MEMORIES OF GOLD: Jaycie Phelps reflects on the 25th anniversary of a historic Olympic run

0
5900
Jaycie Phelps today runs a busy training center for young gymnasts in Hancock County. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

GREENFIELD — It was 25 years ago that the Magnificent Seven made history, becoming the first U.S. women’s gymnastics team to win gold in the Olympics.

For team member Jaycie Phelps, however, the memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday.

Phelps rose to international fame as a member of the revered gymnastics team that dramatically clinched gold on July 23, 1996, in Atlanta, breaking the former Soviet Union’s streak of winning in every Olympics it had entered since the 1950s.

Since then, Phelps, 41, has settled down in her hometown of Greenfield to raise a family and run an athletic center that bears her name.

The mother of two can hardly believe a quarter century has passed since she and her teammates captured the world’s attention, as they doggedly pursued and nearly lost the gold in the women’s gymnastics championships that year.

Phelps, known for her consistency as a gymnast, watched along the sidelines that day — arms linked with her fellow teammates — as Kerri Strug approached the vault for the team’s final solo performance of the contest. Strug fell backwards onto the mat, tearing the ligament in her ankle, and the team gasped in disbelief as they thought their chance of gold might be fading away.

Strug stunned the world, however, by returning to the vault and sticking the landing on one foot, thrusting her hands in the air as the crowd erupted in thunderous applause.

Thinking back to that historic moment still gives Phelps chills.

“Once we had won the competition and were all standing together on the podium, listening to the national anthem and seeing our flag being raised, all those feelings and emotions start to set in,” she said in an interview last week from her Greenfield home.

“There’s just nothing like doing the sport that you love, that you’ve spent your whole life working for, with ‘USA’ on your back, and knowing that you did the best job you could to represent your country. There’s just no other feeling like it,” she said.

As the Olympic Games take place over the next two weeks in Tokyo, Phelps will be closely watching the global sporting event alongside her family — her husband, Dave Marus; and their two daughters, Skye, 4, and Mia, 2.

She’ll likely also watch on the big screen at her athletic complex in Mt. Comfort, where she plans to let the young athletes turn their attention to the screen whenever Team USA gymnasts compete.

Watching the Olympics, while thinking back to her time as a member of Team USA, never gets old, she said.

“I love the Olympics. I love watching every sport, and I love hearing all the stories about everybody’s personal journey to get there. You go through a lot to get to that point, to reach that pinnacle of your sport,” she said.

The road to gold

Phelps knows from experience.

Born in Greenfield, where she attended Harris Elementary School, Phelps moved to Arizona at the age of 11 to focus on her gymnastics training. Her family later moved her to Cincinnati so she could train at the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy, where she was enrolled when she made the ‘96 Olympic team.

Phelps keeps in touch with the other six teammates through group chats, and is especially close with Amanda Borden, who was the team captain.

“Amanda is like my sister. She’s always good about sending out messages in our group chat,” said Phelps. “Everybody is busy now, married with kids, working hard at their professional lives — so it’s not that frequent that we talk, but we definitely do keep in touch.”

Four of them, including Phelps, each own their own gymnastics club, coaching potential Olympians of tomorrow.

Dominique Moceanu runs a club in the same region as Phelps, within the USA Gymnastics Women’s Developmental Program, which allows the two to connect at regional competitions.

Phelps said she and her former teammates — who have returned to the national spotlight for the 25th anniversary of their win — share a bond that will never be broken.

“The older you get, the more you realize what you accomplished, and the more it means,” Phelps said.

“I was 16 in ‘96, so you don’t fully realize the impact of what you’re doing at the time,” she said.

Phelps is a big fan of the recently-released Netflix documentary, “The ‘96 Effect,” a three-part series featuring four legendary USA women’s teams who won gold at the Atlanta Games. The women were the first generation to become world-class athletes during the era of Title IX, which was enacted in 1972 to give women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports in educational institutions that receive federal funds.

In the documentary, some of the athletes share how they inspired each other during that year’s Olympic games, and the impact Title IX made on their lives, as well as female athletics worldwide.

“Now looking back and seeing just how much opportunity all of the (female Olympians) brought to women’s sports that year, it’s really humbling to know that I was a part of that — being able to help open that door for our youth of today,” Phelps said.

‘The emotions were just crazy’

Although a quarter century has passed, she still gets emotional talking about the moment Kerri Strug landed that final vault, cementing the first-ever gold medal for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team.

“From the very first routine all the way up until the last vault, it was such a swing of emotions that night,” Phelps recalled.

The team performed almost flawlessly, until Moceanu and Strug — the team’s two most consistent vaulters — faltered at the end.

“I had never seen them miss a single vault. It was like, ‘All right, we’ve got this,’” Phelps recalled.

When first Moceanu and then Strug fell to the mat, “it was like we were in this terrible nightmare. Kerri was limping back, and you’ve got (her coach) Bela (Karolyi) screaming, ‘You can do it, Kerri!’ The emotions were just crazy at that point,” she said

“I just remember we all standing on the sidelines, locked arms, just praying number one for her to be OK, and number two for her to land her vault. And everybody who watched knows what happened.”

Standing triumphantly on the podium with her teammates, as the gold medals were hung around their necks, is a moment Phelps will never forget. Her heart breaks for this year’s Olympic athletes, who won’t be able to have their families and friends cheering them on in the stands.

No spectators are allowed at this year’s games, since the city is in a state of emergency due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases.

“I feel so bad for these kids who have worked this long to accomplish this dream and they don’t get to have their families there to watch,” said Phelps, who has attended only one Olympic Games as a spectator, in Greece in 2004.

No matter what time of night the USA gymnastics events air this year, from halfway around the world, Phelps plans to watch and cheer them on.

She’s especially excited to cheer on men’s team member Alec Yoder, whose sister trains at the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center.

“Whenever he’s back from college he’ll come and work out here. He’s like one of our kids. That was really exciting when they named him to the team,” Phelps said of Yoder, who was the Youth Olympics all-around bronze medalist in 2014 and a member of the World Championship team in 2018.

Passing the torch

With her days of practicing gymnastics long behind her — a chronic knee injury finally forced her out of the sport in 2000 — Phelps relishes the opportunity to teach young gymnastics how to excel at the sport she loves.

Nearly 800 youths are now enrolled at her athletic center, which sits on Mt. Comfort Road north of I-70, near Indianapolis Regional Airport.

Phelps opened the center in August 2010 along with her husband and her dad, Jack Phelps, who previously coached baseball and softball there. Now the center focuses solely on gymnastics, drawing students for miles around. While most live in the greater Indianapolis area, a few drive as far as 90 minutes one way for the chance to be trained by an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast.

While Phelps no longer demonstrates gymnastic moves — including The Phelps, a vault maneuver that was named after her — she often shows students YouTube videos of herself and other gymnasts nailing high-level routines.

Her husband is a fellow former gymnast, who competed at the Elite Level. The couple met while they were both coaching gymnastics in Colorado.

Now, they and their children are enjoying their relatively quiet life in Greenfield.

Most of Phelps’ family lives in the area, including her parents, both grandmas, and her brother and his family.

After years spent traveling the world as an elite athlete and coach, “this just seems like the right place to be,” she said.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”At a glance” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Jaycie Phelps of Greenfield is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the day the “Magnificent Seven” made Olympic history by being the first U.S. women’s team to win gold in the team event.

The upset over the Russians happened on July 23, 1996, at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Phelps, now 41, was just 16 at the time.

She was joined by teammates Amanda Borden, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug.

Phelps was born in Greenfield, where she’s now raising two daughters with husband, Dave Marus, while running the Jaycie Phelps Athletic Center.

Earlier this month, Greenfield mayor Chuck Fewell proclaimed July 19 Jaycie Phelps Day to commemorate the anniversary of her Olympic win.

According to www.olympics.com, more than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations will compete in Japan over the next two weeks across a total 33 sports, five of which will feature at the Olympics for the first time.

These five new sports, baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, will join the sports that have been played at every summer Olympic Games since 1896: athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics and swimming. Of the three sports that debuted at Rio 2016, rugby sevens and golf will return for Tokyo 2020, while kite surfing has been dropped.

The Olympics will be broadcast in the United States on NBC, NBC Sports Network, at NBCOlympics.com and on the streaming service Peacock.

Future Olympic sites

Beijing in 2022

Paris in 2024

Milano Cortina in 2026

Los Angeles in 2028

Information: Olympics.com

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”Olympics coverage inside” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened Friday night in a near-empty stadium. You can find coverage of the games in today’s Sports section

[sc:pullout-text-end]