The INSIDER Summary:
• INSIDER spoke with 5 Olympic swimmers who have won a collective 15 gold medals.
• We asked them all one question: What does it feel like at the top of the podium?
• Their answers were candid — and incredibly moving.
Forget “Titanic” — there is no greater tear-jerker than the Olympic Games. It’s all but impossible to hold back the waterworks when we watch our favourite athletes smash world records, trounce their rivals, and ascend the podium toting hard-won medals. How could you not well up when Michael Phelps secured his 28th medal, or when Simone Manuel got her history-making gold?
For the athletes actually standing on those podiums, the experience is even more intense.
INSIDER got the chance to speak with five Olympic champions from USA Swimming and asked each one the same question: How does it hold a newly won gold medal, knowing that you just became the best in the world?
Here’s what they had to say.
“It took me a while to realise what I was holding in my hand.” — Missy Franklin
“Winning a gold medal is incredibly surreal. It really doesn’t hit you until quite a bit after you hit the wall and see number one by your name. It was something that I had dreamed about for a long time so it took me a while to realise what I holding in my hand … to fully comprehend that I was holding that gold medal.” — Missy Franklin, 21, five-time gold medalist
“It was like being at the Superbowl.” — Rowdy Gaines
“For me it was a dream come true because I had made the team in 1980 and I didn’t get a chance to participate. [Ed note: In 1980, the US boycotted the Olympics as a protest against host country the Soviet Union.] That’s what made 1984 so incredibly intense and so exciting. I felt so fortunate. I was hanging on by a thin thread. I was past 25; I barely made the team. So it was quite the thrill.
“And I also got to swim at home, in Los Angeles. I walked in and it was like being at the Superbowl. To get through the boycott and to get to swim in front of my home crowd — it was very, very special.” — Rowdy Gaines, 57, three-time gold medalist and NBC swimming analyst
“It took about a week — that’s when it really sunk in.” — Cullen Jones
“For a lot of us, we’re still kind of in a whirlwind. We’ve been training and practicing for that moment and when we finally do it, you’re exhausted from the performance, someone’s sticking a mic in your face, saying, ‘How does it feel?’ ‘I don’t know yet! I haven’t figured that out!’
“And then you’re on the podium. At that point it’s such a surreal experience to hear your own national anthem and see your flag go up. A lot of swimmers can’t wrap their minds [around it]. For me it took about a week — that’s when it really sunk in.” — Cullen Jones, 32, two-time gold medalist and the first African-American male to hold a world record in swimming
“I couldn’t believe what was going on.” — Jason Lezak
“The funny thing is I always had this dream to be on the podium, but the first time I was up there I couldn’t believe what was going on and I really didn’t even remember what just happened.
“So the second time, when I got up there, I really tried to focus on it and pay attention to it, knowing that the whole country back home is watching this and cheering you on. There’s a huge feeling of pride. And then to see families in the stand tearing up — there’s that love you have for the people that were there to support you and get you through. So there’s the big picture and the smaller picture, and it kind of all came together. It was a very emotional experience.” — Jason Lezak, 41, three-time gold medalist
“I thought about those folks who told me I’d never achieve it.” — Mel Stewart
“I was 23 years old. [I told myself] I wasn’t going to sit up there and start blubbering. On the award stand the music starting playing and I started going back in my mind to all the people who helped me, all the people who supported me. I thought about those folks who told me I’d never achieve it. And it was a cascade of images and emotions. I did not anticipate that. If I could go back in time and talk to myself I would probably tell myself to relax, feel this joy. I was fighting the emotion. I wish I had just let it wash over me.” — Mel Stewart, 48, two-time gold medalist
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