Olympic memories vivid still

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Turn back your clocks. Gaze into the past. Pull out your history books. Remember. Reflect. Recall.

Montreal. Summer of 1976. The XXI Olympiad. Six thousand athletes from 92 countries, competing in 198 events in 21 sports between July 17 and Aug. 1. The first games after the horrific massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Carryover concern and fear. Tight security.

Massive financial problems large enough to threaten the future of the games. Boycotted by 28 African nations because of a tour of South Africa by the New Zealand rugby team.

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Fourteen-year-old Nadia Comaneci startled the world with three gold medals and seven perfect 10 scores in gymnastics. Cuba's Alberto Juantorena became the first man ever to win both the 400- and 800-meter races. Finland's Lasse Viren won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters and finished fifth in the marathon. American boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis all won gold medals.

John Naber led a dominant swimming team from the United States. Greg Louganis claimed a bronze medal. East Germany, denying steroid use for the first time in an international event, seized control of the women's swim competition.

And 17-year-old Jennifer Chandler saw it all.

Saw it. Participated in it. Won it.

While Comaneci, the pixie from Romania so skilled in her craft she was criticized as robotic, was Montreal's queen, the all-American Chandler, who put Lincoln, Alabama on the map long before Honda even thought of launching a plant there, was the darling of the states.

Cute. Photogenic. Athletic. Talented.

Her event, the three-meter springboard, was glamorous. Television cameras loved her. Teenage boys fantasized about her. Mothers adored her. A cool and gritty sense of determination cast her in a good guy, me-against-the-world spotlight. And the Olympics were still unique. Fans had not yet become inundated with round-the-clock sports coverage and the world, it seemed, stood still for a magical two weeks.

Chandler didn't disappoint. Her 10 dives cut crisply through the waters, one by one inching her to a gold medal that had been her focus and dream for more than 10 arduous years of intense training and uncompromising commitment.

It was a special, momentous time.

Now, more than 30 years later, it still is.

In Greenville to speak to the Rotary Club and to promote the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame — where she is now outreach programs coordinator — and the Oct. 1 &#8220World's Largest Shotgun Golf Tournament” being co-sponsored with Nationwide Insurance at Cambrian Ridge and all other Robert Trent Jones Trail courses, the emotional experience is no less vivid.

She remembers the final Montreal pre-meet preparation, walking twice daily from the athletes' village past where Al Oerter was practicing for the shot put to the diving well. A day before the event, she knew she would ”dive out of my mind” or

&#8220not even land in the well.” Her practices were erratic, terrible. Her ability to turn normal butterflies and excitement into positive energy vanished.

&#8220It was like I was having an out of body experience,” she remembers, still puzzled. &#8220People would ask me a question and I'd answer with something that didn't even relate. My coach (Ron O'Brien) put me on a massage table and tried to beat me up. I was tight, rigid. He tried to loosen me up. He'd make up jump in a cold water pool, then a hot water pool. It was like I was freeze dried. We didn't know what to expect.”

Then, it clicked. Ten dives. Constant visualization. Deep concentration, Muscle memory. Reflex action. Success. And a gold medal, the last one by an American in her event.

Her first thought? &#8220I need a comb” followed by &#8220Where are my sweats?” as the surreal raising of the victorious American flag cast her in the brightest of all spotlights, a shocked, but proud young lady, grateful for a support team of coaches, parents, sisters and teachers who helped make the achievement possible.

&#8220It was an incredible feeling,” Chandler says, admitting she remembers every second. &#8220Everything went so fast, then it would seem frozen, then fast again. I tried to hang on to everything so I wouldn't forget anything.

&#8220There was a lot of pomp and circumstance. Three ladies brought the medals out on velvet pillows. I saw mine. My eyes got big. My elbows almost put a dent into my sides, I was pushing so hard, trying not to collapse. I couldn't move.

I didn't cry, but I did forget the words to the national anthem.”

The elation, the celebrity, the attention and the recognition that accompanied her success were terrific for a while. Then, it became a burden, a dilemma.

It nearly got her. She had been away from home for months. She had dealt with enormous pressure. She was emotionally and physically exhausted. And unprepared

&#8220Every peak has a valley,” Chandler admitted. &#8220The higher the peaks, the lower the valleys.” She experienced both extremes, crashing one day after taking her sister, Mindy, to gymnastics practice, into a state of seclusion and near depression.

She recovered, overcame a back injury that kept her out of the water for 10 of the 12 months prior to the 1980 Olympics. She made the team after eight weeks of practice, thought she was better prepared than in 1976, then missed the Moscow Games when America boycotted. She retired soon after, her aching back simply not strong enough to endure the necessary practice.

In 1985, she was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, at 26 the youngest athlete so honored. Her gold medal is at &#8220momma's (Kay Merrill) house,” available when needed.

A self-proclaimed perfectionist with a sense of humor, she seldom swims or dives now, but dreams about it often and measures distance in diving increments of &#8220four steps and a hurdle.” And she's an accomplished artist, her works often in demand for charity events.

Today, she promotes the 41-year-old state hall of fame, speaking statewide and exposing thousands of children annually to the legacy of the state's athletic history.

&#8220I tell them to reach high, that nothing is impossible to achieve if you want it badly enough and are willing to work hard enough.”

It's a message Jennifer Chandler lived and because of that, on one particular day more than 30 years ago, she was the best in the entire world.

Ed Darling is president and publisher of Greenville Newspapers LLC. You can contact him at 382-3111 or ed.darling@greenvilleadvocate.com. Read his previous columns at www.greenvilleadvocate.com.