As swimmers, parents or coaches, we all have our goosebumps moments in sports; moments when we are overtaken with pride and elation over having accomplished something or having witnessed something extraordinary. Goosebumps may have occurred over crushing a goal time, winning a championship race, being elected captain of the team, overtaking a competitor on the anchor leg of a relay….or a million other possible moments. The point is that these moments are the ones we relish the most during our careers. It is from these moments that we look back and say, “Yeah, it was all worth it.”
I have had many goosebumps moments in my life. Three of the most notable were watching my son, Gary Jr, win an Olympic gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle twice. The other was carrying the Olympic flag in the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games of Montreal Canada in 1976. That was an indescribable feeling of honor and the highest one I have ever received.
You may wonder how an Olympian gets the honor of carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Games for the United States. Well, here is how the process works.
First, you must be talented enough to make the Olympic Team. Since there are approximately 600 other extremely talented athletes on the same summer Olympic Team, that alone is not enough.
Second, you must have done something extraordinary as an Olympian. In Michael Phelp’s case, who was selected to be the flag bearer in Rio in 2016, he simply won more Olympic medals than any other human being in history. Others have been selected for qualifying for numerous Olympic Teams (I was just the second person (behind Duke Kahanamoku) to qualify for three Olympic teams in swimming…which today is nothing unusual). Other Olympians, such as Cliff Meidel (2000 Canoeing) and Lopez Lamong (2008 Athletics) were selected on the basis of having made a heroic comeback or overcoming a tremendous obstacle to reach the Olympic team.
Third, you need to be a little bit lucky, being in the right place at the right time. In the two prior Olympic Games of 1972 and 1968, a woman had been selected to carry the USA flag. Perhaps that may have influenced the decision to select a man in 1976?
On the evening before the Opening Ceremony day of each Olympic Games (summer or winter), all of the team captains from all sports are summoned to a meeting room for the purpose of selecting the flag bearer. Not all of the captains of the sports that are represented there will nominate an athlete for that honor, but many do.
In 1976 there were 12 athletes nominated by various team captains to carry the flag and lead Team USA into Montreal Olympic Stadium. Each of those team captains presented his or her arguments as to why the nominated athlete should receive that honor. All nominees were deserving. Since I was one co-captain of the men’s swim team, the other co-captain, Steve Furniss, presented my case. He must have done a great job, because he made me sound a lot better than I could ever remember being. I do recall blushing somewhat during his presentation.
Then we voted. After the first vote, eight candidates were eliminated and we were down to four. Each nominating captain spoke again about their selected candidate. The second vote came down to two athletes, Willie Davenport, a renowned hurdler, and me.
Willie Davenport was competing in his fourth Olympic Games. He had won the gold medal in 1968 in the 110 meter hurdles. A year or so before the 1976 Olympic Games, Willie had suffered from a pulmonary embolus that had nearly killed him. Yet he came back from that adversity and qualified for his 4th Olympic team. It was an amazing story.
When I heard all of that, I knew I was not going to win. I was still pretty honored to be standing up there with him on that ballot. In fact, the only two votes that I thought I could count on were from Steve and an Olympian named Jan Palchikoff. Jan was captain of the women’s rowing team, but had been a young swimmer on the same team as me in California, years earlier. We were still good friends.
After the final vote, it was announced that I was the winner. I almost fell off my chair. I stood up, and with tears welling in my eyes, told the entire group of captains how proud I was to have been given that honor. It meant so much to me then and the honor of being our standard bearer in the Olympic Games grows greater every year. To have been selected by my peers to lead the greatest group of athletes from the greatest country in the world into the Olympic Games is an indescribable feeling. It is a goosebumps moment.
As we walked out of the meeting, I put my arm around Steve and thanked him. Without his persuasive words, I would never have been elected. I told him that the only two people that I thought would vote for me were him and Jan Palchikoff, who was seated next to Steve.
“I hate to break the news to you, Gary”, he said. “I looked over at Jan while she was casting her vote. She voted for Willie.”
The following afternoon as we prepared just outside the Olympic Village for the march to the stadium, I clutched the flag pole tightly with my arms, with the end of the pole planted firmly against my chest. The red, white and blue stars and stripes waved continuously above my head from the light breeze. We marched for nearly a mile from the Olympic Village before we even reached the Olympic Stadium. The few hundred spectators standing alongside the road on the way clapped favorably as we marched by.
Then we entered into a darkened tunnel which led us onto the track of the stadium. As I was leading the team through the tunnel, I began to see the light of the opening of the tunnel and my hands began to tremble. “God,” I prayed to myself. “Please don’t let me drop this flag”.
The Stars and Stripes were the first thing to appear coming out of the tunnel. Once the crowd saw our flag, all 80,000 spectators stood and let out a deafening roar of approval. I shook like a leaf. Goosebumps formed everywhere. Yet I smiled all the way around that track. I even gave a short wave to Queen Elizabeth who was seated in the crowd. We were told explicitly not to dip the flag to her, as it is a US federal law that we are not to do so for any foreign king, queen or kingdom. I obeyed.
Whenever your goosebumps moments in life occur, relish them. We don’t get that many and you should cherish every one. I know that I do.
Yours in swimming,