Carly Patterson established herself as pioneer for U.S. women’s gymnastics when she won all-around gold at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the first American woman to do so since Mary Lou Retton 20 years prior. Since those Games, the U.S. has continued to win every women’s all-around gold medal at the Games thanks to Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas, and Patterson believes that trend will continue in Rio in two years.
“I would not be surprised at all if we won the all-around again in Rio since we’re on this three-for-three roll, so why not a fourth,” she said. “We have to keep our gold medal club growing!”
No matter how many more women join the exclusive club, Patterson will always be proud of leading the way for future members.
“I was thinking that it would be pretty cool to jump start gymnastics in America again and get people excited about it,” Patterson said of her feat. “I’m really proud of winning because it was one of those things where it could kind of bring resurgence back to gymnastics and show people that it was possible to win. If this happened for me, it can happen for you, too.”
Ten years after becoming an international superstar at barely 16 years old, Patterson describes her life as “very normal.”
She and her husband of almost two years, Mark Caldwell, reside in north Texas where they enjoy being homebodies. Patterson says she grows vegetables in her garden and, at least according to photos on her social media feeds, has become quite the chef.
“I love, love, love to cook,” she said. “I definitely hope to, at some point, get to go on the Food Network and cook with Giada De Laurentiis or Trisha Yearwood.”
|Carly Patterson poses for a photo at her wedding to Mark Caldwell in November 2012.|
Earlier this month, Patterson took her last exam and completed her college degree in general studies with a minor in communications from Texas Women’s University. The entire process took eight years, due in part to a five-year singing career that resulted in an album and a spot on a competition TV show.
“I want to be able to tell my kids that mom got an Olympic gold medal and a college degree,” Patterson said on sticking with school, despite the demands brought on an Olympic gold medalist. “It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and I’m just so excited to be done and have that accomplishment to add as well.”
Now Patterson is focused on sharing her story with others through motivational speaking. It is a story she remembers every detail of, despite the decade that has passed.
“Ten years seems like it has gone so incredibly fast, but that whole season from January 2004 to August when we’re leaving for the Olympics just seems like forever,” she said.
But once it came time for her big Olympic moment — Aug. 19, 2004 — she was able to remember every detail:
From waking up in the morning…
“I woke up that morning and had a really bad sleep the night before. I couldn’t fall asleep. There was too much on my mind and I’m a really light sleeper so if there’s too much noise like my roommate snoring loud, I’m up. … I remember seeing my coach at practice, and he grabbed my face and said, ‘Carly, what happened last night?’ and I broke down and started bawling and I said, ‘I didn’t get any sleep! Courtney (Kupets) was snoring and I had so much on my mind and I couldn’t block anything out.’”
|Carly Patterson celebrates with coach Evgeny Marchenko after winning the gold medal in the women's all-around competition at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on Aug. 19, 2004.|
To the bus ride to the venue…
“I’m with Svetlana Khorkina, Courtney Kupets and Zhang Nan because we’re all in the final heat together. We’re on the bus and the bus starts smoking. I remember listening to my Ashlee Simpson CD on my Discman and I’m getting pumped up. Then our bus is basically broken down and we’re standing on the side of the Athens highway. Someone winds up calling a bus, but we’re all waiting and it’s hot and some of the athletes are a little stressed and freaking out, like ‘What if we miss warm-ups?’ Courtney and I are trying to make light of the situation and are taking pictures like we’re hitchhiking on the side of the road, just to be funny and keep our minds off something so crazy that was happening.”
To her first rotation…
“The one thing I’m unhappy with was my vault. You have the two lines you have to stay within or you get a little bit of a deduction if you’re outside those lines. I landed with one foot outside those lines and I kind of hurried and hopped back in so no one would see, so I wound up getting a lower score than I wanted on that and it made me kind of climb my way through the rest of the event and say, ‘You have to do the absolute best routines of your life for the rest of the evening.’”
To her favorite rotation…
“Definitely my beam routine. I don’t think I had one wobble. I stuck my round-off back handspring double Arabian dismount so many times in practice but to actually stick it on that night in that particular competition was just icing on the cake. I remember I could always feel in my round-off back handspring whether I would stick that dismount or not, and I felt it during that. … It’s cool to watch it back now because I can see my coach in the background and he does this huge jump in the air and claps his hands and spins around and I thought, ‘Man, that had to have taken 10 years off his life right there.’”
And, finally, to winning gold…
“When my name went to that first spot I knew I’d done it. That was one of the coolest moments. I still have pictures of my name switching to that top spot and my coach grabbing me and putting me on his shoulders. I think I was going through so many different emotions at that point because I was crying for 30 seconds, then I was laughing, then smiling, then I looked wide-eyed. It was definitely a crazy moment and a roller coaster of emotions.”
Patterson has had 10 years to soak in the magnitude of her accomplishment and says she appreciates it more and more as she gets older. She believes it was her destiny to perform exactly how she did on that night.
|Patterson's mother created a shadowbox filled with memorabilia from the Athens Games that hangs in her home.|
“Obviously it’s a ton of years of hard work, but you can’t get hurt, you can’t let the pressure get to you, you have to be the right age so your parents have to have birthed you at the right time,” she said. “When you think about all the stars that have to align for that to happen, it has to be your fate. I truly believe that, and I’m very fortunate and lucky that that was my fate.”
These days Patterson still gets to reflect on that fateful day with her former coach, Evgeny Marchenko, who lives a neighborhood across from her. She and her husband will cook for Marchenko and vice versa, while he rehashes all the details of Patterson’s teen years.
And, of course, Patterson remains involved with the sport that gave her so much, which she says allows her to have the best of both worlds.
“I get to go to championships and see people who recognize what I did and still feel special because of what I accomplished, but then go back home and be normal Carly,” she said. “I always want to be involved with USA Gymnastics and be able to promote our sport because obviously I love it and think it’s one of the greatest sports out there.”