Each year, 18 Olympians and 6 Paralympians are nominated to be inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame. After reading the bios on each of these athletes, I realize that they all deserve to be there. They have all carved a place in history in their respective sports. Yet only six Olympians and one Paralympian are actually inducted from the list of nominees.
What makes the induction process unusual is that the public gets to join in the voting. Voters are allowed to cast a vote once per day up until April 9, the final day of voting.
The public vote totals will be added to the totals of the Olympians’, Paralympians’ and US Olympic Family members’ votes to determine which of the six Olympians and one Paralympian will be inducted. In addition, there is a category for the team of the year and one of the nominees is the 1976 USA Women’s 4 x 100 freestyle relay that upset the steroid-laden East German team to win the Olympic gold medal.
This year, I am very proud that my son, Gary Jr, is one of the Olympian nominees. Biased as I am, Gary’s Olympic Games history of accomplishments is extraordinary; three Olympic Games (96, 00, and 04), 10 Olympic races and 10 Olympic medals; 5 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze. Unlike many athletes that had amazing careers, Gary saved his best swims for the Olympic Games. He was an Olympic Gamer.
What many people do not remember is that six of Gary’s ten medals, and both individual gold medals, were won after he was diagnosed with type I diabetes. In fact, the diagnosis came about one year before the Olympic Games in Sydney, when three different endocrinologists told him that he would never make an Olympic team again. Once he decided to prove them wrong, he elected to train for the 50 meter sprint only, leaving the more difficult and taxing 100 meters behind.
On the last day of the Janet Evans Invitational in Los Angeles in 2000, a last-chance meet to qualify for the Olympic Trials, Gary’s coach, Mike Bottom, asked Gary to lead off the 4 x 100 free relay. Gary hadn’t swum the 100 meters for over a year. Even though he hadn’t trained for that event, his lead off leg was barely under the cut for the Olympic Trials. Mike then convinced Gary that swimming the 100 meters at the Trials would be a good warm up swim for the 50 later in the meet.
On the morning of the 100 meter freestyle preliminaries at the Trials in Indianapolis, Gary was in one of the first heats, having one of the slowest qualifying times. He reeled off a 49 low, qualifying second behind Neal Walker. In the finals, he placed second behind Neal, qualifying to swim the 100 free in Sydney, an event he had not planned to enter just 3 weeks before.
Who can forget the famous or infamous 4 x 100 men’s freestyle relay of Sydney, perhaps the most exciting relay race ever…at least until USA vs France in 2008? In this relay, the lead changed hands between the Australian and American teams seven times, before Ian Thorpe touched out Gary Hall Jr on the final stroke to the wall. Michael Klimm may have had the best swim on both teams, leading off for Australia with a world record, but Gary Jr had the fastest split of everyone, even though his team did not win.
That night, in a meeting of a rather despondent Team USA, Gary Jr broke the silence by saying ‘we may have lost the battle tonight…but we haven’t lost the war’. Team USA rebounded to have one of its best Olympic performances ever, while Team Australia, after their emotional air-guitar celebration of the relay, did not fare as well. Gary Jr also rebounded in those Games to win the bronze medal in the 100 freestyle from lane 7, tied his American teammate, Anthony Ervin, for the gold in the 50 meter freestyle and anchored the gold-medal winning 4 x 100 medley with a new world record.
Minutes after the medley relay victory, when NBC was trying to herd the four swimmers together for an interview on the Today show, the manager of Team USA asked for my help. Gary Jr was nowhere to be found. We searched high and low and finally, I found him lying in the grass near some tents behind the swimming stadium. He barely knew who he was. He was nearly in a diabetic coma. His blood sugar was in the low 20’s.
After getting some juice, he later came around and even made the end of the interview, but it reminded me of the seriousness of his disease and what he has to deal with every day, Olympic competition or not. Of all his career swims, including winning the 50 meter freestyle in Athens as the oldest male ever to win, I still consider those five 100 freestyles he did in Sydney, 2 on relays and 3 in the individual races, as his most courageous efforts. I often wonder what he might have done if he had been able to train for them.
In the long run, it doesn’t really matter. All of his Olympic performances, from nearly upsetting the great Russian swimmer, Alex Popov, in Atlanta in 1996 and coming from third place to first in the 4 x 100 relay with the fastest split ever, to becoming the oldest male swimmer in history to win an Olympic gold at 29 in Athens in 2004, were stellar. With his second fastest lifetime 50-meter freestyle, he narrowly missed making his fourth Olympic team at the age of 34 in 2008, ending his swimming career. He deserves his place in the Olympic Hall of Fame. I hope you will vote for him every day until April 9.
Yours in swimming,