Three gold medalists took the stage at Ross Business School on Tuesday evening to pass on their stories as part of the US Olympic and Paralympic organization’s partnership with Deloitte.
Students filled the Blau Auditorium to hear swimmers Mallory Weggemann and Cullen Jones and soccer player Abby Wambach talk about their paths to Olympic glory — with a little humor sprinkled in.
Weggemann, a paraplegic gold-medal-winning swimmer, spoke about overcoming the heavy odds against a person without use of their legs. As an 18-year-old, she went to the hospital for an epidural for back pain and didn’t come out until she no longer had use of her legs.
Still, she had a passion for swimming and refused to be part of the statistics that depict paraplegics who can’t lead fulfilling lives.
“For me, if someone’s going to doubt me I have to go out and say, ‘You know what? You’re wrong. I can still do that,’ ” Weggemann said. “We’re always going to have doubters. No matter what our goals are, how high we make them, someone will doubt your ability. I’ve found that I just have to believe in me and know that I can still do it.”
She beseeched the audience to never settle for good enough, not be satisfied and to keep pushing personal boundaries.
Jones added more humor to his presentation — it included a number of playful digs at Michael Phelps, a story of LeBron James being surprised that the US swimming team “had a brother,” and the irony of almost drowning at a water park when he was five.
“Swimming was not something that was up my alley,” Jones said. “My dad wanted me to be a basketball player. People get really upset when I say to them that I’m not a basketball player. They come and say, ‘You’re a basketball player?’ ‘No, I’m a swimmer!’ ”
Jones told the story of barely making the 4×100-meter relay team that went on to set a world record at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. He told of his first swim meet, how he felt a strong feeling of togetherness and camaraderie when he wasn’t the only one on his team wearing a Speedo. He told stories about getting the purple and pink ribbons for coming in 6th and 7th place in youth races.
He mentioned that he wasn’t a child prodigy like Phelps was. But he has his own story of success.
“You have a goal, you have to figure out how to get there and once you get it, here comes another goal,” Jones said. “Growing up as a kid, I never would have thought that I could make the Olympics. But because I made goals, I set my goals, and I made my goals, I was able to succeed in the Olympics. Don’t be the person that says, ‘I want to do this’ but never figures out how to do it.”
Unlike the other two, Wambach knew she wasn’t an underdog. She had been a star athlete as a kid, played soccer at Florida and was drafted into the WUSA by the Washington Freedom to play alongside Mia Hamm.
She won a gold medal with the US Women’s National Team in 2004 in Athens, but missed out on the 2008 gold medal when she broke her leg just days before the Beijing games began.
Still, she said nothing was like this summer’s World Cup when America tuned in to see the US team overcome a 2-1 deficit against Brazil in the quarterfinals. In one of the most riveting games in history, Wambach headed in a goal to tie the game in the final seconds before the US team sealed the game in penalty kicks.
“What was so special about that for me, and why this whole experience for me really fits, is because we didn’t win (the whole tournament),” Wambach said. “I did pull into Times Square and there were thousands of people proud of us still. I couldn’t believe it. Americans are so consumed with just winning, but I think that what we did kind of broke barriers the way in which we performed and the way in which we represented this country was something to be proud of.”