In Search of a Two-Peat: Athens Gold Medalists Discuss What it’s Like to Defend
No country was more successful at the 2004 Athens Olympics than the United States. It won 36 events.
First-time champions included the swimmer Natalie Coughlin (who earned two golds), Mariel Zagunis (who captured the first US fencing gold in 100 years), softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza (who extended the US team's perfect gold-medal streak), and pole vaulter Tim Mack.
Coughlin went in as a star. Zagunis came out as one. Mendoza continued a legacy on a team. Mack prevailed alone. All of them will try to defend their titles in Beijing. It is a daunting task. Win again and you meet public expectation. Lose and everyone asks what's wrong.
Teamusa.org asked them independently to discuss how a gold medal affects their Olympic preparation and how it changes the mental equation.
WHAT IS THE PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE OF YOUR 2004 GOLD?
MARIEL ZAGUNIS (individual sabre): "It was a huge deal because it was a lifetime goal, but I don't feel any different because I knew I had the potential to win. Before women's sabre was added to the Olympics, I won the 2001 Junior World Championships, the Cadet World Championships and Junior Team World Championships. No one had ever won them all in one year. Since Athens, I've met people who don't know what to say when they find out I won a gold medal because they're in shock and awe. To me, it means I got to reach my goal."
JESSICA MENDOZA (softball): "Sure, you win and it's the ultimate. But for me and my team, that's our only option. We won gold at every Olympics. I was new in 2004 but instead of pressure, it was more: realizing this was the right fit for me. Shooting high is the only way I've lived my life - whether it was picking a school that I thought would be the toughest, Stanford, or choosing classes that were the most challenging."
NATALIE COUGHLIN (100m backstroke, 4x200m relay): "In swimming, you're validated by gold medals."
WHY TRY TO DEFEND, KNOWING HOW HARD IT IS TO WIN THE FIRST TIME?
MENDOZA (softball): "Gold is so short-lived. I remember the euphoria of winning and I remember thinking, ‘I want to feel this every day.' But as soon as we stepped off the plane from Athens, our coach said, ‘OK, now we've got work to do.' I had the same mentality as our coach because I want to do this as many times as I can because this is amazing. Honestly, I've never been on such a high."
TIM MACK (pole vault): "To win once is a big enough achievement. To win again, I'm in uncharted territory. It's only been done once, by Bob Richards [1952, 1956] so I don't think anyone can even fathom what it's like to win it twice. It teases you. I can't think about it. Once you start thinking about the end result you lose sight of the process and you're dead in the water."
IS WINNING AT ANOTHER OLYMPICS MORE IMPORTANT OR LESS IMPORTANT TO YOU NOW THAT YOU'VE ALREADY DONE IT? AND HOW DOES TRYING TO REPEAT AFFECT YOUR PREPARATION?
MACK (pole vault): "A second gold doesn't mean any more or any less than when I was trying to do it the first time. Sometimes it's more difficult because I know how the year  went. You try to duplicate it. If something's not the same, you second guess yourself and all of a sudden, there's negativity. I no-heighted in my first meet of 2008, but then I remembered, I no-heighted in my last meet before the 2004 Trials."
ZAGUNIS (sabre): "I can totally relate. I tried to do that, especially in the beginning. Why wouldn't you want everything to be the same? Especially high level athletes; we're kind of OCD [obsessive compulsive]. But I can't compare the two because fencing has changed a lot. They changed the timing rule. They cut in half how quickly you can hit back, and now a machine makes the call if you hit each other at the same time. Personally, a lot has changed, too. I went from being 100% focused on fencing to trying to pass college courses at Notre Dame at the same time. Also, people want to beat me so bad, more than before - just because of my result in Athens. People will fence me with everything they have. You have to be really tough to keep a strong mind. I hope it raises my focus because people are gunning for me."
COUGHLIN (swimming): "I try not to get superstitious and compare previous meets. Mentally, I can't handle that. I'm getting lifetime bests in mid-season meets and that's never happened to me before. It gives me lots of confidence. I'm nervous, but not nearly as nervous as I was last time. I have an idea what to expect."
MENDOZA (softball): "Gold is our only goal for the Olympics. This is our last shot. [The International Olympic Committee ruled to discontinue softball after Beijing.] There will always be things you can't control, but I want to make sure we do everything possible now so that it's less up to the powers that be in Beijing."
HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE POSSIBILITY OF LOSING?
MENDOZA (softball): "I don't let my mind go there. We're expected to win every time. Over the last four years, we've lost to Japan a few times and a college team. People freak out. The phones start ringing. I'm kind of glad sometimes when we have setbacks now; it shows we're human. I hate when people say we're so dominant and perfect, because it's so far from who we are."
MACK (pole vault): "Gold in Athens was my e-mail address for four years. I probably told a hundred or a thousand people and felt stupid doing it, but you have to implant it every day. Now it's Gold in 08 and people are like, ‘Oh, he's going with the email.' But it worked once. Everywhere I can get energy or thoughts and repetition is crucial."
COUGHLIN (swimming): "These Olympics are about what I want to accomplish, not what others feel I should accomplish. I feel I don't need to prove myself anymore to the public."
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.