Back in 1996, when it turned out that the late Muhammad Ali was to light the fuse to activate the cauldron at the Atlanta Olympics, a few folks had a problem with Ali as the choice. Certainly Joe Frazier did, as did some other people, because of what they perceived to be derogatory comments from Ali about this country, and I'm sure a few old-style right-wingers from Orange County, California objected to allowing Ali to light the flame. But most people were happy with the selection of Ali. As it turned out, actually, there was a small controversy about the choice of who passed the torch to him, a sports figure from, ironically, Orange County, California. Just as ironically, her experience with Ali helped her get through it.
American swimmer Janet Evans, who was about to compete in her third and final Olympiad, was selected to do the honors to pass the torch to the Greatest despite the fact that swimmers never attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics due to swimming competition starting the next day. She later remembered how the significance of the honor had a huge impact on her.
"I think we all have our Muhammad Ali moments, moments that he inspired us, moments that he changed our lives, moments that he inspired us to be better than what we already are," she said in 2015. "[A]fter standing there with that man and watching him, I realized that as an Olympian, as an Olympic champion, a mantle we carry is to inspire and motivate others. And no one has ever done that greater than Muhammad Ali." She added that that Ali inspired her and others "to do and be the very best that they can be as well."
Little did she know that night that some of Ali's biggest lessons would come in handy for her in a flash. See, at the time, Evans was at the same peak in American swimming that Michael Phelps is at today. She was the most celebrated American athlete in aquatic sports and had a reputation for having an ebullient, sunny disposition. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone loved her.
Then the roof caved in. In the 400-meter women's freestyle race at the 1996 Games, Evans was eliminated from the final by a fraction of a second, and the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith went on to win it. You remember her; she was the swimmer who had been accused of steroid use, because she had dropped so much time from her personal best in the 400-meter freestyle race. Well, it was Evans who brought the accusations to the fore, telling the media that the question of Smith's alleged steroids use was being asked around the pool. Although Evans herself wasn't accusing her of steroid use and had no intention of doing so, it was reported otherwise. Almost immediately, the press called Evans a bad sport, a sore loser, and, as sportswriter Don Burke of the New Jersey Star-Ledger called her, "a whiny, self-righteous brat." The backlash was swift; sports fans called the choice of Evans to pass the torch to Ali at the Olympic opening ceremony an insult to Ali and an embarrassment for the country, going on about how it was offensive that such a sore loser could pass the torch to a wonderful, generous, selfless man like Ali, who brought Parkinson's disease upon himself for absorbing too many head blows in the ring and never complained once about it, and that the Olympic organizers should have known her true character behind the all-American girl-next-door image she projected. And all for a derogatory comment about another athlete that she didn't actually make. (In fact, the whole United States Swimming Federation was making the steroid charge against Smith, but Evans had nothing to do with it.)
Thus, Evans had to learn what Muhammad Ali had already known; the same people that build you up will inevitably tear you down, and you have to be strong enough to take their abuse if you know that they have you all wrong. And the U.S. sports media, especially the real-life Oscar Madisons among the East Coast sportswriters who were all too happy to go after a West Coast icon like Evans - who looked and acted like she had stepped out of a Beach Boys song - were merciless. They even had me believing the worst about her. But Evans kept her cool and didn't let it get to her, just as Ali had done in the sixties when the press turned against him - and for the same reason, something said and then taken the wrong way. Evans also learned something else Ali always preached; you not only keep fighting, you suffer now so you can be on top later.
As it turned out, Evans couldn't have had a worse week than the first week of the 1996 Olympics. She went on to lose the 800-meter women's freestyle swim race (though she made the final), she'd injured her toe while training for the race, and she witnessed the Centennial Olympic Park bombing while at her own retirement party from the window of a building overlooking the park, which was the straw that broke the camel's back; she got visibly and verbally upset and threatened to go home to California rather than stay in Atlanta for the duration of the Olympics like she'd planned. She did stay. Ali did, too.
In that punishing experience, Evans learned another lesson from Ali: Don't let anyone else define who you are. She couldn't always be the bubbly California girl everyone wanted her to be, and the setbacks she endured in Atlanta allowed her to transcend her image and become her own woman. The media's misrepresentations of her comments about Michelle Smith (who aced her drug tests in Atlanta, though she failed a drug test two years later) were found out soon enough; Evans emerged unscathed, and she has had a successful post-Olympic career as a motivational speaker and as a sports commentator for Yahoo. And in that, she learned the most important lesson that Ali could have bestowed on her or anyone else; she learned to love herself.
And I love her too. :-)
And you can bet I wrote an extraordinarily angry letter to Don Burke for his bum-rap hatchet job against her.