ALBERTVILLE, France — I am retiring from the Olympics.
This will be my last Games as a competitor. It’s been a wonderful career, but it’s time to let the kids have a chance.
I will never forget my first medal, in 1964, when, at age six, I became the youngest person to win an Olympic gold in basketball. Making that last-second shot was really a thrill for me, and when my teammates carried me off on their shoulders, and even the Russian players congratulated me, well, I have to say, it brings a tear to my eye.
And how can I ever forget 1968, Mexico City, when I took the gold in the 100-meter dash? I was only 10, and nobody gave me a chance. But I knew, deep down, that all it took was hard work and dreams, and I told myself this every time I raced down the street in front of my house, clicking the stopwatch as I crossed the imaginary finish line. Hard work and dreams. An Olympic medal.
In 1972, I boxed my way to glory, becoming the youngest person ever to win a gold in the ring. It was a tough fight against the Cuban legend, Teofilo Stevenson, and only the sight of my family waving the flag and yelling “USA! USA!” kept me going in that final round. I don’t know where I found the strength for that last knockout punch, but when he crumpled, I knew I had done it. I was 14 years old. It felt really great.
“USA! USA! USA!”
In 1976, of course, I shifted to the Winter Olympics and surprised everyone by winning the Olympic downhill ski race, just nipping Franz Klammer by three-tenths of a second. I felt kind of bad about that, since the Games were in Austria, his homeland. But when Franz threw his arm around me and said, “You haz beaten me like ze true champion, my young American friend, now let us have ze beer together!” well, gosh, I thought that was the nicest thing. I was only 18 and had just taken up skiing, but I worked hard, and that’s all it takes.
In 1980, at Lake Placid, I won the luge as a 22-year-old rookie. I don’t know how I did it. But then, being on a sled, most of my memories are a blur. I do remember Al Michaels calling me “the second miracle on ice.” That was cute.
In 1984, I had what I consider my greatest Olympic moment. It’s not often that a 26-year-old man can turn his jogging habit into a spot in the Olympic marathon. But every night when I went for my run in the park, I closed my eyes and thought “Olympics, Olympics” — and suddenly, there I was, at the starting line in Los Angeles. And from the gun, I went all out. I remember passing the kids in Watts, who were cheering me on, and the rich folks in Beverly Hills, who honked their car horns. I was really sucking air when I came down that home stretch in downtown LA. My body ached, my legs were screaming, I was dizzy and nauseous and about to pass out — but somehow I found the strength to lunge at the tape and just beat that Australian by .02 seconds. I could hear Frank Shorter, the ABC commentator, yelling,
“UNBELIEVABLE! HE’S 26 YEARS OLD AND NEVER RACED IN A MARATHON BEFORE! USA! USA! USA!”
Of course, that would be the last time I would compete for my home country.
“Samoa! Samoa! Samoa!”
In 1988, I had my first Olympic controversy when I chose to ski jump for Brazil, since my grandmother was Brazilian. A lot of people were disappointed, but I was 30 years old, and it would have been hard to make the U.S. team in anything anymore. Brazil is not known for its ski jumpers — I was the only one ever — but, hey, it got me to Calgary. And that was some jump I had to win the gold, wasn’t it?
And here I am today, as the sole member of the American Samoa bobsled team. I moved there last year, to qualify for citizenship. OK, it’s a little weird. But yesterday, at age 34, I marched in the Opening Ceremonies, and I still felt proud.
And after Albertville, I retire. When people ask about my career, I’ll say I was really no different from the average American guy. Starting as children, every four years, we tell ourselves we can still get in the Olympics, if we just start working right now and don’t stop. As our hair gets thinner and our waistlines thicker, we change sports, we give up on basketball and imagine ourselves on the luge — but we still keep dreaming.
And that’s what the Olympics are all about, aren’t they? Dreams? I guess mine are just a little more real than most. I sure am proud of my gold medals. And I hope to take one more in the bobsled next week. It’ll be tough, I know. But when I close my eyes, I see myself on the victory stand.
And that’s always been a good sign.