Every four years the world comes together for one of the most inspiring sporting events on the planet. With origins in ancient Greece, the Summer Olympic Games as we know them were revived in Athens in 1896, and have given birth to many stories of courage, determination and hope behind the men and women who have competed. These inspiring narratives have since unified nations around the globe. Athletes’ lives have been widely celebrated, while others are lesser known but no less worth remembering. In anticipation of the 2016 Summer Olympics, we want to share the stories of five such champions.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias
The sixth child of seven to Norwegian immigrant parents, Mildred Ella Didrikson was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1911. She earned the nickname “Babe” after hitting five homeruns in a childhood baseball game. A multifaceted athlete, Zaharias achieved the distinction of All-American in basketball while also earning multiple awards in softball, diving, bowling and golf.
Her participation in the 1932 Olympic Games occurred just 32 years after women were first allowed to compete, and even then were limited to three events. Zaharias ended up earning two gold medals for the javelin throw and 80-meter hurdles alongside one silver for the high jump. She also began to play golf around the same time, and was declared a professional in 1935. Outside of battling gender stereotypes in the Olympics, one of her greatest fights was her battle with colon cancer. Diagnosed in 1953, Zaharias underwent surgery and wore a colostomy bag to the U.S. Women’s Open Championship where she competed just one month after her surgical procedure. At the young age of 45, Zaharias lost her battle with colon cancer. ESPN named her the 10th Greatest North American Athlete of the 20th Century, and the Associated Press celebrated her as the 9th Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century. Prior to her death, along with her husband, Zaharias established the Babe Zaharias Fund dedicated to providing support for cancer clinics.
Having started her training as a child, Evans was born and raised in California and would go on to swim for Stanford University. As a teenager, Janet Evans took the swimming world by storm by making major strides and breaking multiple records. Her historic performances began in 1987 where she broke world records in not just one but a total of three distances which include the 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1,500-meter. In 1988, the Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea where Evans added three gold medals to her name and picked up the nickname “Miss Perpetual Motion.” She made history again in the 1992 Olympic Games, where she earned the distinction of being the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic and world championship titles in any one swimming event, which, in her case, was the 800-meter freestyle. Evans crafted a distinctive technique and stroke that was considered unorthodox but may have played a considerable role in her ability to achieve such great feats in her sport. As a woman small in stature, it was not uncommon for Evans to find herself competing against much bigger and stronger opponents. Some of these competitors were later found to be guilty of taking steroids in an attempt to improve their edge. Other athletes may have found these circumstances intimidating enough to merit giving up, but Evans never let it stop her from going for the gold.
Gold medalist Eric Shanteau was both a successful athlete and scholar, maintaining a 4.0 grade point average as a national swimming champion while still in high school. Shanteau would continue his trajectory of athletic achievement as a college student at Auburn University where he set an impressive record as an 11-time All-American and star of Auburn’s swimming and diving teams. It’s no surprise that the Olympics were most definitely in Shanteau’s future.
Shanteau secured his position on Team USA during the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, where he would compete in Bejing, China. However, just a week before the games, Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer in his early twenties. Despite his diagnosis, he decided to compete and underwent surgery upon returning home to the U.S. Four years later and fully recovered, Shanteau would go on to win a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in the 4×100-meter medley relay where he swam the breaststroke leg for his team. Today, Shanteau is in remission and is committed to cancer awareness.
Born in the Big Apple and raised in Texas, Dana Vollmer’s athletic achievements in swimming are evidenced by an impressive total of 32 medals from prestigious championships, including 4 Olympic gold medals alongside 6 world records. Vollmer managed to achieve these awards despite being advised by physicians to never swim without a defibrillator at the poolside in the event of a heart emergency. Vollmer was born with a rare heart condition called long QT syndrome, which results in an extremely fast heart rate and could result in cardiac arrest. She underwent a corrective surgical procedure in 2003. Today, Vollmer is one of the faces of the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” program.
A beach volleyball champion and gold medalist, Phil Dalhausser was originally born in Switzerland to parents of European descent. Standing at 6’ 9”, Dalhausser, along with his volleyball partner Todd Rogers, became the first team from the U.S. to win the Beach Volleyball World Championships in Gstaad, Switzerland before going on to win the gold medal in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2012, Dalhausser received successful treatment for two blood clots, which required a three-day hospital stay and a month long blood-thinning medication regimen. Dalhausser’s father went through his own bouts with serious illness, and he has used his admiration for his father’s resilience to fuel his recovery and healthy lifestyle as he continues to play volleyball professionally.
These five Summer Olympic champions span across multiple eras, ages and backgrounds, but in the tradition of the Olympic Games they all share a common dedication to their respective sports and to preserving a commitment to excellence. The lives of these athletes offer enduring life-lessons that are relevant regardless of an individual’s particular passion or career. They also exemplify resilience and triumph in both their professional and personal lives, and these are two of the marks of a true champion!
They only come around every four years, so why not celebrate the Rio 2016 Olympics in style and get creative too! Throw an Olympic-themed viewing party for your favorite event. From an outdoor Olympic ring toss to Opening Ceremony bingo and a flag-inspired fruit and vegetable platter, the possibilities are infinite.
Munch on carrots! Carrots are a valuable source of vitamin A. Not only are these veggies delicious, they can help improve vision and maintain healthy eyes.
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