Before there was the Fierce Five, there was the Magnificent Seven. Greenfield native and former Harris Elementary student Jaycie Phelps won an Olympic gold medal along with six of her fellow U.S. gymnasts by capturing the team championship at the 1996 Atlanta games. Phelps, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes and Amanda Borden were the first U.S. gymnasts to win an Olympics team gold medal. Earlier this week, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber duplicated the feat. The Daily Reporter caught up with Greenfield’s trailblazer for her thoughts on this year’s squad, and a look back at the magic of 1996.
The Fierce Five — how will their lives change?
“Dramatically (laughs). That was one of the first things I said (after they won) … their lives are about to change. From what I understand, they’ve all turned professional already, so the college scholarship thing is not going to happen. They’re going to have tons of opportunities; they’re doing the (exhibition) tour, which we did in ‘96. We did 85 cities and that was the most fun experience I’ve ever had in my life, so they’re going to experience all that stuff.
“They’re going to meet the president and travel everywhere and probably meet anyone they want to meet and it’s just going to be, from this point on, when the Olympics is over for all of them, it’s going to be a year, maybe two years of complete rock star status. Just an experience of a lifetime for them.”
What did you enjoy about the post-Olympics nationwide tour?
“The system is a lot different now for the girls training on the national team. They get together once a month and we actually have a national team training center for the women.
“Gymnastics on the women’s side had always been more about individual clubs just doing their own thing and now we’ve got a system where everybody’s working together and we’ve got a national staff, and the girls are really good friends going into competitions and they know each other really well, which is different than when we were training.
“We always competed against each other and never trained with each other, so being able to do that afterwards and be on tour and just get to know everyone a lot better … it was a different environment. We weren’t competing against each other; we were performing together, so it was a little more relaxed a laid back. We just got to have fun. Plus, we were on tour buses, so, you know, rock stars (laughs).
“And there’s nothing like performing in from of 20, 30, 40 thousand people and we did it every night for months in a row. It was cool. And I was still a junior in high school, so I was in school Monday through Wednesday and on the road in a tour bus Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so it was kind of a double life. It was a lot of fun, but it kept me grounded, too. To have to reel myself back in and be a normal student and kid. I was thankful for that, too.”
One of your 1996 teammates, Dominique Moceanu, said recently that leading up to those Olympics she had grown “terrified” of her coach Bela Karolyi, who was also the coach of fellow 1996 Olympian Kerri Strug. Moceanu said training was a “nightmare” and that she felt “trapped” and “intimidated” by the Karolyis’ “tactics.” Moceanu’s sentiments seem to further a perception that gymnastics coaches can be borderline abusive. What’s your take on Moceanu’s comments, and on the overall perception of gymnastics coaches?
“There’s that perception because of people like that who come out and tell stories like that. Unfortunately, I think some kids go through that, but the majority of gymnastics coaches and the kids that are involved have much different stories than that. I would say that would be the smallest percentage, and it’s unfortunate that those are her memories of gymnastics and childhood and growing up, where mine were completely different.
“It was the exact opposite of that. I had 100 percent family support and guidance and my coach (Mary Lee Tracy of the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy) was phenomenal. I actually started gymnastics here in Greenfield with Byron and Teresa Holden at Indiana Gym Nest and I was there until I was 11 years old and they had brought me up to the Elite level, and it was because of them that I fell in love with gymnastics. I wanted to keep doing it because they love the sport and they love their kids and that kept me happy and healthy. And then I got to a point where I had to move on, but they set me up exactly the way I needed to be to get the career that I wanted.
“Then I went to Arizona for a couple years and trained out there and that was just a situation that didn’t work out. My family moved and it was just really hard on the family and we ended up moving back closer to home and that’s when I ended up in Cincinnati with Mary Lee Tracy, who was my coach through the Olympics.
“My career was what it was because of Mary Lee. So I think for the most part gymnasts’ experiences are much different than the way Moceanu portrays her experience. You feel bad, you don’t want it to be like that for anyone. And, again, it’s stuff that nobody else saw, either. There’s always two sides to every story. The one thing I always say is she is an Olympic gold medalist and she got there because of the people that helped her along the way.”
Bela Karolyi was not your individual coach, but what was experience being around him during the 1996 Games?
“Like you said, Bela was not my personal coach, but anytime he was around I was very motivated. He is definitely that; he is a motivator. So I’ve got nothing but respect for the guy. The U.S. gymnastics system is the way it is now because of Bela. He kind of brought over the Romanian style of coaching way back in the 1980s completely changed gymnastics in the U.S., so I’ve got a lot of respect for him and what he’s done for our country and the sport. He was never my personal coach.
“I never experienced anything except for positive things with Bela. He was tough. I saw him with his athletes, but every coach at that level is tough. You have to be when you’re trying to be the best in the world and compete against the best in the world. It’s not easy. It’s not a cake walk. And there’s times where you have to be tough.”
You, your father, Jack, and your boyfriend, Dave Marus, founded the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center near McCordsville almost two years ago. Has it been a success?
“We’re really happy. We’re right on track and a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be, and then with the Olympics we’re getting lots of new kids right now, so that’s exciting.
“We’ve got two main focuses: it’s either a college scholarship or put kids on a national team to represent the U.S. in international competition. We basically have our competitive team program designed to open up those doors for any kid who wants to do it. Now, obviously not every kid is going to do that, but we feel like we’re giving them the best opportunity to do that.”
How much personal coaching do you do?
“I am head coach, along with Dave. We own the business together, and then my dad does baseball and softball, so it’s kind of a family business. Dave and I, we’re here six days a week, coaching full time and running the business.”
In 1996, what was it like in the Olympic Village, where the athletes slept and ate?
“To be honest with you, we probably didn’t have a real accurate gauge of that, probably less than any other Olympic group. We walked through it a couple times, but we didn’t stay in the Olympic Village, we stayed in a fraternity house at Emory University, which was right next to where the competition area was. They kept us kind of secluded and away from all of that stuff. It obviously worked (laughs).
“That’s one thing I wish we could have done — experience a little bit more of that atmosphere and that feeling of being around all the other athletes, but at the same time I wouldn’t go back and change anything because it was a pretty special experience.”
After the gymnastics competition was over, did you get a chance to sit back and be a fan, or were you taken off in a publicity whirlwind?
“We were busy doing a lot of that other stuff. I remember going from Atlanta to New York and we were on the Letterman show right away. We were kind of out and about doing that stuff, but we got to see some of the other events, as well. Basketball was the thing I remember the most, and getting to meet all those guys.
“We shared the same arena, so half of the arena was gymnastics and half was basketball. We were getting ready to march in and we run into all those guys. And of course they’re like seven feet tall and we’re like four feet tall. That was pretty cool. That’s what I remember the most as far as athletes that we got to meet.”
On July 27, 1996, in the middle of the Atlanta Games, a bomb went off in Centennial Park, killing two people and injuring 111. What do you recall from that day?
“We were actually there that day walking around, and it happened that night. We didn’t hear about the bombing until the next morning, but it was just scary that we were there walking around.”
You’ve been appearing nightly on Indianapolis television as part of NBC’s local Olympics coverage, plus fielding other media requests, such as this one. Do you enjoy this kind of attention, which you’re likely to receive every four years, or is it getting old?
“It’s not at all old, especially now that’s it’s been 16 years and it doesn’t happen very often, so it’s kind of fun that people still remember. So I enjoy it right now. It’s a couple weeks of just everyday doing stuff, but it’s fun. I like it.”
You have a vault named after you. Not everyone can say that.
“It’s called The Phelps. It’s not worth anything anymore (laughs). It was a 10.0 vault, so it was worth something back then, but it is still in the code. And the Junior Olympic kids, level 9s and 10s still perform that vault, so that’s pretty cool.
What are the different levels of competitive gymnastics?
“JO is levels 1-10, which are the levels before you get to the Elite level. The Elite system is pretty intense, that’s where you start talking about international competitions and the Olympics.
“And it’s all completely different than high school gymnastics. You can do high school and be a successful JO kid. But Elite is on a whole other level.”
The kids you’re training now, any future Hancock County Olympians?
“Down the road, it’s not out of the question. We’ve just finished up our first season of competition, and our girls did really well. We had a really successful first year. Our levels 4, 5 and 7 were undefeated all season long and ended up state champions. And then we had three national qualifiers this year at levels 9 and 10. So it was a big year for our team kids. And then we had our first college scholarship, which is really exciting for us. Heather Hannon is her name and she’s going to Ohio State. That’s exiting for the gym.
“We’ve got gymnastics classes for anyone. If the kids are walking, we do a parent-child class called Toddler Time. We’ve got recreational classes for anyone, any age, boys or girls. We’ve got cheerleading. Then we’re starting our own travel baseball and softball teams.”
You almost quit gymnastics entirely in 1993, while training in Arizona. How close were you to saying “I’m done?”
“Well, for gymnasts when you say ‘I quit’ (laughs) … I was out of the gym for four weeks. Four weeks doesn’t sound like very much time, but in gymnastics it’s an eternity when you lose four weeks of training. But that’s what I needed. I needed to be away from it and realize that I love doing it and that’s what I wanted to do.
“It’s like anything in life, it gets hard sometimes and the easy thing to do is quit and walk away. I took a break and then realized that gymnastics is what I was supposed to do and what I wanted to do. I just needed a different situation and that’s when I went to Cincinnati. I trained at CGA for a week and in that week’s time I really figured out that’s what I wanted to do. And I liked Mary Lee as a coach and I felt like that was where I needed to be, and at that point is where I said, ‘Alright, if I’m doing this I’m doing it big.’ So it was all out from that point on.”
For more information on the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center visit wwww.jpacsports.com or call (317) 866-1996.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Jaycie is named for the initials of her parents’ first names, Jack and Cheryl. The Phelps family, including Jaycie and her brother, Dennis, all reside in Greenfield.
NURTURED IN THE NEST
Jaycie got her start at the Indiana Gym Nest in Greenfield. Byron and Teresa Holden were Jaycie’s first coaches, and they continue to coach at the Nest.
Jaycie performed a vault so well in the 1990s that it was named after her. Still in use today, The Phelps consists of a Tsukahara to a layout Arabian. Check out YouTube for clips.
PASSING IT ON
Today, Phelps operates the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center near McCordsville. In existence 2 years, JPAC gymnasts have already won state titles and earned college scholarships.
JAYCIE PHELPS TIMELINE
Sept. 26, 1979 — Born in Indianapolis
1994,1995,1996 — World Championship Team member, silver and bronze medalist
1994,1995,1996 — USA National Team member
1995 US Classic — AA Champion
1995 — Sagamore of the Wabash Award, highest possible award to Indiana citizen
1996 USA Championships — Silver AA
1996 Olympic Trials — Bronze AA
1996 — Olympic Team member, gold medalist
1996 — Appeared on Wheaties box
1997 — Graduated, Cincinnati Northwest High School
1998 — Inducted to USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Team
2003 — Inducted to USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, Individual
2008 — Inducted to US Olympic Committee Hall of Fame
Holds 3 Keys to the City — Indianapolis, Greenfield, Cincinnati