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Celebrate Olympic Day With 10 Times U.S. Athletes Demonstrated The Olympic Spirit

By Karen Price | June 22, 2017, 11:01 a.m. (ET)

One of the most touching and memorable displays of sportsmanship at any recent Olympic Games came in the summer of 2016 in Rio.

During their heat in the women’s 5,000-meter race, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin stumbled and took American Abbey D’Agostino down with her as she fell. Although D’Agostino quickly got back up, she wouldn’t leave behind a distraught Hamblin, who was still down on the track. D’Agostino encouraged her to get up and finish the race, and the two resumed running together.

It became quickly obvious that D’Agostino wasn’t OK, however. She’d badly injured her knee, and after she fell to the track it was Hamblin’s turn to pick her up and motivate her to finish the race.

Later on, they were both awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for Olympic sportsmanship given to those who exemplify the Olympic spirit.

In honor of Friday’s Olympic Day, which annually recognizes the birth of the modern Olympic Games (June 23, 1894), here are 10 other examples of U.S. athletes who have embodied Olympic values and ideals and the spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.  

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Jesse Owens and Luz Long

As the story goes, after fouling on his first two attempts, Jesse Owens was on the verge of disqualification in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin before German Luz Long offered his advice: Take off from several inches behind the foul line. Owens listened, and he not only advanced to the final but won the gold medal and set a new world record while Long finished with the silver. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a playing on the 24-carat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” The two families remained in contact even after Long was killed in World War II.


Shawn Crawford Sends Away His Silver

At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, sprinter Shawn Crawford found himself elevated from a fourth-place finish in the 200-meter to second after runners who would have been awarded the silver and bronze medals were disqualified well after the race was over for stepping on the lines. Crawford wasn’t accepting of his good fortune, however, and a week later mailed the silver medal to Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles with a note telling him the medal was rightfully his.


It’s All About The Journey For Kerri Walsh Jennings

Kerri Walsh Jennings had never lost a beach volleyball match at the Olympics before 2016, when she and partner April Ross fell to a team from host Brazil, ending her streak at 26 matches. Despite the devastating disappointment, Walsh Jennings shook it off and midway through the bronze-medal match began to play her heart out in what might have been her last Olympic appearance. She and Ross won, and Walsh Jennings said the bronze medal meant more to her than the three golds “times a million.”


Softball’s Symbolic Unity

Like Walsh Jennings in 2016, the U.S. softball team was not accustomed to winning anything but gold when the squad lost in an upset to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game. However, the silver medalists afterward joined Japan and bronze medalists Australia in using softballs to spell out “2016” at the medal ceremony as a way to protest the sport being dropped for the 2012 Games and petition for its return. While 2016 did not happen, softball is making its return in 2020.


Sisterhood Comes First For The Barnes Sisters

Biathlete Tracy Barnes earned her spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, but her twin sister, Lanny, was too sick to compete at the trials. Lanny had performed better at the world cup events, however, and once Tracy found out that if she gave up her spot it would go to her sister, that’s exactly what she did. Tracy, who competed in 2006 in Torino, went to Sochi as a spectator and cheered Lanny on.


Phelps Gives His Relay Spot To Crocker

At the 2004 Games in Athens, swimmer Ian Crocker was devastated after his performance in the 4x100-meter freestyle cost the U.S. team and Michael Phelps the gold medal, which would have been Phelps’ seventh. Just after Crocker learned that he was off the 4x100 medley team, Phelps announced that he would give up his spot so that Crocker, whom he called “one of the greatest relay swimmers in U.S. history,” could have the chance to redeem himself.


Jordyn Puts The Team First
Jordyn Wieber

Gymnast Jordyn Wieber was the defending world all-around champion heading into the 2012 Olympics, and although she had the fourth-best score in qualifying, she was behind fellow Americans Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, and only two athletes per country can compete in the all-around. That left Wieber, who’d been favored to medal if not earn the all-around title, on the outside looking in. Still, Wieber pushed through the tears and expressed nothing but support for her teammates, cheering them on throughout the competition and making sure the focus stayed on the team first. United, the gymnasts also helped Team USA win its first team gold medal since 1996.


Raising Money For Good Causes

While athletes’ Olympic memorabilia often becomes treasured family heirlooms, others sometimes use what they wore and won to help others. After Georgia slider Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed training on the luge track in Vancouver in 2010, American Tony Benshoof had all his teammates sign his Olympic racing suit and auctioned it off to raise money for Kumaritashvili’s family. In 2004, swimmer Anthony Ervin auctioned off the gold medal he won in the 50-meter freestyle in 2000 on eBay and donated the $17,101 he received to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.


Dara Torres Stops The Race

Just as the women were getting ready to walk out for the 50-meter freestyle semifinals in 2008, Swedish swimmer Therese Alshammar’s suit ripped. Dara Torres tried to help, but when she couldn’t, she went to the judges and her fellow competitors to make sure they knew that Alshammar had to change her suit and that the race wouldn’t begin without her.


Esther Kim Forfeits Her Spot

Esther Kim was supposed to fight her longtime friend and training partner, Kay Poe, in the gold-medal match of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Taekwondo in 2000. Poe had beaten Kim earlier on, but now she had an injured knee. Although Kim could have won, she instead forfeited even knowing that doing so would mean that Poe would get the spot on the Olympic team instead of her.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

Related Athletes

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Abbey D'Agostino

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Shawn Crawford

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Kerri Walsh Jennings

Beach Volleyball
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Lanny Barnes

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Tracy Barnes

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Michael Phelps

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Ian Crocker

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Jordyn Wieber

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Tony Benshoof

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Anthony Ervin

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Dara Torres