USA gymnasts receive Olympic medals 10 years later

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; 12:12 AM

The celebration came 10 years late. So did the Olympic bronze medals. The flowers, the formal presentation, the recognition and warm reception in Hartford, Conn., on Wednesday night - none of it occurred on schedule.

In the decade since the U.S. gymnastics team finished in fourth place at the Summer Games in Sydney, the six team members grew up. They got degrees, careers, boyfriends and husbands. They encroached on, or sailed by, age 30.

Silver Spring's Dominique Dawes, the team's one-time veteran, performed on Broadway and received a Presidential appointment. Columbia's Elise Ray, the squad's former star, headlined Las Vegas shows and went into coaching.

It wasn't until this past April - when the International Olympic Committee disqualified the third-place Chinese because of an underage competitor - that they learned they would finally receive the medals they failed to bring back a decade earlier.

Before the start of competition at this year's U.S. championships Wednesday, IOC member Anita DeFrantz hung the newly minted proof around each of their necks. And then tears flowed as if the old teammates had gone back in time.

"It was very joyous," said Ray, who now resides in Baltimore and coaches with a club team. "It felt like a little bit of redemption because of all that we've gone through. . . .After Sydney, I think all of us moved on very quickly to do other things because we looked at [the experience] as kind of a disappointment. All of us were kind of heartbroken because we felt we hadn't achieved what we knew we were capable of achieving."

Hearts were mended Wednesday. After receiving her medal, Dawes walked over to her longtime coach Kelli Hill, who had coached the 2000 team, and gave her the medal - Dawes's fourth from the Olympic Games.

"I would not have accomplished one thing in the sport of gymnastics without her assistance," said Dawes, who was recently named co-chair of the President's Council on Fitness. "I wanted to make sure she [felt] appreciated."

Hill attempted to decline the medal, Dawes said, and then, like everyone else at that point, shed tears.

"Almost all of us were crying," Dawes said. "It was just a special moment."

Dawes, 33; Ray, 28; Hollywood stunt double Tasha Schwikert, 25; pediatrician Amy Chow, 32; club coach Jamie Dantzscher, 28; and preschool teacher Kristin Maloney, 29; then piled gleefully onto a bus parked outside the Hartford arena that is the site of this year's U.S. gymnastics championships.

They headed to New York for a Thursday morning appearance on NBC's "Today Show."

The celebration came late but, apparently, not too late.

"A lot of us have moved on with our lives," said Dawes, who like Ray talked about the night over a cellphone during the trip to New York. "This is pretty darn amazing."

Chow, a Stanford medical school graduate who this summer married an orthopedic surgeon, finished her residency and opened her own private practice, was the last to arrive Wednesday, her flight landing at about 4:30 p.m. Dawes and Ray had arrived earlier that day; the other three flew in Tuesday. The six women met up for the first time in a hospitality area of the arena shortly before the medal ceremony.

The traded hugs, laughter and old stories.

"We haven't been together since Sydney," Ray said. "It's pretty cool to be all back together for something like this. Ten years is such a long time. It's an extraordinary thing that's happened."

The reordered result came about in the most unlikely of ways. FIG, the international gymnastics federation, investigated whether underage gymnasts competed for China at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. As they pursued those claims last fall, officials decided to take another look at allegations surrounding the ages of two Chinese gymnasts from Sydney.

One, Dong Fangxiao, had worked as a national technical official in Beijing. On her accreditation information, she listed her date of birth as Jan. 23, 1986 - which would have made her 14 and underage at the Sydney Games. FIG nullified her results in February and recommended that the IOC rescind China's medals. That happened April 29.

"This is a huge statement by the IOC and international gymnastics federation that fair play is important," said Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics. "What I'm most excited about is properly recognizing these women. They were pioneers in our current program."

The medals handed out Wednesday are exact replicas of the 2000 medals. Penny said the ones the Chinese team returned had been etched with their names, so new ones were ordered.

Before the IOC's decision, the 2000 women's team's performance had been a historic sore spot for USA Gymnastics. The team became the first since 1976 to fail to win a medal in any Olympic event. And the result came on the heels of the stirring showing by the "Magnificent Seven," who won an unprecedented gold at the 1996 Summer Games.

Dawes now owns medals from each of the three Games in which she has competed. She won a gold and bronze in '96 and a bronze at the '92 Games in Barcelona. She keeps those medals in an enclosed case in her office.

Ray now owns her first. She plans to frame it - but not immediately.

"I'm having a big party at the end of the month," she said, "to show it off."

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