Olympic gold medalist Carmelita Jeter talks with a local YMCA.
TORRANCE, Calif. -- When Carmelita Jeter was a teenager, she wanted to be an Olympian. Specifically, she wanted to play on the U.S. women’s basketball team.
“I wanted to be the next Sheryl Swoopes,” she told a group of school children and their parents at the Torrance-South Bay YMCA, near her hometown and where she went to college, Friday as part of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow project.
Jeter indeed became an Olympian, but it wasn’t in basketball. This summer, the Los Angeles native made her Olympic debut in London by winning a gold medal in the 4 x 100 relay (in world-record time), a silver medal in the 100-meter dash and a bronze medal in the 200 meters.
Getting to that Olympic stage was a trying journey of persistence for Jeter, and one that Isaac Gardner, the Healthy Lifestyles Director at the YMCA, said resonated with the kids at the YMCA.
Athletes representing the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, including Jeter, have been participating in similar Team for Tomorrow programs as a way to give back to local communities and to people in need throughout the world.
“The whole purpose of my coming out is to make sure they know it doesn’t matter where you come from, what neighborhood you come from, if you have to go to a YMCA where other people are watching you and motivating you and pushing, that you’re not different from the next person. I want everybody to know that you can start anywhere … it doesn’t matter where you start as long as you finish somewhere.”
Jeter knows that firsthand. After running track at Div. II Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, she fell short of making the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team. In 2007, she earned a bronze medal at the World Championships but again fell short of making the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.
One of the kids at the YMCA asked her if she ever felt like quitting.
“In 2004, I wanted to give up because I didn’t make the team,” the 32-year-old Jeter said. “I kept having reoccurring hamstring injuries. I just didn’t think I was going to be good enough to be on that great stage. My coach said, ‘You don’t even know what you’re dealing with. You have so much potential. You need to keep pushing yourself.’”
Her coach asked her to train one more time for the Olympic team. This time it paid off.
In 2009, Jeter ran a time in the 100-meter dash — 10.64 — that only Florence Griffith-Joyner had surpassed. She won the world championship in the 100 and 4x100 relay in 2011. And finally, in her third attempt to make the U.S. Olympic Team, she found success in 2012.
“That next shot I did, I did absolutely amazing,” said Jeter, who plans on training, and hopefully returning to, the next Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. “I put my heart and soul into that next shot and I was able to get on that professional level. That’s what pushed me. I knew I only had one shot. One shot to get it done, one shot to make it happen. If I did not make it happen, I was going to have to get a B plan.”
Initially, running was actually her “B plan.” Jeter played basketball into her freshman year of high school (her brother, Eugene, even played for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings in 2010-11). But when Jeter’s high school basketball coach suggested she run track to stay in shape for the basketball season, Jeter’s focus switched away from hoops.
The real turning point, she said, was when she put on her first pair of running shoes.
Jeter’s dad picked her up from track practice one day, and she was wearing her basketball shoes and shorts. Her dad took her shopping for some proper track attire: shoes, spikes, shorts, bags. Not only did she finally feel like a track star, but also she looked like one.
“It made a big difference for me,” Jeter said. “I felt more like I was a part of the team. I felt more like I was the track star instead of the basketball star. Getting the track t-shirt, it helped a lot. It helped me feel like I belonged. I wasn’t just a girl who was just out there. I felt like I’m a part of the track team now because I have what all the other girls on the track team have now. I felt more legit.”
Through high school and college, Jeter trained to be the best track athlete. But at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she said nerves started taking over before one of her races. She called her dad from the Olympic Village for some words of comfort and encouragement.
“Both of my parents are a great influence,” Jeter said. “They’re extremely supportive. I can come in last and my mom’s like, ‘Oh, that was great!’
“My dad’s just been very supportive throughout my career, and I talk to him before and after races,” she added. “He’s given me his two cents. Before the race, he’s telling me you know what you gotta do. Sometimes it just feels good, even though I am older. It just feels good to have your parents support you, to have your parents still tell you good luck. Sometimes I call just to hear that.”
Jeter said she hopes her visit to the YMCA gave the kids something to think about.
“I don’t know exactly the difference that I make for kids, but I hope I do make a difference,” Jeter said.
From the YMCA’s perspective, just her presence helped make a difference.
“It’s really exciting to have someone the stature of Carmelita Jeter, local, come out and just present to these kids and talk about living healthy, which the Y is all about,” said the YMCA’s Gardner.
Jeter said that she likes to remind people that things don’t always work out as planned. Sometimes there are detours, and at times lofty goals are not achieved. But it’s no reason to give up.
“I hope that they know that I changed sports, that I pushed myself, that at one point I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Jeter said. “I wanted to give up. It doesn’t always end in glitter and gold. Sometimes you have to push yourself a little harder to get that extra level. It’s not just going to fall in your hand. You’re going to have to work for it.
“The thing I try to stress is one, education, because if it doesn’t work, then what? What are you going to do? I don’t want kids to think that athletics is the only way to be successful. You can be successful graduating from college and getting a great job, having a great career.”