Ex-Olympians finding hope in hard times
They needed help, but more than that, they needed hope. Help for cancer bills ballooning to six figures, for legs amputated at the knee...
Seattle Times staff reporter
They needed help, but more than that, they needed hope. Help for cancer bills ballooning to six figures, for legs amputated at the knee, for heart failure and heart attacks and blood clots in the brain, for car accidents and alcoholism and bankruptcy.
Hope for all of those things, too. Hope for when they felt scared and helpless and alone and overwhelmed. Hope for when their bodies failed them and insurance companies followed suit.
Hope is what made them Olympians in the first place, what chiseled those bodies into the most finely tuned on the planet, what pushed them to train four years for one day, one week, one moment when they could grasp the world of sport's center stage.
They found hope and help in all the usual places — friends and family and private financing and insurance. They also found it in the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund, a national organization created in 1999 to award $1,000 grants to former Olympians in trouble. The state of Washington, one of 15 regions in OORF, is its current leader in donations.
Two-time Olympian Reynaldo Brown stopped counting when medical bills brought on by heart failure and a heart attack passed $100,000. He needed an OORF grant to pay his car loan for a month.
Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund
Tax-free contributions, which can be made by non-Olympians, can be made by sending a check made out to the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund to: Washington State United States Olympic Committee, P.O. Box 75058, Seattle, WA, 98125.
For more information call 206-364-5241, or visit www.nwolympics.org.
Gold medalist John Woodruff needed a new van when poor circulation forced doctors to amputate both legs at the knee. He says the grant rekindled his Olympic spirit nearly 70 years after he won the 800 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
"The amount of money wasn't what was important to me," Reynaldo Brown says. "It was the fact that people cared, people that I didn't even know, but people I shared an Olympic experience with. For them to just come in and say, 'What can we do?' Well, that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
Day on the slopes changes everything in an instant
Bill Johnson put an end to decades of European downhill skiing dominance when he captured the gold medal at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. They called Johnson the bad boy of skiing back then — so brash, so confident, so arrogant and so good, one of the best Americans the sport had ever seen and certainly the sport's most colorful personality.
Then came a nasty divorce in August of 2000. His kids moved 800 miles away from Johnson's Mount Hood home. Because skiing was what he knew, what made him tick, reasoning followed that skiing could take a broken family and make it whole again. A comeback ensued.
Only Johnson caught his right ski in a turn during a U.S. Nationals preliminary race in Montana. His face banged into the snow, his body flipped end over end, and he bounced all the way down to the netting at the bottom of the course.
"Doctors told us to get there right away," DB Johnson, Bill's mother, says. "They said it wasn't likely he was going to live."
Johnson spent three weeks in a coma in a Kalispell, Mont., hospital. He spent six weeks at a hospital in Oregon and three months at a hospital in California. His brain swelled larger than a grapefruit and X-rays revealed pocks of blood clots.
Family members say Johnson, 44, never fully recovered from his brain injuries. They point to the ski accident when asked about Johnson's recent legal issues, which include a Feb. 11 arrest where he allegedly taunted a deputy with his gold medal and punched and kicked a deputy until subdued with Tasers. His mother calls the incident a "misunderstanding" and says "we don't think too much is going to come from it."
The family set up a fund to pay for medical bills when the insurance ran out. An organization the family had never heard of — the Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund — contributed. Help and hope, it signified, and not necessarily in that order.
Former Olympians call it the "post-Olympic blues." CrisMarie Campbell knew the feeling before the closing ceremony ended in 1988. She stood there, her Olympic-rowing career concluding at that moment, and thought back to the opening ceremony a couple weeks earlier and the high she still describes as "phenomenal."
"Now what?" the Washington graduate asked herself.
Campbell earned her master's in business administration, became a Boeing engineer and started her own consulting business. Other Olympians aren't as business savvy or as fortunate, and because the Olympics have always held true to the amateur spirit, there are no pension plans like in professional sports, no annuities and little money for most of those competing.
Opportunities for Olympians are different now than when Kristi Norelius won rowing gold in 1984 while subsisting off of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. There are more sponsors to pay for equipment, more youth programs for elite athletes and more money to go around.
The United States Olympic Committee also has programs, like Operation Gold Medal, that reward a small percentage of the top performers money for medals won, including $25,000 for each gold. But for every Olympic moneymaking machine like a Michael Phelps or a Michelle Kwan, there are hundreds of others, even thousands, for whom the Olympic experience is a non-profit one.
Meanwhile, Olympians from 10 and 20 years ago are hitting middle age replete with all the health problems that come with it. They are moving into a new stage of life, into jobs and families and what college students call "the real world," but do so behind the curve, having sacrificed, some for more than a decade, for their place in Olympic history.
"Some people, when they're done, they're just adrift," says John Stillings, a silver medalist in rowing in 1984 and the president of OORF's Washington chapter. "We had an Olympian down in California in the last couple years who died under a freeway ramp. I wish we could have helped him."
The USOC's charter states that its mission is to fund the next Olympic team and not the previous one. So what happens when cancer wracks the bodies of former Olympians, when they drown in alcohol consumption, when their bank accounts shrivel up and there's nowhere else to turn?
That's where OORF comes in, bolstered by the Olympic spirit and buoyed by the longtime slogan "once an Olympian, always an Olympian." The fund has grown steadily since its creation in 1999 and now holds $50,000, limiting grants to $1,000 worth of hope-based help. The fund has helped about 25 people so far. And still...
"It's not even a Band-Aid," says Caroline Holmes, past Washington OORF president and current treasurer. "In some cases, it just gives them hope."
Separate from the USOC and branched from the U.S. Olympic Alumni Association, Olympians procure money — through speaking engagements, honorariums, donations and the like — for former Olympians so as not to tread on the USOC's vast marketing turf. Campbell and Norelius both contribute portions of their speaking honorariums to the fund.
But Bob Rock, the national president of the fund, sees a brighter future. He sees a $10 million account that can be invested and grown and utilized more for help than hope. He sees a full-time staff person, rather than the current crop of volunteers.
"We're at our infancy," Rock says, "just learning how to walk, figuring out what our boundaries are. There's a lot of confusion among Olympians as to who we really are. And it's our fault because we haven't really communicated well."
Olympic lifestyle saves
Brown from death
Reynaldo Brown, 54, lived his whole life like an Olympian. He never smoked and never drank and continued to work out the same as when he high jumped in the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games. Then came the day last November when he couldn't breathe.
Carol Brown rushed her husband from their Rialto, Calif., home to the nearest emergency room. He spent 13 days in intensive care, tubes twisting into a maze from nose to elbow. His medical chart read something like this: suffered heart attack, suffering from heart failure, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
"It's scary to the point where I felt helpless," says Carol Brown. "I'm looking at him with all these tubes, and I'm concerned about his health. But I was also concerned about how we were going to pay."
Doctors told Brown his Olympic lifestyle kept him alive. Now, he will tell anyone who will listen that the Olympic family — including OORF, which paid a note on the family's Chevy Suburban — gave him the necessary hope.
"So far, that's how we kept afloat," Carol Brown says. "With the rest of the Olympians. With the Olympic spirit."
The seeds for OORF were planted in the early 1990s, after four-time Olympic hammer thrower Harold Connolly approached the U.S. Olympic Alumni Association with a story. He talked about a friend of his, a former Olympian who lived in a teammate's basement, who used an outhouse as a bathroom and lacked the money necessary for his diabetic medication.
There were 30 people in the room, and by the time the hat made it around, there was $600 in it.
"It did not solve the problem, but everybody felt so good at the degree of sympathy," says John Naber, then the organization's president. "The point was to show solidarity through some gesture of goodwill. It was never thought that the fund would solve the problems or eliminate the needs that athletes have. It's almost like a nice get-well card."
There were more stories out there, though, more stories than anybody thought. Most came from the late Willie Davenport, a five-time Olympian in track and field and the bobsled. He talked about homeless Olympians, Olympians with alcohol problems, Olympians who didn't have a home in which to house their gold medals and Olympians who were buried in pauper's graves.
And so OORF was born. The only remaining obstacle was the USOC. It was concerned that OORF would raise funds directly through Olympic sponsors, impeding on its responsibility to the next Olympic team. When OORF agreed to only raise money through Olympians, the USOC reluctantly came on board, putting up the seed capital to pay for OORF's charter documents.
Six years later, OORF's staff is still filled with volunteers. Due to lack of time, lack of money, lack of visibility and lack of communication, the fund has grown slower than anticipated.
Rock says the fund will grow into the millions. Naber isn't sure, and if it does, he says that might raise a conflict with the USOC.
"I don't ever see the fund solving all the problems of Olympic alumni," Naber says. "I do see the fund as a clear and obvious effort on behalf of Olympic athletes to show sympathy and empathy toward their comrades."
"I wouldn't bet on that," Rock says. "When this grows, we can really, really help."
Woodruff feels like an Olympian again
In 1936, in front of Adolph Hitler, John Woodruff found himself boxed in during the middle of the 800-meter final. He literally stopped right there, let his opponents race ahead, moved outside to the third lane and overtook them all. He won gold.
Decades later, while living in Fountain Hills, Ariz., those same legs failed him. Doctors called it poor circulation. They told Woodruff they would amputate one leg and likely take the other later.
"If you're going to take both my legs, might as well do it now," Woodruff told them, just as tough as ever.
These days, Woodruff, 89, needs a specialized van in order for his wife, Carol, to transport him. OORF helped purchase it.
"I feel like an Olympian again," Woodruff says. "The support, the feeling, it's there."
Their stories weave together in a tale of help and hope.
Help from Olympic alumni like Stillings, who put on a Sports Illustrated for Kids camp recently and will participate in the Leukemia Lymphoma Society of Washington "Light the Night Walk," contributing money from both appearances to the fund. Help from Norelius, this year's commencement speaker at Bellevue High School, who will donate an honorarium from that speech into the fund. Help from and for local Olympians giving back.
And hope for every Olympian like Reynaldo Brown, like Bill Johnson, like John Woodruff. Hope for "Bullet" Bob Hayes, the only man to win both a gold medal and a Super Bowl, who needed a grant for cancer medication before he passed away in 2002. Hope for a 1996 Olympian who needed a grant for chemotherapy. Hope for the Olympic boxers in Tacoma who needed some free dental work.
OORF will move slowly here, so as not to anger or impede the USOC, so as not to grow so fast that people take advantage of the fund. But they will do so with a purpose. To help and to hope, and for now, that's enough.
"It's very challenging for an Olympian to ask for help," Rock says. "At the end of the day, some of them have some terrible problems, and they don't have anywhere else to turn to. It's my belief that we can help them. It's my belief that we can help them all."
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org