SAN JOSE – 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson put it best on Saturday night inside SAP Center: “It’s like a family reunion, an extended family reunion. There’s not many of us, and I didn’t realize that until we were on stage.”
USA Gymnastics gathered over 140 former Olympic athletes for a first-ever Parade of Olympians, a celebration of the gymnasts that have become household names every four years in decades past.
“It’s once in our lifetime that we’re going to get all of the living Olympians together in one spot,” said Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 Olympic all-around champion. “You sit down for one second and look around and you spot heroes of your own and people that you inspired; It’s phenomenal. We are having a blast.”
It was a blast of an evening that featured a program of musical stars, headlined by former American Idol contestants Scotty McCreery, Katharine McPhee and La’Porsha Renae.
Thousands of fans packed into SAP Center for the celebration, held between the first and second nights of the U.S. Olympic Trials for the women’s team, which will be decided and announced Sunday.
Host John Macready began the night with a march of Olympians from the 1950s and 60s, including three-time participant Jack Beckner, who competed for the U.S. in 1952, 1956 and 1960 and was the men’s coach in 1968.
“This is a chance for all of us to come back and see each other,” Beckner said. “This is fantastic. It’s the first time they’ve done it and I hope they do it again.”
It was also the first time that the 1980 women’s Olympic team – which did not compete because of the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games – has gotten together in 36 years. The reunion – needless to say – was a moving gathering.
“I don’t think there are even words that describe the emotions,” said a tearful Kathy Johnson Clarke, who was on the silver medal-winning team in 1984 having not been allowed to compete in ’80. “Since the day of the Olympic Trials in 1980, this is the first time we’ve all been in the same place at the same time. We’re feeling it a lot.”
It was an emotional reunion for the Magnificent Seven, as well, the 1996 team that won the U.S. its first-ever team gold in women’s gymnastics.
“People knew our story coming in, and the Games were in the U.S.,” recalled Shannon Miller. “The iconic way we won, with Kerri (Strug’s) dramatic vault, people know exactly what they were doing and where they were at in that moment.”
The Olympians were announced one by one as they came onto the stage at SAP Center, roars erupting from the crowd for names like Retton, Dominique Dawes, Blaine Wilson and Nastia Liukin. The gold medal-winning teams and individuals were brought back up at the end, the Star-Spangled Banner playing as a tribute.
The age range of Olympians means that while some have grandchildren and families of their own, others are just figuring out what they want in the “real world.”
“We’re still in the transition phase of our lives,” said 2008 Olympian Sam Peszek. “So it’s exciting to see who from our team is doing what and what’s going on in their lives. I’m excited to do this in five or ten years to reconvene and see how it’s all changed.”
Peszek and other Olympians mentioned that their heroes from growing up were on stage on this night, generations literally crossing paths in the celebration.
“I got pictures with my childhood heroes, which is crazy,” said Raj Bhavsar, also a member of the ’08 team. “It’s super special to see all of them. I remember being a little kid and visiting some of their gyms and watching them train and telling myself, ‘I can do that, too.'”
“It’s been fantastic,” said Retton, explaining that her 1984 team was back together. “We’ve been reminiscing over the little things that happened.”
Retton recalled the U.S. team being shown their iconic American flag-inspired leotards for the ’84 Los Angeles Games and the members being furious about them.
“We were appalled!” She laughed. “We said, ‘We can’t wear the flag as our leotard!’ And now we all laugh about it because it was the best thing that could have happened for us.”
The stories passed among the Olympians were no doubt countless on this night, like one big family gathered to celebrate one another, with a few million Americans in awe of what they’ve accomplished.
“We truly are a family,” Johnson said. “We can all relate to each other. We were all backstage goofing off and having fun together. It’s a fun family to be a part of.”
And a pretty successful one, too.