 4 x 100 medley. She competed again in 1988 and brought home a silver and a bronze medal.]

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.

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

[At the 1984 Games, Retton brought home the gold medal for the women’s individual all-around — plus two silvers and two bronzes to boot.]

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, some track experts give her an excellent chance of capturing the 100-meter gold medal in 1984. To do so, 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.”

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.”

[Bolden brought home gold in 1984 as a member of the women’s 400-meter relay team.]

You can read the original article, “The California Gold Rush of ’84”, here.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *