Ghost Olympians: The 1980 boycott and the American lives it forever changed
Editor’s note: The following project — on the United States’ first and, to date, only boycott of the Olympics — was published last year, on the 40th anniversary of those Games. It has been republished with the Summer Olympics approaching, and with U.S. officials in discussions over a boycott of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
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Their hearts sank in stages. Months before an Olympic summer, at tracks and pools across America, with July bookmarked on bedroom calendars, worry began to creep. It blindsided athletes at bars and parents’ houses; at airports and the Olympic Training Center; at news conferences and hotels; in locker rooms and at school.
They were among the world’s best, and yearned for a chance to prove it. So for years, they probed boundaries of human exertion. Some crawled out of bed before 5 a.m. Others worked past midnight. A few, every once in a while, would stand on chairs and shut their eyes. They’d see Olympic rings. They’d hear the anthem. They’d feel gold resting gently on their chest.
And then, in early spring, their lives froze.
That, to so many, was the story of 2020. Of the coronavirus, and an Olympics postponed, and dream fulfillment on hold.
These athletes, however, the ones you’ll soon read about, aren’t Tokyo hopefuls. You probably don’t even know their names.
They’re in their 50s and 60s now. But as COVID-19 swept the globe last March, their hearts sank again. As the pandemic canceled sports seasons and ended careers, empathy coursed through them. And with it came a spooky thought: I know exactly what today’s athletes are feeling.
Forty years ago, they were national champions and world record holders. They awoke every day to visions of Moscow 1980. Then the largest boycott in sporting history ripped the Games away.
They are 458 men and women whom the USOC recognizes as 1980 Olympians, but who didn’t compete at the 1980 Olympics. Yahoo Sports spoke with more than 100 of them. As their minds labored back to dark moments, they fumed and sighed; reminisced and reflected; crusaded and cried. Most have recovered from the disappointment, anger, depression wrought by the boycott. Many learned from it. Others still struggle with what ifs and whys.
Each of their journeys is unique, propelled by different forces to different outcomes. One common theme consistently reappeared. They, as a 1980 Olympic team, feel “forgotten,” cheated out of legacies and life-changing experiences. A few go so far as to say: “We don’t exist.”
Which is why most, though not all, were willing to sift through the memories and relive the grief. They wanted their story told.
So, here it is.
On a scorching summer day in 1972, a little before noon, a few miles off Puerto Rico’s south coast in the modest industrial town of Ponce, Jesús Vassallo bounded out of school in search of lunch. It was late-August. He had recently turned 11. He strolled up the road, into a nearby colmado, or mini-market. He strode past produce, toward the sandwich counter, into line. And he waited.
He was one of five siblings, all boys and eager athletes. Basketball and boxing enriched their early years. It was swimming, though, that brought the family together on afternoons and weekends at Club Deportivo. It was the water that became Jesús’ primary love. Which is why, in line at the colmado, when he peered over at a stack of newspapers, a picture and headline caught his eye. American swimmer Mark Spitz wins first gold medal, he read.
And as he did, a couple thousand miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, 9-year-old Tracy Caulkins sat in front of her TV, entranced. In suburban Buffalo, New York, 10-year-old Sue Walsh did too. All over, kids watched the Olympics and aspired. A few days later, Jesús returned to the mini-market and saw another headline: Spitz wins fifth gold medal.
And he said to himself: Wow. What would it be like to be that good?
The thought was so otherworldly. Over the next several years, it became less so. The family moved to Miami, where Jesús broke age-group swimming records. One day, in search of elite coaching, his father packed the family’s belongings into a car, four brothers crowded into the backseat, and they road-tripped west. Dad made sure to book hotels with pools. The brothers rose early before each day’s voyage and swam.
In Mission Viejo, California, they rose even earlier. Mom dropped them off at 5:20 for practice, then drove home. As they sliced through water, she cooked up ham, egg and cheese sandwiches. When their weary bodies emerged around 8, she was back with the homemade fuel as they scurried off to school. In afternoons, they returned to the pool for weight training and practice No. 2.
The 20,000-meter-per-day routine ate away at Jesús but hardened him. More records fell. The Olympics, at age 14, came into view. The Vassallos contacted Puerto Rico’s swimming federation. Jesse, as Anglos called him, would be its crown jewel.
“What do we have to do to compete for Puerto Rico at the 1976 Olympics?” the brothers asked.
“You can’t,” the federation told them. “You have to live in Puerto Rico.”
Instead, they made the short trip up the Californian coast to Long Beach for U.S. Olympic trials. For five days, they watched teammates and legends qualify for the Montreal Games. On the sixth, Jesse toed a block for the 1,500-meter freestyle final. He plunged in, tired, and finished sixth. He cried.
Upon returning home, his dad delivered a necessary reminder.
“You’re so young,” father told son. “Let’s get up tomorrow and start working.”
The following morning, Jesse sprung out of bed, out to the small backyard pool Dad had built, and into the water with dreams of 1980.
In 1978, Nancy Hogshead left home. First on weekends, then Fridays as well, then for good. She was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. She also happened to be a powerful athlete and an American record holder. So before she could drive, she moved away from family in Jacksonville, Florida, to nearby Gainesville, to chase the Moscow Olympics.
In Gainesville, swimming monopolized her life. Before sunrise, she hopped on her bike and pedaled to practice. After two hours and 400 laps, with stray mascara lingering under her eyes, she pulled pants and a sweatshirt over her swimsuit and hustled off to class. Hours later, she cycled back to the pool. She ran and lifted. Her coach would strap a belt to her waist – and to a series of pulleys. Her worn down limbs would splash ferociously into the water, pulling her in one direction. A basket of weights, on the other end of the pulley, pulled back.
This, in the late 70s, is what Olympic yearnings required. In Hamburg, New York, Sue Walsh doubled up on high school classes to graduate early and clear her 1980 schedule. At Auburn University, Rowdy Gaines’ formula was a light courseload, six grueling hours of swimming a day, six days a week. In Nashville, Tracy Caulkins’ route to dozens of national championships as a teenager was train, school, train, eat, sleep, train again. It had her in position to win six medals in Moscow.
In Bartow, Florida, Susie Thayer’s mom found a 25-meter pool at an old Air Force base and helped remodel it into a training hub. Susie would swim several miles every day. She’d pump out 200 pushups and 500 situps. Her body would tremble. She’d turn to weights, the ones she’d hand-made out of piping, concrete and rope. She’d crank them, and crank some more, until she physically couldn’t lift her arms to wash her hair. Every night, she’d flip open a journal and record her workouts, her times, her reps. She wrote down goals, too. One in particular was scrawled on journal pages and the training center wall: Make the Olympic team. On Dec. 23, 1979, when 17-year-old Susie and hundreds of other American athletes shut their eyes for the night, it was within reach.
On Dec. 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and everything changed.
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, 1980, in an increasingly unsettled world, 12 men gathered around a table in Washington. Midway through a two-hour, 25-minute meeting, U.S National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski turned the room’s attention to a delicate subject. It was Item I.A.13.g of a State Department paper outlining potential responses to the Soviet invasion. Its listing in the table of contents was one word.
Ever since the Games’ modern inception, the U.S. had been present. Politicians wondered whether that should change. “Withdrawal from Summer Olympics in Moscow would be serious blow to Soviet international prestige,” the State Department wrote to the group. It warned that a boycott “would hurt American athletes far more than it would affect Soviet policies or actions.” But at the meeting, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented new information: West Germany’s NATO representative had compared Moscow 1980 to Berlin 1936, which many believed had been propagandized by Hitler. In retrospect, the German rep felt the West should have boycotted those Games – and felt similarly about these ones.
The discussion bounced around the room, from press secretary to secretary of state, from pro to con. Christopher reminded his colleagues to consider athletes and their once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler noted the Olympics were a private entity, but that passports offered the government a mechanism of control. Vice President Walter Mondale said action against the Olympics could capture the imagination of the American public.
And at the head of the table, chills rippled down President Jimmy Carter’s spine.
Carter was conflicted, equivocal. Two days later, he faced a White House camera, and by extension the nation. “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic Games scheduled in Moscow this summer,” he said toward the end of his address, “the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic Games.”
Over the coming weeks, a wide range of voices found Carter’s ears. A CIA study concluded that the impact of anti-Olympics action would be limited. Brzezinski told Carter otherwise. At Friday breakfast meetings on foreign policy, the administration crafted its stance and charted its course. On Jan. 18, with portraits of revered presidents staring down at him, Carter called the Olympics “the toughest question of all.”
On Jan. 20, he sat in front of a microphone and across from four journalists. NBC’s “Meet the Press” cameras rolled. Olympians sat in their living rooms watching. Uneasiness tinged Carter’s face. “Do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics?” NBC’s Bill Monroe asked.
“No,” Carter replied in a scripted tone. “Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position: That unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan, that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to an alternate site, or multiple sites, or postponed, or cancelled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan within a month, I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics.”
Sitting at home in Hamburg, her parents by her side, Sue Walsh stared at a TV in shock. Other athletes heard days later second-hand. Some read newspaper columns, many of which supported a boycott. Over 100 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, released a statement pushing back. But there were no cell phones to buzz or internet to check. There were still pre-dawn alarms and 5:30 a.m. practices. Jesse Vassallo and Nancy Hogshead still heeded them and forged ahead. Day after day. Stroke after stroke.
Just about all of their peers did too, because the USOC told them to. On Jan. 7, it sent them a letter saying Carter’s initial comments had been “misinterpreted.” In late January, sports federations told Moscow hopefuls that “all pre-Olympic activities of the USOC and the National Governing Bodies [NGBs] are moving ahead on schedule.” The first paragraph of another USOC letter on Feb. 4 assured them “that neither has the President of the United States asked the USOC to consider withdrawing from the Games, nor has the USOC agreed to such action at this point, contrary to what you’ve been reading and hearing. WE WILL SELECT AN OLYMPIC TEAM.”
And we’ll keep training, most athletes thought, convinced that all the talk was mere posturing. Carter’s bluffing, they told themselves. Uncompromising coaches, optimism and naivete fueled denial.
The Carter administration, meanwhile, got to work. It formed a special Olympics task force within the State Department, and pressured foreign allies to fall in line. At the White House, Cutler, deputy counsel Joe Onek and domestic policy staffer Bob Berenson spearheaded the effort. They sought to operate on an Olympic world they “knew nothing” about. IOC leaders quickly scoffed at their proposals for relocation.
[Busbee: Muhammad Ali's misguided boycott mission]
With overwhelming and bipartisan Congressional backing, though, the White House began prodding the USOC. Publicly, president Robert Kane and executive director Don Miller trod carefully. They supported the administration’s views, but danced around suggestions of a boycott. In early February, Cutler and Onek flew to Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1980 Winter Games, to push for more. Soon after their arrival, they met with Kane and other USOC leaders. When their demands met resistance, discussions became arguments. Tension became anger. Onek threatened to destroy the USOC if it didn’t comply. Kane left the meeting furious.
Despite next-day apologies, Carter’s henchmen pressed on. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opened the IOC’s 82nd session. He spared one welcoming sentence, then got to his point. “As we meet here tonight, the world faces a serious threat to peace, which raises an issue of fundamental importance to the Olympic movement,” he told Olympic leaders from around the world. “Let me make my government's position clear: We will oppose the participation of an American team in any Olympic Games in the capital of an invading nation.”
Silence swept the room when he finished. Some faces wore disgust. Days later, the IOC announced it was “unanimous that the Games must be held in Moscow as planned.” Emboldened, the USOC released a statement of its own, saying it “continues to urge Olympic hopefuls to go on with their dedicated training.” A week later, it followed up with a reminder: “Any decision regarding our non-participation in the Games rests with the USOC’s House of Delegates.”
As calendars flipped to March, and as American citizens reveled in the Miracle on Ice, a Summer Olympic invitation still sat idly on the USOC’s doorstep.
Some 100 American athletes soon received another type of invitation: to the White House, to meet the President. On March 21, they packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a humid East Room for what they assumed would be a town hall. Daylight filtered in through half-curtained windows. Grandiose chandeliers loomed overhead.
Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor, was first to greet them. Tapping a pointer stick to a map of the Middle East, he delivered what some athletes took as a “condescending geopolitical lesson.”
“Look, I went to college, you can use big words, Ziggy,” some thought. Others’ heads were spinning.
"Can anything at all happen now that will let us go?" one asked.
"We certainly will reconsider if the [Soviets depart Afghanistan],” Brzezinski replied, “but that seems very, very unlikely.”
Onek, the deputy counsel, then replaced him at the podium and outlined government plans for alternative, counter-Olympic games. As he prepared to take a question, doors swung open and Carter walked in. Nobody clapped. Reporters, expecting a standard presidential ovation, were astonished and framed it as a snub. Athletes, who two days earlier were in pools or on tracks, had no clue they’d done anything improper.
Carter then spoke and flattened spirits. “Ours is a nuclear age,” he said. “We have a much more serious prospect now even than existed back in 1936 when the Olympics were held in Berlin. It was serious then. In retrospect it's obvious. I met last week with the Minister President of Bavaria, in Western Germany. … He said if only the Olympics had not been held in Berlin in 1936 the course of history could have been different. We face a similar prospect now.
“The Olympics are important to the Soviet Union. They have made massive investments in buildings, equipment, propaganda. As has probably already been pointed out to you, they have passed out hundreds of thousands of copies of an official Soviet document saying that the decision of the world community to hold the Olympics in Moscow is an acknowledgement of approval of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, and proof to the world that the Soviets' policy results in international peace.
“I can't say at this moment what other nations will not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ours will not go. I say that not with any equivocation; the decision has been made.”
Athletes left stunned. They had come expecting dialogue. Instead they got a decree. The following day, they proposed an intermediate solution: Compete in Moscow, but shun all ceremonies. The White House immediately rejected it.
There were no compromises, no half-measures. “It is now clear that we will not be sending a team to Moscow in 1980,” one Athletes’ Advisory Council rep wrote in a letter to peers. The decisive USOC vote on participation remained three weeks away, on April 12. But some top White House officials assumed they had a deal. They assumed the USOC had conceded, and would vote to boycott. They assumed they’d won.
That is, until Berenson, the White House assistant, and Nelson Ledsky, head of the State Department’s Olympics task force, flew to Colorado Springs for a March 29 meeting of NGBs. Don Miller, the USOC executive director, led off the meeting. He mentioned that a group of Western European national Olympic committees had recently voted to defy their governments and go to Moscow. NGB leaders affirmed that their teams were training and would be prepared. When Ledsky and Berenson joined the discussion, it heated up. They detailed plans for alternative Olympics. The NGBs said no thanks.
Olympic officials left the room hopeful. Berenson and Ledsky, meanwhile, boarded their commercial flight home alarmed. As they cruised above Middle America, they drafted a memo to Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State: The President is going to sustain one of the most embarrassing, humiliating defeats in the history of the presidency, they wrote. They’re going to vote to go to Moscow.
For months, the administration had rested on public opinion. Early polls showed three-fourths of the nation favored a boycott. How dare those selfish kids defy the President, Americans felt, and a minority of athletes agreed it was their duty.
But the public didn’t know about their three-a-days or their singular focus. A majority of athletes couldn’t fathom giving up the Olympics for an intangible purpose. Anita DeFrantz, a rower who led the resistance, received hate mail and death threats. They frightened her. Nevertheless, at a private meeting with State Department officials, she asked her most important question: “Can you promise me that one life will be saved or spared by us not competing?” They couldn’t, and her resolve strengthened. Carter had tried to woo the Olympic movement with discourse, but the Olympians were holding firm. Thus began the crackdown.
In late-March and early-April, the administration began pulling strings. It explored ways to block NBC’s next eight-figure payment to the Soviets. It phoned USOC corporate donors, and some $200,000 was allegedly withheld.
White House officials, in discussions with Congress, also compiled a list of penalties they could levy against the USOC if it voted to go to Moscow. Some – revoking its tax-exempt status, stripping it of federal land, amending its charter – were leaked to the media.
Cutler, the White House Counsel, even traveled to Chicago on April 4 for Jesse Owens’ funeral – less to pay tribute to the track legend, more to sit down with the USOC leaders, Miller and Kane. As Miller left the service at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, reporters stuck microphones in his face and asked about the leaked government threats. “Blatant blackmail,” he barked back.
And the threats weren’t all made deviously. Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 10, two days before the USOC vote, Carter said: “If legal actions are necessary to enforce the decision not to send a team to Moscow, then I will take those legal actions.”
That same day, speaking to the USOC’s administrative committee, Kane finally gave in. “If we decide to go, [Carter] is going to give it to us. We are going to lose our charter, lose our everything,” he said.
“We have no out.”
“We are licked.”
The following day, 21-year-old Rowdy Gaines swooped into a pool in Austin, Texas, and glided toward a U.S. national championship. He flip-turned once, then again, then a third time. He sped toward the wall, touched, and glanced up. He’d swum 200 meters in 1 minute and 49.16 seconds. Nobody in the documented history of humankind had ever gone faster.
Some 16 hours later, a hodgepodge group of administrators and veteran athletes gathered in Colorado Springs to decide whether Gaines would be allowed to go to the Olympics.
Early on the morning of April 12, they – the USOC’s House of Delegates – filed into a cavernous ballroom at the Antlers Hotel. Vice President Walter Mondale stepped to a podium as the first major speaker. He drew the parallels to Berlin 1936 that had keyed the administration’s rhetoric all along. He paid tribute to Owens, who’d won four golds at those Games – “but neither Jesse’s achievements in Berlin nor any words spoken at the Games prevented the Reich from exploiting the Olympics toward their own brutal ends,” he said.
As he spoke, a few athletes shook their heads.
But it was Bill Simon, the USOC’s treasurer, who many felt would swing the vote. The USOC administrative committee, fearing consequences, had come out in favor of boycotting. If Simon was on board, most delegates would be too. Simon spent the previous night in his hotel room scribbling away on a yellow legal pad, drafting and redrafting his speech in agony. Twelve hours later, he stood before an organization whose future rested on his words. He spoke for 20 minutes. He was torn, but eloquent and convincing.
“What we ought to decide here,” he said, “is not the legalese of various amendments, but an unequivocable vote of support for our country. And I suggest to you that if the route you wish to take is to vote to defy the President, you will be voting to destroy the United States Olympic Committee, the Olympic movement, and denying future generations of Americans the privilege and the honor of representing our country in future Olympic Games.
“Regardless of what side you come down on in this issue, the President has said that we aren’t going to Moscow. He has made that national-security determination, and it’s overwhelmingly supported by the American people. And, indeed, if there’s any who have a death wish and vote to defy the President, God help us.”
Delegates rose and applauded. Later in the afternoon, they marched to the front of the room and submitted their votes. Kane collected the slips of paper in an empty pitcher, then announced the outcome: 1,604 in favor of a boycott, 797 against.
Slowly, solemnly, the delegates filtered out, through double doors, past tear-stained faces and funereal stares. Athletes wandered, some aimlessly, some off to the airport, some in search of telephones to inform teammates.
Dozens of them, world-class competitors who’d circled July 19 on calendars, who’d been told four years earlier 1980 would be their moment, who’d slept on basement floors and quit jobs, who’d deferred school and delayed marriages, who’d endured abuse and broken records and pushed their bodies to untold limits, for hours everyday, with one irreplicable goal, never participated in their sports again.
In Austin, Rowdy Gaines simmered with anger. Nancy Hogshead’s soul sank to the bottom of a pool. Jesse Vassallo later threw his arms up in despair. The 4:50 a.m. wake-up calls, he soon realized, were futile. Throughout May and June, workouts came and went; Vassallo, quite often, stayed home.
In the face of disappointment, some athletes rebelled. DeFrantz and 25 other plaintiffs sued the USOC. Diver Greg Louganis explored his Greek ancestry, in search of dual citizenship. He couldn’t secure it, but if he had been able to compete under another flag, he would have.
Several teams looked into circumventing the boycott. The women’s rowing team perhaps came closest. DeFrantz got conditional approval from the IOC – if she could get approval from U.S. Rowing, which she couldn’t. Various athletes were in Europe at the time, a train ride away from Moscow. Some considered hopping aboard for an adventure. But they’d heard that the government might target their passports or visas. The warnings ultimately quelled their dissent.
[Eisenberg: The lone American who medaled in Moscow]
Instead, all who qualified at “trials” were invited to D.C. for a four-day fiesta. Most, though not all, attended. They partied at hotel pools, feasted and commiserated. When they arrived at the White House, they were ushered into line for a photo op with the President. Roughly half of them spurned him. One argued with parents on the South Lawn. Another cried, conflicted. Twenty-seven of the 30 female rowers who’d made the trip refused to shake Carter’s hand. They took off plaid Olympic-uniform tops to reveal shirts that read: “Jimmy Carter’s threat to national security.” They also wore stickers that informed anyone they came across: “I’m here to make sure this never happens again.”
The only sport not represented in D.C. that week was swimming. Officials decided a White House visit could wait. They rescheduled “trials” for a few days after the analogous races in Moscow. A scoreboard extension displayed Olympic times. The entire event was designed to motivate and prove superiority. Instead, it reminded some U.S. swimmers of what had been stolen.
Together, they had expected to win some 30 medals in Moscow. Instead, across all sports, the Soviet Union won a record-shattering 195. The boycott weakened many events. Sixty-five nations in total declined their Olympic invitations. But 80, including most European powers, competed. They arrived to find Moscow “considerably spruced up and dehumanized.” In athletic venues and away from them, the Soviets went to immeasurable lengths to put on a show for the West.
[Eisenberg: Controversy and propaganda at the 1980 Olympics]
Yet in America, nobody watched. Most reporters and tourists stayed home. The Olympics remained the Olympics, but NBC, under pressure from the government, did not broadcast them.
Athletes, meanwhile, confronted life. The optimistic teens among them figured 1984, with the Games coming to Los Angeles, would offer belated opportunity. Few, however, realized just how turbulent four years could be.
On an innocuous spring day in 1982, two years after the boycott gutted him, and almost a decade after that mini-market newspaper spawned his Olympic ambitions, Jesse Vassallo bounded out of a Vancouver natatorium in search of fun.
He remained, on this Pacific afternoon, as optimistic as ever. His world record in the 400-meter IM was approaching four years untouched. His first year at the University of Miami had yielded an NCAA championship. He was one of hundreds of American athletes who were wounded by 1980. He was also one of hundreds who recovered and took aim at L.A. ’84.
Not a single one of their paths to Los Angeles was linear. Vassallo’s veered off course here, in Vancouver, in between prelims and finals at a second-tier meet. He and a few teammates snatched a pull buoy and slid out to a nearby basketball hoop to play. As the foam device caromed off the rim, Vassallo flexed his legs and sprung for a rebound. A teammate nudged him. When he landed, his left knee twisted and quickly swelled.
He consulted doctors and tried rehab. He even attempted to swim with a cast. He competed at nationals, but narrowly missed out on worlds. He watched from home as a Brazilian broke his 400 IM record.
He then went under the knife, and emerged with blood clots. He stayed hospitalized for 16 days. He spent several weeks in a wheelchair, then more on crutches. As 1982 became 1983, four months out of a pool became five, then six, then eight.
The Olympics remained a year away. Vassallo told friends he’d get there. Dozens of 1980 U.S. teammates did likewise – only to realize throughout the four years between Moscow and Los Angeles that dream fulfillment required more than just persistence. It also required fortune. And fortune frowned upon so many of them.
In 1981, Susie Thayer graduated high school and zoomed off to the University of Texas on scholarship. She enrolled in pre-med classes and loved her new teammates. But internally, she was confused.
Back in high school, she’d been Susie Thayer The Athlete. She never had to be anything else. She didn’t go to dances, didn’t socialize, didn’t date. Norms and her Christian faith told her to be attracted to boys. Susie wasn’t. In fact, for as long as she could remember, she felt like a boy. She didn’t quite know what those feelings meant. But when she was pumping makeshift weights or powering through a pool, she didn’t have to grapple with them.
Now she was off at college, a thousand miles away from home. In the privacy of her dorm room, her mind swirled. Her own sexuality and identity perplexed her. Parts of her brain wanted to ask out a girl. Susie had no idea what to do, nor anybody she trusted for counsel. At swim practices, she butted heads with her coach. Away from them, she descended into dark places.
After freshman year, she decided to transfer closer to home. She packed up and spent the summer back in Florida. In the fall, she drove up to Auburn. She arrived to a rude awakening: Auburn’s head coach, the one she’d come to swim for, had taken the same job at Texas. The same Texas she’d just left.
Susie felt humiliated and lost. She didn’t last long at Auburn. She packed up again and motored home. This time, she told her parents she was done. With swimming. With school. Her parents were incredulous: How could you give up a full-ride!? But Susie had to get away. Part of her brain still wanted to swim. Another part of it knew she couldn’t.
Nancy Hogshead roared through her freshman year at Duke in 1980-81, smashing school records as she went. The community welcomed her. The classes enriched her. The boycott was behind her. Year 1 of 4 was a success.
In the fall of her sophomore year, she was jogging between Duke’s East and West campuses when sirens inside her head began blaring. A man was running toward her. No big deal, she told herself, but darkness was falling, and she realized she was alone.
Suddenly, the man grabbed her and pulled her underneath an evergreen tree. In the underbrush, she fought for her life. He told her he’d kill her. She tried everything. He pulled her deeper into the woods. And he raped her.
She arrived at a hospital late that night shivering and bruised, her lips swollen, one eye forced shut. Hours later, sitting alone on an exam table, she vowed to not let the trauma define her life. But she soon realized she was no longer in control of emotions. Fear seeped into everything she did. She dropped classes. She compulsively checked windows and doors to make sure they were locked, again and again, several times each night.
Once she recovered physically, she hoped swimming could heal her; that the pool, and the rhythm of her strokes, and the feel of the water would put her mind at ease. Instead, whenever she hopped in, her mind would wander. Back into the woods. Back into survival mode. Back to that awful night.
Her coach advised her to take a year off. “You’re gonna come back, and you’re gonna win gold at the Olympics,” he told her. She couldn’t fathom anything of the sort. He called it a redshirt. She called it retirement.
Rowdy Gaines quit. Unequivocally, after his senior season at Auburn in 1981, with ire toward the entire Olympic movement still lingering. There were no post-college careers in swimming. Olympic sports remained entirely amateur. So Gaines finished up school, did some lifeguarding, and plotted out next steps. He figured he’d follow his dad into the film business.
It was Dad, ironically, who wasn’t quite sure his son was ready.
“Are you going to be able to look yourself in the mirror for the rest of your life and not say, ‘What if’?” he asked Rowdy. “Are you gonna be able to listen to the national anthem? Are you gonna be able to watch an Olympic Games? Are you gonna be able to chant, ‘USA’?
“If you feel like you can, then let’s get busy trying to figure out what your career’s gonna be. But if you feel like you can’t go the rest of your life without looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What if I had gone for it?’ – then you need to think about dedicating the next three years of your life to swimming.”
Toward the end of the summer, Rowdy called his coach. They hadn’t spoken in six months. He hadn’t completed a single lap. But he wanted back in.
So he found a cheap apartment and a job in Austin. He took a 7 p.m.-3 a.m. desk shift at the local Hyatt. He’d crash at 3:30 and wake up at 5 to swim. Middays became bedtime. The day’s second practice began around 3 p.m. and stretched until 6. An hour later, after wolfing down dinner, he was back at work.
The upside-down routine wore at him. His college cocoon had disappeared. He had one roommate, no social life and no balance. His swimming suffered. His 200 freestyle world record vanished. After some punishing workouts, on some lonely nights, despite his coach’s relentless positivity, he pondered giving up.
Many athletes did give up in the four years between the boycott and Los Angeles. The strains of life proved too heavy. There was no money in their sport, and no room for training alongside full-time employment.
But whenever Gaines came close, his coach reminded him of the first conversation they’d had back in the summer of ‘81. “If you do this, you’re going to experience tremendous peaks and valleys,” he’d told Rowdy. “You’ve just gotta roll with the valleys, learn from them, and I’ll get you to the peak.”
By January of ’84, Gaines had saved enough paychecks to quit his gig at the Hyatt, and life normalized. He’d endured. Trials neared. He wasn’t the sprinter he once was. But at 25 years old, at last, the Olympics once again appeared on the horizon.
Nancy Hogshead didn’t swim for months in 1982. When she returned to Duke in the fall, 10 months after the rape, her coach tempted her with a deal: You don’t have to come to practices. You don’t have to lift weights. You can keep your scholarship. Just show up at meets.
She hesitated, but accepted it. Her body ached after her first few races. But … she won them. Gradually, sometimes separately from the team, she began training again. With every stroke, she recaptured her grace. Every lap rekindled her competitive fire. Every session conjured a more vivid image of the Olympic rings. By Thanksgiving, they’d become vivid enough to chase again. Hogshead floated a plan to her parents: She wanted to give up her scholarship, drop out of school, go all in. They questioned her, but agreed to loan her money for rent.
At her first few practices, she gasped for air. But when she’d hop in a pool now, she’d regain control. In the water, she’d fight her rapist; but now, she’d win. Her mind’s adventures no longer frightened her; now, they healed her. By 1984, her biceps had recovered from a tumultuous year off; more importantly, her entire being had, too.
She and more than 30 of her 1980 teammates converged on Indianapolis in June for Olympic trials – and their vindication. Rowdy Gaines and Jesse Vassallo – who’d recovered from his knee reconstruction – were among them. Tracy Caulkins was as well. Caulkins, despite two years of lagging motivation, knew she’d make the team. Sue Walsh, an American record holder and back-to-back-to-back NCAA champion, seemed a sure bet too.
Then, on the eve of trials, Walsh got sick.
One thousand, five hundred and thirty-six days after Rowdy Gaines set his first world record in the 200-meter free, and 1,535 days after that USOC vote made him wait four long years, he hunched over on a block in Indy ahead of the same event. His sun-bleached hair jutted in 10 different directions. His narrow eyes and taut face told of pressure.
The gun sounded and he dove in. He sprinted one length, then another, then a third, just like he had thousands of times over the past eight years. He labored over the final straightaway, head snapping in and out of water. A top-two finish would get him to the Olympics. He touched the wall and looked up.
He’d finished seventh.
Two days later, he’d have one more chance, 100 more meters, 50 seconds to justify the past three years of his life.
Nancy Hogshead qualified in three of her five events. Jesse Vassallo qualified in two of his three. Tracy Caulkins blew away the field in both medleys and won the 100-meter breaststroke. In between her races, she agonized over others.
She watched 15 of her 1980 teammates qualify. But she watched Craig Beardsley, who’d smashed a 200 butterfly world record in 1980, miss out by .36 seconds. She watched Marybeth Linzmeier finish third by .41. Her own races brought relief. Theirs brought sorrow.
On June 27, she watched Rowdy Gaines fling himself into the water for his final shot, the 100 free. She watched three more youthful swimmers match him stroke for stroke, kick for kick, turn for turn at the midway point. They careened toward the wall neck-and-neck. They touched and emerged. The scoreboard delivered the news. Mike Heath: 49.87 seconds. Chris Cavanaugh: 50.04.
Rowdy Gaines: 49.96.
And in an instant, stress evaporated. Anger – boycott-induced anger – disappeared. Rowdy Gaines was an Olympian. A true Olympian.
Sue Walsh, meanwhile, climbed into bed the night before the 100-meter backstroke with mucus swelling beneath her cheeks. She’d medaled at every major championship in her specialty event over the past four years. Now her sinuses were infected. In the morning, she swam well enough to make finals, but was struggling to breathe. Her head was clogged. Her muscles felt weak. The same pressure that had haunted Gaines, of eight years dependent on one minute, further weakened them.
She windmilled through the pool anyway that evening, eyes toward the heavens, elation or disappointment awaiting her at the wall. She reached for it and looked up. Then her head fell to the side of the pool. Tears gushed from her face. She’d missed out on an Olympic place by an unseeable .12 seconds.
Her dad, who’d booked a non-refundable trip to Moscow back in 1980, who’d supported her and loved her at every stage of the journey, made his way down to the pool deck.
Sue found him, they embraced, and for a long while didn’t let go.
“You’ll always be my champion,” he told her.
And then they left, to get away. Several weeks later, Sue returned to a pool. She told herself she’d continue training. A broken heart wouldn’t let her. She was one of 290 members of the 1980 team who never qualified for another Olympics. After trials in ’84, she never swam in elite competition again.
A hundred-plus 1980 Olympians marched into the Opening Ceremony on July 28 to waving flags and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” From the packed bleachers of the Coliseum, friends and family shouted their names. And they realized, many for the first time in their lives, that they were surrounded by thousands of humans who didn’t necessarily speak their language, who didn’t necessarily understand their culture, but who did understand 10,000 hours, and the psychology of mastery, and the unseen suffering behind athletic beauty. Their eyes welled and told the story speechless mouths couldn’t:
We’re here. Never mind that it took four extra years. They were worth it. Never mind that the Soviets have led a reciprocal boycott. We’re here. Finally.
Then they went in search of medals. On the first morning of competition, at prelims, Tracy Caulkins slithered through water and heard a roar unlike any she’d heard before. Prior to the 400 IM final that evening, excitement built. She huddled with her coach. She expected a galvanizing, emotional pep talk. About the years of dedication and the extended wait. About the opportunity that had finally arrived.
Instead, he kissed her on the cheek and said: “Trace, go have fun.”
And in that moment, she remembered something that had faded in 1982 and ’83, for her and many others. She hadn’t delved into this sport as an 8-year-old to win 48 national titles and break 63 American records. She hadn’t braved cold mornings and the discomfort of water in her nose because she wanted Olympic gold. She swam because she loved it.
That’s what she thought about as she sped ahead of seven others, as the stands at USC shook above her, as teammates who’d suffered through ’80 together urged her on. My goodness, this is fun. She finished in 4:39.24, a full nine seconds ahead of her nearest challenger. She stepped up to a podium. An official draped a medal around her neck.
She looked into the crowd and picked out her parents, the ones who’d driven hundreds of miles to every one of her swim meets. She saw her sister, and her high school PE teacher too. She waved. Hundreds of people she’d never met waved back. She didn’t need Olympic gold to make her the greatest female swimmer ever. Now she had it.
Nerves seized Rowdy Gaines two days later. Ever since that seventh-place finish at trials, he’d been staring out over an emotional ledge. That next day in Indy, he’d sat with Caulkins in a hotel food court. “I believe in you, everything’s gonna be OK,” she’d told him then, and she’d been right.
But his confidence was shaken. Now, in L.A., his only individual final was hours away. His morning swim had been slow. What if I don’t win? he wondered, and part of him had come to terms with the eventuality.
Caulkins recognized this, and found him that afternoon. And on the day he’d spent eight years swimming toward, she tugged his mind back through the journey, the ups and downs, the grueling practices, the boycott. You deserve this, she told him. You deserve to be here. Regardless of how tonight shakes out, the sun will come up tomorrow. Your family will still love you. Life will go on. So cherish the moment.
Hours later, Gaines flapped his arms and forced a smile. He splashed water over his head. He anticipated a quick gun and shot into the water.
He stole out to an early lead.
He held it at the midway point.
He hugged the left lane rope over the final 50.
He lunged for the wall, and turned around, and plucked his yellow-rimmed goggles away from his eyes.
His right fist shot into the air. His entire torso sprung out of the water. Boyish happiness washed over his face. He threw his head back and stared skyward, then flung himself back into the water, half dolphin, half joyously rambunctious kid. Then he brought his hands to his cheeks in disbelief.
Eleven American swimmers who’d been impeded by the boycott won gold medals in 1984. Gaines was one of them. Nancy Hogshead was too. "This week, I kept thinking about all the workouts, all the time, all the pain," she told a reporter in Los Angeles. "I thought of the cold mornings. In winter, our outdoor pool gets a layer of ice on the deck. I thought of all the times I slipped on that ice. I thought of everything I gave up, all the friends I couldn't socialize with, all the pain I was in during workouts. All of it."
"Every one of these," she said of her four medals, three of them gold, "has been a highlight of my life."
On July 30, in the 400 IM, the race he surely would have won four years earlier, Jesse Vassallo prepared to join the party. He’d shaved off his thick, shaggy hair. Now he wiggled his limbs and ascended to a block. He was slow off of it, then recovered. Over the second 100 meters, he pulled into second place with his backstroke.
Over the third 100, he slowed. Over the final 100, he fell back, three body lengths behind the leader, then four. He touched the wall fourth.
He reached for the lane rope, exhausted by four-plus minutes of toil but also by a decade of it.
He missed the final in his other event by .05 seconds the following morning. He bolted out of Los Angeles as soon as he could. He barely left his home for weeks.
And as he hid from a cruel world, frustrated, humiliated, depressed, he swore that neither he nor his kids would ever swim again.
As devastating as 1980 was, 1984, for those who persisted then fell short, was more difficult. And many did just that. Even Susie Thayer attempted a last-minute comeback. But she couldn’t recapture her teenage speed.
It was then, in the summer of ’84, that resentment started to boil. For years, Thayer couldn’t look at Jimmy Carter’s face. He’d lost reelection several months after the boycott, but would still pop up on the news. Whenever he did, Thayer seethed. She hated him. The mere thought of the man sent her spiraling toward a painful place.
And then a funny thing happened: Thayer returned home, engrossed herself in the family irrigation business, never said a word about swimming ... and forgot. About Carter. About the Olympics. About everything.
Any thought of the sport she’d dedicated her adolescence to came accompanied by indignity. Rather than cope with it, rather than reframe memories, she suppressed them. She’d meet with clients, build relationships with colleagues. None of them knew she’d ever been an elite athlete – and as she pressed on in life, still confused by her identity but successful in her career, it was as if she hadn’t been.
Jesse Vassallo returned to Puerto Rico in 1985. Back to Ponce, where he latched on with his family’s manufacturing company. In 1987, he had his first kid, a boy. In 1988, he started his own business, producing solid-surface materials for the construction industry. He rarely thought about sports.
Dozens of his 1980 teammates felt similarly in the aftermath of the boycott. What once had been their everything became a source of utter emptiness in their lives. Many distanced themselves from the Olympic world and the public eye throughout the ’80s. Some disappeared for good.
But in the ’90s, Vassallo’s first-born turned 3, then 4, then 5. The pool tempted Jesse. He’d been for a few recreational swims. One day, he took his son to Club Deportivo, where all those years earlier he’d acclimated to the water. Now, he jumped in with the boy and taught him the basics.
Gradually, the father-son lessons became community sessions. One pupil became two, then three, then five. And the pool became what it had been for Jesse’s father two decades earlier, a local gathering place, and a creator of bonds.
Vassallo hardly fancied himself as a coach, and certainly not an elite one. He realized, in the process of teaching kids, what swimming had taught him. He realized he loved the look on their faces when they overcame obstacles. After dabbling in politics, he moved back to South Florida. Today, he schools an entire team of teens – but not to build swimmers capable of winning the Olympic medal he never did. He coaches to build swimmers who’ll dive into a pool, perhaps finish fourth sometimes, get up the next day and go again.
Susie Thayer’s memories resurfaced and tormented her. Years of suppression were broken by the occasional businessman or family friend. Strangers would hear she was an Olympian. What was that like? they’d ask. How’d you do?
What was a point of pride for so many instead stirred anger. And shame. Many 1980-only Olympians have struggled with that so-called “second question,” the Did you medal? or How’d you do? Some have developed strategies for dealing with it. Others haven’t. Thayer certainly hadn't in the mid-2000s. The question provoked thoughts of Carter, of the boycott, of fury.
All the while, she still felt like a man in a woman’s body. She’d lived four decades in it, but the conflict was wreaking havoc in her head. She began seeing a therapist once a week, sorting through anger and confusion. In 2011, she transitioned publicly to Sam.
Sam Thayer had also been reading. Reading the bible, and reading books about forgiveness. He read tales about the Holocaust. He listened to NPR, and heard a segment with a woman whose sister had been killed in a concentration camp. But the woman no longer harbored ill will. Thayer studied her story of pardon, and thought: Enough. I really gotta do the same.
Through therapy and inventory and journaling, he learned to forgive. He heard of Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian work, and said to himself: “Good lord, I gotta let this go. This man is a damn saint.” So on Sept. 20, 2015, he sat down and wrote. “Dear Former President Carter,” he began. “Forgiveness and letting go of struggle is a rewarding experience. I believe the miracle of setting ourselves free of those chains that cause so much personal pain truly sets our souls free.
“Thank you for that experience.”
He did not, however, tell Carter he agreed with the boycott. In fact, two years earlier he’d attended a transgender conference in Atlanta. The Winter Olympics in Sochi were five months away. A speaker began condemning Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws, and advocated for a boycott of the Games. Sam stood up.
His body quivered as he spoke. “I’m transgender, I understand where you’re coming from,” he told a room of hundreds. “But I also was on the ’80 Olympic team. And this is the worst thing you could ever do to an athlete or young person. Please, consider changing your thought process.”
And if other members of the ’80 team had been at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Atlanta that day, if they’d seen Sam rise impulsively and speak from the heart, they’d have nodded their heads vigorously.
Please, they’d have echoed. Never again.
That’s the other common message that came out of 80-plus hours of interviews. It’s the other reason many want this story told. Some wonder why this happened to them. Perhaps, a few muse, so that it won’t happen again.
With China accused of genocide and rampant human rights abuse, U.S. politicians have been discussing a boycott of Beijing 2022. The Senate recently codified a diplomatic boycott, which will become official U.S. policy when President Joe Biden — who, in 1980, as a 37-year-old senator from Delaware, voted in favor of the Moscow Boycott — signs a sweeping China-focused bill into law.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, are calling for a full boycott. But if those calls ever crescendo, an army of 1980 Olympians stands at the ready. Anita DeFrantz, now an IOC VP, would be one of its generals. Willie Banks, a 1980 triple-jumper, would be another. “I will fight like crazy,” he said.
And the IOC’s current president would lead them into battle. Thomas Bach was a West German fencer and gold medal hopeful in 1980. The boycott ended one career but launched another. “After we lost this fight,” Bach says, “I decided to come into sports administration to make sure future generations of athletes would not have to suffer from such a senseless boycott again.”
Whether it was “senseless,” or whether it “worked,” are subjects of great debate. Many athletes write it off as futile. Some historians agree. Others argue there’s no way to know. The Soviet-Afghan war lasted nine-plus years. The boycott’s true purpose was to punish the Soviets and deprive them of a legitimizing international festival, the value of which is unquantifiable – because it never happened in full force.
Berenson, the White House staffer involved in the boycott effort, says it “absolutely” was the right decision – just “not executed very well.” And Carter? He admitted in his memoir that he “had no idea at the time how difficult it would be for me to implement it or to convince other nations to join us.” He has not publicly said he regrets the decision. His spokeswoman declined to comment.
Carter did, however, respond to a group of middle-schoolers in 2011. They had delved into a big history project on the subject, and written to Carter for his retrospective thoughts. “Both Congress and the Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly not to participate, and I reluctantly agreed with their decision,” he told the kids in a signed note. “I met with all the athletes to express our regret, and many of them agreed with the decision – but not all.”
The “attempt to rewrite history” rankled a few 1980 Olympians who saw the letter. “You SOB,” rower Carol Brown thought. The vast majority of the team, of course, did not agree with the decision, and still don’t. Several have crossed paths with Carter in the years since. The interactions they describe are awkward at best.
Some athletes crave an apology, but most realize: What would that achieve? Some found honor in sacrifice, and cherish the Congressional Gold Medals they were awarded that summer. Others clarify: “We didn’t sacrifice. We were sacrificed. There’s a difference.”
What they want is more recognition – recognition that they were, and are, Olympians.
Tracy Stockwell, née Caulkins, lives happily in Australia now. Once every few years, she finds her way back to the States. Last decade, she took her daughter to visit colleges on the West Coast. At Stanford, they sat down for a lovely lunch with three of Tracy’s 1980 teammates. They reminisced about travels and teenage fun. They chatted about marriages and children and their lives.
In the car afterward, Tracy’s daughter asked: “So mum, you all swam together?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Did they go to the Olympics?”
They were all Olympians, she knew. But … “No.”
They were, are, what some call “Ghost Olympians,” or “the forgotten team,” or “the team with no result.” The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee says they’re Olympians. The IOC says they aren’t. Asterisks and “(Boycott)” accompany their names. Says Craig Beardsley, swimmer and would-have-been gold-medalist in 1980: “We don’t really know who we are.”
“This was an Olympic team,” says Mike Moran, the USOC spokesman at the time. “And it was simply erased as if it didn’t exist.”
Sport-by-sport, they have had official and unofficial reunions, but never as a full group. Some athletes say the shared suffering strengthened lifetime bonds. Others have fallen out of touch. Some take pride in being an Olympian. Others hide from their athletic pasts. Some, like Beardsley, have returned to sports to make the world a better place. Some learned to ignore what they can’t control and focus on what they can. Others still harbor bitterness.
Some, like NBC swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines, have parlayed sporting success into careers. Nancy Hogshead-Makar fights full-time for female athlete empowerment. Sue Walsh has spent three decades in the athletic department at her alma mater, UNC. Every once in a while, she speaks to groups of young swimmers, and tells them about the boycott; about overcoming heartbreak; that “the lessons you learn in disappointment [can be] more valuable than the lessons you learn from success."
Others still struggle. Some have faded from view. Others have seen their lives go seriously astray.
Jesse Vassallo’s was going well last year. On Wednesday, March 11, he was preparing the Pompano Beach Piranhas, his youth swim team, for their championship meet that Friday.
On Thursday, March 12, the world screeched to a halt.
Vassallo had never told his young swimmers about the boycott. That changed when COVID-19 upended their lives. Twenty-four hours before the meet of their dreams was set to begin, organizers called it off. Jesse convened the kids. He had a story to tell.
A pandemic and a boycott, of course, are two very different things. “This [COVID] is about everybody, and it’s real,” Vassallo noted. “The other one was manmade.” This was about saving lives. Nobody could promise the other one would.
And yet what athletes endured was remarkably similar. “I know the feeling, intimately, of having something pulled out from under you,” Hogshead-Makar said. Several 1980 Olympians were asked to speak to college and youth sports teams about their experiences. Edwin Moses, a member of that '80 team, organized a virtual town hall to connect Olympians of 40 years ago with today's. The USOPC worked to forge similar mentorships.
Vassallo, weeks before the cancellations, had spoken to his swimmers about “resilience,” and that’s the message he reiterated once the pandemic struck. “You train, train, train, and not everything comes like you want it to,” he told the kids. “And things get in your way. You break an ankle, or you get sick the day before a meet, or you false-start.
“But you don’t give up,” he said. The water still waits for you. The wall remains there for you to touch. It’s a lesson he learned from the boycott, and now applies to life. As his Piranhas wrestled with uncertainty last spring, it was a lesson he hoped to pass on.
Jesse himself was struggling too. His bank account was running perilously dry. He didn’t see pools reopening anytime soon. He worried about what life would look like by the time they did.
But then he’d set up his computer and position the camera. He’d join a daily Zoom call with his homebound swimmers. For an hour, he’d put them through a punishing workout. Situps, pushups, squats. Their arms would tremble. Their legs would quake.
Each day, he’d half-expect them to blow off tomorrow.
Each day, they’d set aside inconveniences; they’d swallow frustrations and disappointments; and they’d come back for more.
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