GREENFIELD — Jaycie Phelps couldn’t sneak up on someone if she tried. The jingle of her trusty companion Coco’s dog tags gives away her position almost instantly.
When her middle-aged chocolate Labrador feels spry, sometimes he leads, but often, he trails alongside with her at every turn down the hallways and along the gym floor inside the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center in Greenfield.
“He was a rescue,” Phelps explains while Coco finds a cozy spot to lay down next to her feet. “I’ve had him since he was a little over 1 year old.”
The unofficial JPAC mascot, Coco, much like Phelps, rarely stands still for more than a few minutes. Even when Phelps is working with one of her competitive gymnasts, she’s moving — spotting, guiding and teaching.
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About 700 kids ranging from preschool age to 18 pass through the doors each week, so staying busy is like breathing for the owner and head coach along with her husband and co-founder Dave Marus.
“It’s been fun to come in and bring a new level of gymnastics to the area,” Phelps said with more than a dozen team state championship banners for Level 2 through 10 gymnastics hanging from the wall behind her. “It’s a facility where kids can train and get exercise with recreational play.”
The 25,000-square-foot center provides ample space for rising elite hopefuls to tumble and twist. Phelps and Marus opened the building in August 2010 with the assistance of her father and co-founder Jack Phelps.
It’s taken off ever since.
Part of their success stems from the style the two seasoned gymnastic coaches bring to the mats. Another is the name out front above the door.
“When I first walked in, I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” said Kailee Ferguson, 17, a Level 10 gymnast that’s been at JPAC the past six years. “Now, I just think of (Jaycie) as a regular person.”
If someone didn’t know better, they would assume the same about Phelps — until you catch a glimpse of the multiple framed and autographed posters and photos in the waiting and parent viewing areas.
Each print serves as a window into the past, 20 years to be exact, when Phelps and Team USA achieved the improbable during the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996.
“I keep my medal in a drawer in my nightstand,” Phelps quipped with a broad smile. “For safe keeping.”
As a member of the first United States women’s gymnastic team to ever win gold, Phelps admitted she doesn’t make a habit of admiring former glories, but lately, it’s been a welcomed routine.
With the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games drawing near, the national spotlight has deservedly returned.
“It’s been a crazy summer. I’ve done a lot of traveling. With the 20-year anniversary, we’ve had a lot of different events all over country,” Phelps said. “Pretty much the entire month of July I’ve been gone, but it’s been a lot of fun to relive the moment.”
It’s been two decades since the “Magnificent Seven” stole the hearts of the nation inside the Georgia Dome.
The team of Phelps, Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow and Shannon Miller shocked the gymnastics world when they out performed the Soviet Union and Romania in Atlanta.
Remembered most for one of the biggest moments in Olympics’ history, Strug’s final vault remains iconic as the then-19-year-old injured her ankle on the first attempt at securing Olympic gold.
Limping her way back to the runway only to sprint full speed, despite the pain, toward a storybook ending, Strug executed a perfect springing jump, flip and landing before crumbling to her knees.
The cheers were deafening, Phelps recalled. The emotion was overwhelming.
“With our Olympics being in Atlanta, more people watched and became involved,” said Phelps, who was 16 at the time. “The way it all unfolded with the dramatic finish, Kerri’s vault. Everyone remembers that vault. Because of that moment, it made the whole thing that much more memorable.”
Some days it feels like a lifetime ago, Phelps said; others, only a blink of an eye.
Lately, it’s been vivid with several appearances bringing the team back together again for the first time in eight years.
The seven were invited to partake in USA Gymnastics’ Parade of Olympians at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, earlier this month during the Olympic trials. All of them appeared.
In May, five gathered as the former pint-sized teenage heroes were inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. In 2008, the “Magnificent Seven” joined the United States Olympic Hall of Fame, the last time they were reunited.
“Now 20 years later being older and actually understanding what we accomplished and what we were doing, it means more now,” Phelps said. “At the time, we really didn’t know how big it was.”
The NBC Olympics Facebook page is giving many a refresher, posting a routine for each of the gymnasts in celebration of their anniversary. The seven were recently interviewed by NBC, all in their mid- to late-30s now, six of them with children and all married.
“I look back at what I was able to do, and I think, ‘wow,’ I can’t believe I could do that,” Phelps laughed. “I know I can’t do that (floor) routine now.”
What almost wasn’t
Phelps was quick to acknowledge her good fortune. In 1996, Team USA had seven gymnasts — the first and only time countries could have as many competitors.
Since then, the number has dropped to five and will fall to four by the 2020 Olympics.
Growing up in Greenfield, Phelps and her family left Hancock County when she was 11, moving to Scottsdale, Arizona, so she could train at Desert Devils Gymnastics.
While she progressed, things briefly took a negative turn.
“When I was 13, I qualified for the elite level and went to my first National Championship. I was in the junior age group and I finished 24th out of 25,” Phelps said. “It was a really bad experience. I had no confidence after that competition, and I told my parents I was done, and I wanted to be a volleyball player.”
While her parents initially were taken aback by her desire to step away, they left the decision up to her. Phelps “took a four week break” before she found her passion at the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy in Ohio with coach Mary Lee Tracy.
She relocated to Cincinnati with her mother, Cheryl, as an eighth-grader, training and attending public school at the same time and committing 30 hours in the gym every week while juggling homework.
It was there she met Borden and eventually all of her future Olympic teammates during competitions, unbeknownst to them at the time the pinnacle they collectively would reach.
At the National Championships in 1995, her Olympic ambition grew and her trajectory began with a third-place finish behind Moceanu and Miller, who remains the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history.
“Little did I know what the future had in store at the moment, but it was at nationals that I really felt it was something I could accomplish and I belonged there,” Phelps said. “If I put my energy and effort into it the next two years, there was a chance I could make the Olympic team.”
The “Magnificent Seven” were unlike today’s Olympic gymnasts.
Competitors throughout their careers leading up to Atlanta, there was no national team training facility or camp every month for rivals to become friends.
Most were from different gyms and had different coaches, so they bonded on the fly just two weeks before the Olympics.
“It wasn’t really until after the Olympics when we did the tours through 85 cities that we got really close,” Phelps remarked.
The group was sheltered from distractions prior to the games, housed in a fraternity house at Emory University where they had their own personal chef, away from Olympic Village and Centennial Park.
Each gymnast had their own room, except for Phelps and Borden, who roomed together to stick to their customary patterns.
The isolation kept the team loose, but the prominently pro-United States support enhanced the magnitude of the Olympics.
“We weren’t necessarily expected or favored to win, but we had expectations as a team because we felt we could. The momentum of the night and the crowd, it was electric,” Phelps recalled.
Their efficiency was nearly flawless.
Up first in the optional round on uneven bars, Phelps set the tone.
“Once I hit my bar routine, it was kind of like, ‘OK, it’s on.’ We got started, I just hit the best routine of my life and then every routine after that it was stick, stick, stick,” she said. “Six routines later, we killed it. With each routine, the stadium got louder and louder. Having that home crowd, we definitely used that to our advantage.”
Nerves were still a factor.
“That was the most terrified I’ve been in my entire life, though, that first routine,” Phelps added. “Normally, I hit two or three routines in warm-up to feel confident, but I couldn’t make anything. I was freaking out. Landing that dismount was the biggest relief of my life.”
Rock star status
The applause didn’t stop after Team USA walked off the podium with gold medals draped around their necks.
They became national heroes, rubbed elbows with countless celebrities, were pictured on a Wheaties box, invited to the White House and traveled the country.
“We felt like rock stars in our tour bus. We would do four shows a weekend from Thursday to Sunday,” Phelps said. “I was actually a junior in high school and went to school Monday through Wednesday.”
They were greeted by sellout crowds in every major city and venue as they put on choreographed productions and made appearances on late night talk shows.
As a group, they became tight-knit.
“There’s nothing to do but get close when you’re riding on a tour bus together from city to city for about a year and a half,” Phelps said. “That was most fun part of the whole thing.”
Phelps remained diligent in her training after 1996 with hopes of securing a spot for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
She wasn’t alone. Her teammates had the same idea, but only Dawes and Chow would achieve it.
Knee injuries mounted for Phelps, which required three surgeries — four to date — and a meniscus transplant from a cadaver, which was the first for a gymnast.
The recovery took its toll and derailed Phelps, prompting her retirement.
“It was really frustrating for me because I hadn’t really come onto the scene until 1994, so I really only had two years training at the elite level. It never was a thought that I would be done after ’96,” Phelps said. “But it was one thing after another with my knee.”
Though bittersweet, the end of her career allowed her to be a typical teenager. She completed her final two years at Northwest High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, attending prom and the occasional football game.
After graduation in 1998, she moved back to Arizona to go to college, but she missed the gym too much.
“I did a lot of soul-searching and trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” she said. “That’s when I started coaching a little bit.”
Her new path carried her to Colorado Springs in 2001 where she worked with the Colorado Aerials and then to Dallas where she met and started dating Marus where they coached together for a year and a half.
After being persuaded by her father to open their own facility, the two moved to Indiana in 2009 and poured everything into JPAC.
“Jaycie truly looks at her experience as a blessing, an opportunity she was given. She takes that and wants to pay that back,” Marus said. “She’s still the same person she was pre-gold medal. She has a new respect and a new value she wants to pass on and she does that here.”
Her actions haven’t gone unnoticed.
On July 28, she was recognized during a fundraising event at New Castle Motor Sports Park in New Castle. Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell declared it “Jaycie Phelps Day.” In typical fashion, she was more concerned with helping raise money for the Boys and Girls Club of Hancock County.
“It’s an honor. Twenty years later and people still acknowledge something I did. To be recognized in the community is amazing,” Phelps said. “And it’s a chance to raise money for a good cause. It’s always good to give back.”
According to her students, the former Olympian, who was awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash, does so without even knowing it.
“It’s like a big family here (at JPAC). We all try to bond together. I’ve never been in a gym before where it’s like this,” Ferguson said. “No matter what age we are, we work together and cheer each other on. (Jaycie) makes us all feel important.”