We all have Olympic heroes -- or most of us do. From young skiers who wear look-alike Lindsey Vonn speedsuits to swimmers who line up to have their t-shirts signed by Ryan Lochte, we have (or had) idols who inspired us to get off the couch and dive into the pool. Or stay outside on the coldest winter days.
Yet it’s somehow strange to think that the athletes who inspire us were once inspired by Olympians themselves.
At the 2012 Team USA Media Summit, TeamUSA.org asked several Olympians and Olympic hopefuls who inspired them when they first dove into a pool, stepped onto a track, or performed a cartwheel.
When she was a young swimmer, Natalie Coughlin, who has earned an Olympic medal in every event she has entered in two Olympics (11 total), looked up to Jenny Thompson, Janet Evans, and Summer Sanders.
Thompson won 12 Olympic medals (8 of them gold) from 1992 through the 2004 Olympics. Evans won five Olympic medals (4 gold) and competed in three Olympics. And Sanders claimed four medals (2 gold) at the 1992 Olympics.
“When I was about 11 years old and Summer Sanders was at the Santa Clara Grand Prix, my mom forced me to get her autograph because I was too cool,” said Coughlin, 29, who keeps her 11 Olympic medals in a make-up case.
Her mom took a picture, and Coughlin still has the photo -- which has gained meaning now that Sanders is a friend. In the future, Coughlin hopes someone’s mom will take a photo of her next to an aspiring young swimmer who will grow up to win Olympic medals too.
Sprinter Allyson Felix did not find her Olympic idol until her teens. The three-time Olympic medalist didn’t discover her gift until ninth grade, when she tried out for her high school’s track team. Four years later, Felix won the 200 at the 2003 US Indoor Track & Field Championships. The following year, at age 18, she won a silver medal in the 200 at the 2004 Olympic Games.
Back then, she looked up to Marion Jones. The disgraced sprinter “was everywhere when I got in,” said Felix, “so that was a disappointment.”
Felix, 26, soon found a mentor in Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a hepathlete and long jumper who won six medals (including three gold) in four separate Olympic Games, from 1984 to 1996. Joyner-Kersee is married to Felix’s coach, Bob Kersee.
Felix calls Joyner-Kersee her “go-to person” for most questions. Last summer, before the 2011 World Championships, Joyner-Kersee called Felix and asked how she was doing in her decision to compete in either the 200 or 400. Or both -- a tough double.
“She didn’t tell me what to do one way or another, but she told me do what’s going to make you happy and do what’s in your heart,” said Felix. “She’s always texting me. When you least expect it, she’s giving you a word of encouragement. She’s great like that.”
At 2011 Worlds, Felix ended up competing in both the 400 and 200, taking silver and bronze, respectively.
Joyner-Kersee doesn’t just text Felix. She’s also inspiring and encouraging two-time world long jump champion Brittney Reese.
Before the 2012 World Indoor Championships in March, Joyner-Kersee told Reese, 25, that she could break the American indoor long jump record.
The indoor record was 7.21 meters set in 1994. It was held by Joyner-Kersee.
Reese leapt to 7.23 meters.
“The first person I see on my phone is a message from (Jackie) saying congrats, Miss American Record Holder,” said Reese. “It put a big smile on my face to see how supportive she is.”
Reigning all-around world champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber, 16, is inspired by “any of the girls who won the all-around [Olympic gold medal], Carly Patterson, Nastia, … ”
And Mary Lou Retton whom Wieber says is often a spectator at competitions.
“You can hear her from the crowd,” said Wieber of the 1984 Olympic gold medalist. “It’s amazing to know that a past Olympian is out there watching you. It’s really inspiring.”
With Nastia Liukin training for the 2012 Olympic team, how does it work when Wieber’s idol is competing with and against her?
With a “we’re-all-in-this-together” attitude, Liukin tries to advise the younger gymnasts when they are at national team camps.
“I feel like I was them four years ago and in that same place, so I know what they’re going through,” said Liukin.
“Even when we’re back in the room relaxing, she tells us stories about the Olympics, kind of what to expect,” Wieber added. “It’s really nice to hear that kind of stuff.”
As for Liukin, who has grown an inch since she won five Olympic medals in 2008, she was able to train with her idol, Carly Patterson, in the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics.
“Being able to train right beside her and know exactly what it took to win an Olympic all-around gold medal was nothing but amazing,” said Liukin, now 23. “I knew exactly the things that she went through before the Olympics and how her life changed after.”
Now Liukin hopes to show the younger gymnasts that their careers don’t have to end when they are 16 years old.
“As long as you have a passion for the sport and if your body can take that pounding and grueling training on a daily basis, then why should you give it up?” she said. “If you love what you do, then you should do it as long as you can.”
Peggy Shinn 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.