Sports figures recall favorite Olympic moments

When gymnast Kerri Strug vaulted into the air and landed a near-perfect dismount on a sprained ankle in Atlanta we championed her bravery. When diver Greg Louganis rallied to win gold after hitting his head on the diving board in Seoul, Korea, we marveled over his resilience. When Derek Redmond’s father helped the injured sprinter across the finish line in Barcelona, Spain, we shed tears for his shattered dream.

As sports spectators, we remember these and other moments from past Summer Olympics and cherry-pick a few as our "favorites." But, for sports figures in town, the memories they give the gold treatment have personal significance.

UFC Hall of Fame fighter Randy Couture almost never saw his favorite Olympic moment. He and the rest of the world were so certain it wouldn’t happen that he didn’t even bother watching it in real-time.

Couture was walking through swarms of fans outside a wrestling venue in Sydney, Australia, when the news meandered through the crowd to his disbelieving ears. American wrestler Rulon Gardner ended Russian Alexander Karelin’s 13-year undefeated streak to win gold in the heavyweight division of Greco-Roman wrestling.

"I thought there was no way they would ever let Rulon win that match," says Couture, referring to the politics of the sport. "The American kid did it. I was shocked."

And that was just over hearing the news. He felt the shock all over again when he watched one of his sport’s most glorious moments play out on a TV at his hotel. As a wrestler who was an alternate in several Olympic games, Couture was proud of Gardner and proud of wrestling. And, when he sees athletes on the podium with the national anthem playing in the background, he can’t help but feel proud of his country.

"No matter what sport it is," he says, "it still gets me."

The exact details of University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball player Mike Moser’s standout Olympic memory aren’t so clear. But, the dunk will stay with him forever.

"When Vince Carter jumped over the 7-foot-2 guy from Croatia, I think it was, that’s by far a highlight I’ll never forget," he says of the 2000 Olympic Games.

It wasn’t Croatia. It was France and the 7-footer was Frederic Weis. But none of that was important to the then 9-year-old Moser, who watched the game with his family at home. He was already a fan of the Toronto Raptor. But to see Carter, the youngest Team USA player, leapfrog Weis to find the basket made him "an even bigger fan."

Lori Harrigan-Mack went to three consecutive Summer Games as Team USA’s softball pitcher. Her favorite Olympic moment was actually a series of moments.

During the 2000 Games in Sydney, she and her teammates formed a camaraderie with the USA baseball team while staying in the Olympic Village. She watched current Atlanta Braves pitcher Ben Sheets pitch a shutout game against Cuba to earn his team the gold. When her own team faced medal contention, Team USA baseball manager and baseball icon Tommy Lasorda stepped in.

"He gave us one of those Lasorda talks and whipped our butts back into shape," she recalls.

Her team beat the host country Australia in the playoffs and defeated Japan in the finals, which earned Harrigan-Mack the second of her three gold medals.

Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson lived in Atlanta in 1996. He gets chills just discussing his favorite Olympic moment, which didn’t take place in a gym, pool or on a running track.

He couldn’t get tickets to the opening ceremonies, so he did the next best thing and headed to Centennial Park where giant screens televised the event. There he stood among "a mass of humanity" as cameras turned to the surprise torch-lighter, Muhammad Ali.

"There were two seconds of silence. People were stunned. It was the best-kept secret," says Johnson. "And then the crowd exploded."

Watching the gold medal boxer hold the torch with a shaky Parkinson’s grip tugged at viewers’ heartstrings worldwide. Johnson remembers it as "one of the most wonderful moments to be a part of."

Sometimes the real significance of an Olympic win isn’t realized until later. Hall of Fame boxing referee Joe Cortez has to go back to 1976 for the time he values most from past Summer Games.

He was at home with friends in New York when his hometown hero, Sugar Ray Leonard, achieved the pinnacle of his amateur career in Montreal and brought home the boxing gold.

The next year, 1977, Cortez went pro as a referee and watched Leonard become a boxing legend over the years. He refereed the fighter’s final professional fight, and when Cortez entered the Hall of Fame, Leonard came to show his support.

"Just watching him participate in the Olympics," he says, "and knowing he turned out to be one of the great ones. That’s special."

Contact fashion reporter Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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