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Turn back your clocks. Gaze into the past. Pull out your history books. Remember. Reflect. Recall. Montreal. Summer of 1976. The XXI Olympiad. The first Games after the horrific massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich.
Massive financial problems, large enough to threaten the future of the Games. Boycotted by 28 African countries because a New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa.
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 USA swimming team. Greg Louganis earned a bronze in diving. East Germany, denying steroid use at the start of a new era, seized control of the women’s swim competition.
And 17-year-old Jennifer Chandler saw it all.
Saw it. Took part in it. Won it.
While Comaneci, the pixie from Romania now married to American gymnast Bart Conner and living in Norman, was Montreal’s queen, the all-American Chandler 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, gritty sense of determination cast her in a good guy, me-against-the-world spotlight when 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, inching her to a gold medal that had been her focus and dream for 10 arduous years of training, sacrifice and commitment.
She remembers it well.
Twice daily, she walked from the athletes’ village past where shot putter Al Oerter was practicing to her work in the diving well. A day before her event she knew she would “dive out of my mind” or “miss the well completely.” Her practices were erratic, unpredictable. Her abilities to turn nervous butterflies and excitement into positive energy vanished. Uncertainty became a factor.
“It was like,” she remembers, “I was having an out of body experience. People would ask me a question. I’d answer with something totally irrelevant. I was so tight and rigid, my coach (Ron O’Brien) put me on a massage table and tried to beat me up. He’d make me 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.
Girly chaos followed. “I need a comb,” were her first thoughts as an Olympic hero, followed by, “Where are my sweats?”
No American has medaled in that event in the 36 years since that remarkable moment, falling victim to Chinese dominance that isn’t likely to end today as the 2012 springboard finals are staged.
“It was an incredible feeling,” Chandler said. “Everything went so fast at first. Then it would seem frozen, then fast again. I tried to hang on to everything so I wouldn’t forget anything.
“There 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 put a dent in to 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.
“Every peak has a valley,” she learned. The higher the peak, the lower the valley. She experienced both extremes, crashing into a state of seclusion and near depression.
She recovered and overcame a back injury that kept her out of the water 10 of the 12 months prior to the 1980 Olympics. Still, she made the team and felt more ready than 1976, but missed the Moscow Games when America boycotted.
She retired soon after, her aching back simply not strong enough to endure a heavy practice schedule.
Chandler was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, the youngest athlete so honored. She headed education programs and events there until a year ago when she moved to a similar role at The Lakeshore Foundation that serves people with physical disabilities.
She doesn’t swim or dive much anymore. She compares the Chinese diving dominance to what she faced with the Russians. She doesn’t expect an American gold today
But she will be watching. And hoping.
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