Games Changers: Olympic Stars of Yesterday
A before-and-after look at the American heroes who framed some of our proudest memories
Editor’s note: As the Tokyo Olympics begin, we are revisiting this piece about some of America's best known Olympic athletes.
They are historical icons, living monuments to U.S. Olympic excellence, prowess and will. Each represents a landmark not only on the fields of play but in our personal connection to the Olympic experience.
Many of us began watching the Games because Mark Spitz's swimming dominance provided some distraction from the atrocities committed against the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972.
Some of us were inspired to greatness in our own lives by the talent and determination of an American Marine named Leon Spinks, who lifted himself out of the ghetto to Olympic glory in Montreal in '76.
But their stories didn't stop there. In the years since standing on the medal platform, the seven athletes below have followed paths as divergent as the sports they competed in. Here's a look at how things have played out since they were Lords of the Rings.
Bruce Jenner (Caitlyn Jenner), Decathlon
Olympic Experience: Jenner was the all-American boy; she is now Caitlyn Jenner. The handsome blue-collar kid from Mt. Kisco, N.Y., finished 10th at the Munich games in 1972. Hell-bent on doing better, he spent the next four years in an intense training program while selling insurance to maintain his amateur status. His hard work paid off: Not only did he win a gold medal, but he set a new world record in the Games' most grueling event.
Epilogue: Jenner returned from Montreal a hero and used his status to launch a film and broadcasting career. He long-jumped from the front of a Wheaties box to a starring role in the CHiPs TV series and the Village People movie, Can't Stop the Music, which won him decidedly less favorable reviews — the one-time World's Greatest Athlete received the Golden Raspberry Award in 1980 for Worst Actor in the disco flop. His TV career was more successful, with guest star shots on prime-time series and game shows and stints as a sports commentator. He struck gold again in 2007, when he offered up a new image as the patriarch on the wildly popular surreality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. More recently, she has become an inspiring transgender symbol and the star of the TV show on the E Network, I Am Cait.
Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics
Los Angeles (1984)
Olympic Experience: Just 16 years old and 4'9" when she stepped onto the mat at the L.A. Games, Retton walked away as America's darling. Bouncing back from a devastating knee injury with grueling rehab work and training, she won five medals, including the All-Around Gold — a first for an American woman.
Epilogue: A devout Christian conservative, Retton was an outspoken supporter of the Reagan administration in the 1980s. She scored another victory when she became the first woman to appear on a box of Wheaties in 1984. She's also been a motivational speaker, sports commentator and corporate spokesperson. Retton's passion for acting has landed her roles in films (Scrooged, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult) and on TV (Baywatch, Glee).
Leon Spinks, Boxing
Olympics Experience: The light-heavyweight gold medalist may have had the most difficult rise to Olympic glory — and possibly the hardest fall. The oldest of five kids growing up on the gang-infested streets of St. Louis, Spinks began boxing at 14 to protect himself and his sibs. He later joined the Marines to help provide for them. He and his brother Michael Spinks became the first brothers to win gold medals at one Olympics. Each went on to win the professional heavyweight title when Leon shocked the world — and an aging Muhammad Ali — by outpointing him for the crown in 1978.
Epilogue: Leon's fall from grace was swift and devastating. He lost the title back to Ali in just seven months — and all the money he made in the process, a short time later. Spinks never regained his skill, getting beaten up by Larry Holmes in the ring and by his wife, Nova, in the street in an embarrassing incident. After losing his fortune, he was reportedly homeless and estranged for years from his son, Cory, the former welterweight champ. Today he suffers from dementia and works as a custodian at a Nebraska YMCA.
Mark Spitz, Swimming
Mexico City (1968); Munich (1972)
Olympics Experience: The most dominant American Olympian since Jim Thorpe, Spitz chewed up his competition like a great white shark. He made a staggering sweep of all seven events he competed in at Munich and ultimately snagged an incredible nine gold medals over two Olympics.
Epilogue: The triumphant Spitz captured America's consciousness by becoming a short-term fixture on Bob Hope specials, The Hollywood Squares and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. But he voluntarily left the spotlight to pursue a career in dentistry in his native L.A. In 1991, Spitz boldly attempted a comeback, hoping to make the 1992 Olympic team, but didn't qualify. Today he provides occasional color commentary for swimming events for ABC Sports. He drew rave reviews in 2006 for his voiceover work on Freedom's Fury, a documentary about the bloody 1956 revenge water polo match between Hungary and the USSR, and recently appeared in a commercial for a testosterone supplement. Mostly, though, he shuns media attention, preferring to focus on his Beverly Hills real estate business.
Doug Collins, Basketball
Olympics Experience: The man who saved USA basketball from its first loss — and then saw the game given away by the referees again and again — was an all-American guard from Illinois with a deadly shot and a big future. Shockingly, Team USA was trailing its archrival, the USSR, 49–48 in the gold medal game with no time left on the clock. Collins was fouled and coolly sunk two free throws to win the game — or so it seemed. But the officials gave the Russians not one, not two, but three attempts to take the lead back, stating that time had not, in fact, run out. After multiple attempts to inbound the ball, the Soviets finally got it right. A court-length pass netted a basket and earned them the most controversial gold medal in history.
Epilogue: In protest of the game's dubious officiating, USA players refused to accept their silver medals. But for Collins, this was just the beginning of an illustrious career. He was the Philadelphia 76ers' No. 1 pick in the 1973 draft and went on to become a four-time NBA All-Star. He's since had a successful run on the sidelines: He was Michael Jordan's first coach on the Chicago Bulls ('86–'88) and turned around the Detroit Pistons ('95–'98). Today he is back as coach of the 76ers, a team he took deeper into the playoffs this past season than anyone could have predicted.
Greg Louganis, Diving
Montreal (1976); Los Angeles (1984); Seoul (1988)
Olympics Experience: One of the most accomplished and courageous American Olympians of all time — and one of the most controversial — Louganis dominated Olympic diving for nearly 15 years. He won a silver medal in the tower event in 1976 at Montreal and took gold in the springboard and platform competitions in 1984, when the Americans returned to the Olympics after the 1980 boycott. He did the same in Seoul in 1988, but not without heroically overcoming a terrifying accident in which he slammed his head against the board in the springboard event.
Epilogue: Louganis was not as warmly revered in post-Olympics life. After admitting that he was gay in his 1995 autobiography, he shook up the athletic community by revealing that he was HIV-positive at the time of his famous accident. He was publicly chastised for being dangerously irresponsible. That point of view has softened, but it still cost him many lucrative endorsements. Louganis has gone on to become an AIDS awareness advocate and motivational speaker. He is currently a vice president of the U.S. Olympians Association, a support network for former American athletes.
Dave Wottle, Track and Field
Olympics Experience: The man with the funny golf cap from Bowling Green University jetted from dead last in the final lap to dramatically take the lead with less than 10 meters to go. Called out of shape and considered a long shot to win, Wottle seized the gold, and history, in an incredible upset. Criticized for standing throughout the National Anthem wearing his signature hat, he said he had simply forgotten he had it on.
Epilogue: Following his Olympics triumph, Wottle won the NCAA championship for the mile in 1973, setting a record of 3:57.1. He later beat legend Steve Prefontaine on the way to setting a phenomenal personal best — 3:53.3. Wottle also became a pioneer in the professional International Track Association before retiring to become a coach and academic. He is currently the dean of admissions and financial aid at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.
Mike Hammer has covered sports and entertainment for various national publications for more than four Olympiads.