Olympians' early memories of seeing Michael Phelps and the torch kickstarted their careers

Jordan Larson remembers the little, white TV that was perched on a swivel in the kitchen, making it easy to keep an eye on things while cooking or eating. One summer during Larson’s childhood, the Olympics were on — Olympic gymnastics, to be more specific.

“I was like, ‘I think I’m going to be a gymnast,’” Larson, now 37, said of her reaction to watching the Games play out on the small screen.

Nature disrupted those plans. Larson grew to be 6-foot-2, so when it came to her dreams to be the next Mary Lou Retton or Shannon Miller, she thought, “Maybe that’s not the thing.”

Still, a seed was planted. This month, some three decades after those formative memories at home, Larson is heading to Paris for her fourth Olympics as part of the U.S. volleyball team. She already has a full collection of medals — one gold, one silver, one bronze.

“Just watching them achieve greatness at the highest level, it was so inspiring,” she said. “And I saw myself there, and I didn’t know what that was going to look like. But that was the first memory that I have of, ‘Wow, it’s a possibility. Now what does it look like to get there?’”

The Associated Press spoke to a handful of athletes about their early Olympic memories, and how those fueled a passion that propelled them to compete at the Olympics they used to only try to envision — in this case, the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. Here are some of their stories:

Water polo player Maggie Steffens didn’t have to turn on the TV to find her Olympic inspiration. Her older sister, Jessica, was a U.S. water polo player in 2008, when she won a silver medal. Four years later, the sisters were teammates in London.

Maggie remembers sitting in the stands during the 2008 final against The Netherlands — a loss for Jessica and her teammates.

“I was 15 at the time, and my dad looked down at me and he was, like, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ And I knew what he meant,” Maggie said. “We had both watched that. We felt so emotionally connected to my sister and to the team, and it was just exactly that little push, that stair-step to say, ’OK, now go out there and do it.’ And I was lucky enough the next year to join my sister and play with her, and we ended up together in 2012.”

Maggie teamed with Jessica for the gold medal in 2012 and has gone on to become one of the greatest water polo players in history. The U.S. is the three-time defending Olympic champion, and Maggie is looking to extend the streak to four on this, her fourth Olympic team.

CJ Nickolas, an African-American taekwondo athlete, said seeing another Black man, Terrence Jennings, win a bronze medal in the sport at the 2012 London Games sparked something inside him.

“That was the first Olympic memory that I have,” Nickolas said. “A young Black man going and medaling in the Olympics — I didn’t even know who he was prior to (that). Seeing that kind of woke me up, made me think, ’I can do this.'”

Evy Leibfarth remembers the pageantry involved at an Olympic Day celebration at her home club, the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, when she was 8. Everywhere she turned, there were Olympic hopefuls, some of them with their pictures plastered on trading cards.

She remembers telling her dad about one of the rowers: “’I want that to be me.’ And he’s like, ‘OK, well, if you want to go the Games, you have to start training now.’ And that’s the day that I decided that I wanted to go to the Olympics in kayaking.”

Paris will be her second Olympics.

Ashleigh Johnson saw an Olympic future for herself in the water, though she dreamed of being on an Olympic relay team with her siblings. She ended up playing goalie for the water polo team, and Paris will be her third Olympics — not a bad backup plan.

“I think the biggest defining moment watching the Olympics growing up was always watching the swimming relays,” she said. “I swam growing up, and I was always swimming with my siblings. And I always imagined myself swimming in the Olympics with my siblings. That was a place i could really visualize myself and the people who were close to me. My heart rate would get up, anticipating the race. We would mime diving into the couches … and just be so into it.”

Emily Sonnett was only 3 during the Atlanta Olympics, so her memories from those Games are sparse. Still, the Olympic legacy runs deep in Georgia’s capital, and it certainly played a part in sparking the passion of an athlete going to her second Olympics.

“I got to see the torches that are left and the Olympics rings downtown,” said Sonnett, a member of the U.S. women’s soccer team. “I think at a young age, seeing those, is something I remember. I have T-shirts around the house that my dad and mom bought when they attended.”

Rhythmic gymnast Evita Griskenas’ core memories of the Olympics have to do with … herself. Evita drew pictures of Evita on a medal stand and envisioned herself winning one of those medals someday.

“I would sing myself to sleep with the national anthem. I’d pretend I was at a huge competition, and I could sing the anthem,” she said. “I didn’t realize my parents could hear me in the next room over. But if you ask them, they’d say many, many nights, I’d do that.”

Finally, one name came up more than any other during these interviews, mostly with 20-somethings whose formative memories began around 2008, when swimming superstar Michael Phelps was beginning a string of dominance that would end with him winning a record 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.

— Jimmer Fredette, 3-on-3 basketball: “I watched the Olympics constantly. I loved it. I mean, the one that comes to mind is Michael Phelps.”

— John Tolkin, soccer: “The biggest thing was Michael Phelps, probably — all the swimming medals he won.”

— Bobby Finke, swimming: “One of the first memories I have was watching Phelps in 2008 in the 100 fly. I was 8 at the time. … I was just in the bedroom with my mom. It was playing on the TV, and we were watching.”

— Daniella Moroz, sailing: “I remember watching the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. That was the first one I really remember watching on TV. I was really into swimming growing up. I remember watching Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin. I remember those Games.”

— Ben Hallock, water polo: “For me, it was 2008. It was a combination of watching Michael Phelps go on his historic run, and then also 2008 and the men’s water polo team got silver. I was 12 years old. I remember watching it with my family and for aquatics and the aquatics family, it was a pretty special memory. I just remember the emotion of it.”


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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