I competed in rowing as the coxswain of the USA men's eight-oared crew in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004). Because rowing is held during the first week of the Games, rowers have the entire second week to experience the fun part of the Olympics. Having a medal, or not, makes a big difference in how that goes.
In 2000, we were heavily favored to win. We imploded and finished 5th. That second week was very difficult. We were like ghosts haunting the greatest celebration of amateur sport on earth. We would go to parties -- at least the ones where we could get in -- and watch what seemed like absolutely everyone else having the time of their lives. We quietly wondered what might have been. We slept a lot and scrapped for tickets to other events. Grown men cried.
That was the worst moment of my sports career. For years afterward, our meltdown in Sydney was the the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep and the first thing on my mind when I got up. Thinking about it now still stings. My teammates are also my closest friends. For some, that was their last chance. We will never get that back, and we all live with it every day.
In 2004, we were a dark horse, but by then my mindset on racing had changed quite a bit. I wanted to finish my career with a personal best performance. If I could do that, the medal would take care of itself. In our medal race, we absolutely nailed it and won the gold.
From the moment we crossed the finish line, the difference between Athens and Sydney could not have been more stark. We had just achieved the dream of our youth, accompanied by all the expected things: going to the medal stand, seeing our flag go up, singing our national anthem, fighting back a tear or two, celebrating with our families and friends, getting back to our house and finding 200 emails waiting with subjects like "CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!" and "OMG" even though it was not yet 6am back home.
And then the second week began. NBC called. They wanted us on the Today Show. They liked us and invited us back later in the week. The Wall Street Journal asked if I would write an article about the experience. We did a top-ten list for Letterman. While we were waiting for the cameramen, wrestler Rulon Gardner picked me up with one hand.
We did not even need to be on the lists for parties. We skipped the line and flashed our medals at the door. Huge entourage wants to come in, too? No problem. Feel like jumping up on the stage with the band? Do it! Stage dive the crowd? That's cool, too. Global sponsors called to ask if we might attend a breakfast and answer a few questions for a fat honorarium. With pleasure. We were just getting back from a party somewhere, and breakfast with people genuinely excited about the Olympics sounded fun.
Everywhere we went, it was a celebration. An official who looked quite like me introduced himself with stories of how random people were congratulating him and asking for his autograph. We got a picture together with him wearing the medal. People on the street would stop us and ask if their children could see the medal. That was the best.
With two days to go, I stopped sleeping. I had total fear of missing out. I visited with my friends from other countries. Who knew if we would ever see one another again? We just tried to experience as much of it as possible. We were not ghosts anymore.
In the years since Athens, that medal has changed my life in ways too numerous to count. And they are all good.
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