I was a few weeks from participating in my third Olympic Games when I received a phone call from Billy Payne, the Chairman of the Atlanta Organizing Committee for the 1996 Games. I had been looking forward to swimming in Atlanta, mostly because it was an opportunity to defend my Olympic title in the 800 meter freestyle, but also because it meant that my swimming career could finally come to an end. After winning a total of four gold medals in two previous Olympic Games, the pressures of competition and success had taken its toll, and at the age of 24, I was completely burned out and disillusioned by the sport of swimming and the Olympics themselves. The Atlanta Games were my chance to win more medals, prove my worth, and finally move on.
But back to the phone call. My friend Billy was calling to ask me run the Olympic torch at the Opening Ceremonies. I would be the final woman to carry the torch, and the second-to-last runner, passing it onto the final torch bearer. I hedged on his request. After all, I had to compete the next days, and I didn’t want my legs to be tired. And I was a terrible runner. What if I fell while carrying the Olympic torch? “If you run the torch, it will be greatest moment of your Olympic career,” Billy finally said. I wasn’t sure if I believed him – after all, what could be better than winning an Olympic gold medal – but I decided to try.
The night of Opening Ceremonies came, and before long it was my turn to receive the torch. I stood on the dark track, with 10,000 athletes from all over the world standing in the infield. I received the torch from Evander Holyfield and began my run. Carefully and very slowly, I made my way around the track and up three long ramps to the top of the stadium. As I stood there with the torch, who emerged from behind me but Muhammad Ali. The crowd erupted and began screaming his name. They stomped their feet, so much that it felt like the entire stadium was shaking! I slowly and steadily passed the flame to Ali. With a determined look in his eye, he lit the cauldron to begin the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
My moment with Ali during the torch lighting was brief. But it changed my perspective on life in a way that still influences me today. I have tried for many years to put it into words, and found it impossible. But to watch Ali as he lit that torch, standing there in front of a billion people, he sent multiple messages to the world. First, It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, what matters is that we are present and doing our best. Second, courage matters. Ali was not the same person in 1996 that he was at the Rome Olympics in 1960. It took courage to stand there and light that cauldron. Many things could have gone wrong. But he was there, and he was present, doing his best, inspiring the world yet again, and forging his own path. And finally, not everything always goes as planned. Life gives you speed bumps along the way. A champion like Ali navigated those speed bumps and adjusted to the situation at hand, and he did it beautifully, with grace and pride.
I didn’t win any medals at my final Olympics in Atlanta. But I did experience the greatest moment in my Olympic career, and that was that short amount of time that I spent with Ali on that warm summer evening in Georgia. I would give up every medal to experience that moment one more time, and it is in that moment that I truly became a champion. Life is not about winning or victories. Life is about courage, adaptation, pride and inspiration. I try to honor Ali’s lessons every day. And in these trying and unprecedented times, I find myself thinking about those lessons frequently. Tough times won’t last, but his inspiration always will. Thank you, Ali, for your continued legacy. You remain a shining light for us all.
4-Time Olympic Gold Medalist
2015 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards Host