When the gold loses its glitter: An Olympic champion who struggled to cope after success
It was the Olympic equivalent of “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Last Friday, NBC’s commentators told viewers that Anna Veith of Austria was the women’s Super-G champion at the 2018 Winter Olympics. The handful of skiers waiting to complete their runs were written off as also-rans.
A victory for Veith would have been a wonderful comeback story — if only it had been true.
A year after taking home gold in the same event in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Veith fell during a training run and tore her ACL and meniscus. She missed most of the next two World Cup seasons.
Veith came to the Olympics in Pyeongchang ranked 17th overall in women’s alpine skiing.
She certainly did not anticipate that her biggest competition was the skier ranked 68th, Ester Ledecka of the Czech Republic.
Ledecka, a champion snowboarder, beat Veith’s time by 0.01 of a second. (Picabo Street, who now has a home in Alabama, won gold in women’s Super-G by 0.01 of a second at the 1998 Winter Olympics.)
Ledecka shocked Veith, NBC’s talking heads and even herself by earning a spot on the podium last week.
When her name appeared at the top of the leader board, Ledecka stared at it with her mouth open for nearly 30 seconds.
She opted to keep her ski goggles on during her post-event press conference because she “was not as prepared as the other girls. … I don’t have no makeup.”
It was during a similar press conference that 19-year-old Dorothy Hamill was asked how she planned to top winning a gold medal in figure skating at the 1976 Winter Olympics.
“I thought, ‘Jiminy Christmas. A lifelong goal of mine — to win a gold medal — and I actually did it. Now they’re going to say, ‘How are you going to top that?’’ I was stunned,” Hamill told an interviewer from the American Academy of Achievement in 2000.
In the same interview, Hamill described winning a gold medal as “disconcerting.”
She and her parents had spent years and more money than they could afford preparing for the moment. After it passed, the afterglow was more like a flicker.
After taking a month off to enjoy her Olympic victory, Hamill took a job with the Ice Capades. On her first day, a fellow skater took note that she had put on a few pounds.
“One of the line skaters went over to his friend and said, ‘Honey, if I’ve got to skate around her, you better call me a cab.’ That was my introduction to the world of professional skating,” Hamill said.
Hamill confessed that she had naively believed that winning a gold medal would wipe away all of her problems.
Instead, the decades that followed brought career struggles, divorces, bankruptcy and health crises.
Hamill persevered through it all, refusing to turn her back on the sport that had brought her as much pain as pleasure.
In 2009, she started an adult figure skating fantasy camp, giving everyday skaters the chance to learn from an Olympic champion.
“Skating is the only thing I ever learned to do, the only thing I know anything about, and I feel very lucky that I can still do that and sort of pass it on,” she said in 2014.
Dr. Dana Voelker, a sports studies and physical education professor at the College of Brockport in New York, told a writer for everydayhealth.com in 2014 that athletes who only focus on winning a gold medal at the Olympics are setting themselves up for failure.
Even when competing against the best athletes in the world, sports is supposed to be fun.
“Enjoying that journey…is so, so critical because that will keep you in it in the long haul, and it's going to allow you to look back on the experience and feel good about it," she said.
Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.