Greg Massialas still remembers his first Pan American Games nearly 40 years ago.
Massialas, now the men’s foil national coach for USA Fencing, was 23 years old at the time and a rising star in men’s foil. When he arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1979, he experienced the sounds of a truly all-sports international event he had not previously encountered.
“Drums and people singing,” Massialas recalled. “Something that’s really part of the Pan American experience.”
Massialas went on to compete in two other Pan American Games, in 1983 in Caracas, Venezuela, and in 1987 in Indianapolis. He won six Pan Am medals. Like many other U.S. athletes, those Pan American experiences boosted Massialas to the Olympic Games. A three-time Olympian, he competed in the men’s foil individual and team disciplines at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games and in the team competition at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games.
“’83 led to ’84 (Olympics). That was obviously a great experience,” Massialas said. “You go to world championships, you’re in with your own sport. But when you go to the Pan American Games … you get a chance to be a part of all these different sports. You feel a part of the bigger Team USA. I think that’s a really good experience for a lot of our guys.”
|Kelci Bryant competes at the 2007 Rio de Janeiro Pan American Games.|
Two-time Olympic diver Kelci Bryant knows exactly what Massialas is talking about. She won two medals at her first Pan Am Games in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro.
“You’re on a flight down to Brazil, down to Rio, and you’re sitting next to all these other athletes,” said Bryant, who is now high performance athlete services coordinator at USA Diving. “It was really a cool feeling to just feel these other sports and embrace the moment that you’re in.”
For many, when the 2015 Pan American Games begin July 10 in Toronto, it will be a platform that ultimately leads them to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Among those athletes is Alexander Massialas, who is a 2012 Olympian and won a gold medal in his Pan Am Games debut in 2011. He is Greg’s son and part of a fencing family that also includes Rio 2016 Olympic hopeful Sabrina Massialas, the youngest member of the national women’s foil team at age 18 and a gold medalist at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, where she was coached by her father.
While Greg was Olympic men’s foil coach in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, this year’s Pan Am Games in Toronto will mark the first time he and Alex have been at the Pan Am Games together. Greg was selected as coach.
“This is my first time going back,” Greg Massialas said. “I’m looking forward to it. I think the Pan Am Games is a great event for our hemisphere. You have a great feel of sort of that Latin flair. You go into the (athletes) village. There’s a lot of samba and music. It’s really good. That kind of South American flair will only be helpful, kind of a good setting and background considering the Olympics are going to be in Rio.”
Pan Am performances in Toronto may lead to medals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for U.S. athletes. History has shown they often have.
“I don’t think I really realized how much it did help me prepare, and it was definitely in a variety of ways,” said Bryant, who went on to win a silver medal in women’s synchronized 3-meter at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “The crowd there, it’s a similar size to the Olympics. You don’t get that kind of crowd often in the United States for diving unless it is like an Olympics. It was so cool to stand up there (on the medals podium) and be recognized in front of all those people. It’s a confidence booster."
“Going back to the last Pan Am Games, my son won the individual,” Greg Massialas said. “I think that helped him kind of get ready for the London Olympics. Right after the Pan Am Games, we sort of turned things over and really cranked things up.”
Here is a look at some U.S. athletes who achieved success at both the Pan Am Games and Olympic Games.
|Greg Louganis poses on the podium at the Caracas 1983 Pan American Games.|
Olympic years: 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988
Considered to be one of the best divers of all time, the four-time Olympian won both the springboard and platform competition at the 1979, 1983 and 1987 Pan Am Games. Although he missed the 1980 Olympic Games due to the U.S. boycott, Louganis won both events at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games and 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. His gold medal in the 1988 springboard included hitting his head on the diving board in one of his qualifying dives.
Kelci Bryant, Diving
Olympic years: 2008, 2012
Bryant won a bronze medal in the women’s individual 3-meter and a silver medal in the 3-meter synchro with Ariel Rittenhouse in her Pan American Games debut in 2007 in Rio de Janeiro. She finished fourth in the synchronized event at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and won a silver medal four years later in London.
“We were diving outside and it was cold and I remember our bodies were steaming getting out of the hot tub (at the diving venue),” Bryant said of Rio. “That was one of the things that really prepared me for the Olympics. Even going into 2012, it made me realize you have to prepare for things that are out of your control and you’re not going to know what they are, but just know that they’re going to happen.”
In addition to the preparation, Bryant also learned a little something about her Pan Am and Olympic teammates.
“We were watching trampoline (gymnastics),” she said. “As naïve as this sounds, I had no idea that trampoline was a sport on the Olympic level. I had literally no clue. … It was just so cool to realize how many sports are out there.”
Al Oerter, Track and Field
Olympic years: 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968
One year before Oerter made his Olympic debut, he won the discus at the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago. What followed was a brilliant Olympic career. He won the gold medal in the discus in four consecutive Olympic Games, beginning in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia.
Jenny Thompson, Swimming
Olympic years: 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
The first female swimmer in history to win 12 Olympic medals, Thompson burst onto the scene at age 14 at the 1987 Pan American Games, where she won three medals. Her win in the women’s 50-meter freestyle landed Thompson as the youngest Pan Am gold medalist in U.S. swimming history. Five years later, she made her Olympic debut at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games and won gold medals in a pair of relay events in addition to a silver medal in the 100 freestyle. Thompson won three more gold medals at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and another three gold medals at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
|Tim Daggett competes on pommel horse at the Indianapolis 1987 Pan American Games.|
Olympic year: 1984
Daggett, who now is an owner and coach at Daggett Gymnastics in western Massachusetts, claimed fame when his perfect 10.0 on the horizontal bars clinched an Olympic gold medal in the men’s team competition at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. In Los Angeles, he also won bronze on pommel horse. Three years later, he won three medals, including gold on the pommel horse, at the 1987 Pan Am Games. “I love this sport too much to quit,” Daggett, 25 at the time, told the Los Angeles Times.
Mark Spitz, Swimming
Olympic years: 1968, 1972
Spitz won a record five gold medals at the 1967 Pan Am Games, carving the path for a career that included nine Olympic gold medals and 11 Olympic medals in all. He won seven gold medals at the Munich 1972 Olympic Games, including the 100 and 200 men’s freestyle, and 100 and 200 butterfly. That was a record for the most gold medals in one Olympic Games until Michael Phelps won eight in 2008.
|Ryan Lochte competes in the men's 400-meter individual medley at the Santo Domingo 2003 Pan American Games.|
Olympic years: 2004, 2008, 2012
Lochte, who made his Pan Am Games debut in 2003 when he contributed to the men’s 4x200-meter freestyle gold medal, won his first Olympic medals at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. He won a gold medal in the men’s 800-meter freestyle relay and a silver medal in the 200 IM. Since then, he has won four more Olympic gold medals and 11 Olympic medals in total.
Rowdy Gaines, Swimming
Olympic years: 1980, 1984
A seven-time gold medalist in two Pan American Games, the first of which was in 1979, Gaines won three gold medals at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games. His Pan Am medals included gold in the men’s 200-meter freestyle in 1979 and bronze in the same event in 1983, gold in the 100 freestyle in 1983, and five gold medals in relay events. He won Olympic gold in 1984 in the 100 freestyle and two relay events. A motivational speaker and NBC broadcaster, Gaines is a survivor of Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Bruce Jenner, Track and Field
Olympic years: 1972, 1976
Three years after making his Olympic debut in 1972, Jenner won the decathlon at the Mexico City 1975 Pan American Games. That led to stardom and a gold-medal finish in the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. His Olympic win included setting a world record by scoring 8,618 points.
|Jackie Joyner-Kersee competes in the heptathlon at the Indianapolis 1987 Pan American Games.|
Olympic years: 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996
Joyner-Kersee, who was the first U.S. woman to win six Olympic medals in track and field, tied a world record by jumping 24 feet, 5 1/2 inches in the long jump at the 1987 Pan Am Games. It was a performance that led to gold medals in both the long jump and heptathlon at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games. She set four world records in her career and is known as the top female track athlete in American history.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Track and Field
Olympic year: 1984
The first Olympic champion in the women’s marathon prepped for her famous run in Los Angeles in 1984 by winning the women’s 10,000-meter in 1983 at the Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela. She won the Boston Marathon in 1979. In addition to the history, what really made her marathon win at the Los Angeles Games so remarkable is that she underwent knee surgery prior to the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.