When Joe Jacobi saw that his car had been broken into Monday evening, his first thought was for his daughter Seu. She was getting ready to leave for her summer season of competitive canoeing and kayaking — in the Mountain West and in Europe — and Jacobi and his wife had just bought her new clothes for her travels.
“When my insides sank initially, I wasn’t even thinking of my backpack,” Jacobi said Friday afternoon, as he and his wife headed from NBC Washington’s studios to the Whole Foods on River Road. “Most of the stuff in the car was her stuff. I just felt so bad as a dad. I just figured all of her stuff had been lifted. I didn’t figure out until later it was my bag.”
Inside that stolen backpack of Jacobi’s were his computer, plus some journals, books and Jacobi’s passport. Also in the bag: his 1992 Olympic gold medal, earned in two-man canoe whitewater slalom.
His wife posted about the incident almost immediately on social media, and her messages took off, generating ample media coverage, especially in Atlanta. The family was in an Atlanta restaurant at the time of the break-in, and other diners plus the restaurant’s surveillance system provided images of the men taking items and their getaway car. Most of his stolen items were later found near a dumpster at an apartment complex, and the car was also located.
But five days later, the gold medal still hasn’t surfaced. Jacobi — a Churchill High grad who comes back to Montgomery County monthly to see his father — created a website about his missing medal and offered a $500 reward for its return.
“This Olympic Medal is not real gold, so there is no value in it to anyone but our family,” reads the message on StolenGoldMedal.com.
So clearly, he wants this gold medal back. He and his partner, Scott Strausbaugh, were the first Americans ever to win gold in whitewater slalom. And yet Jacobi has a pretty sanguine attitude about its disappearance.
“The medal, it is a thing, a symbol of something,” Jacobi told me. “But you know, even for these few days I haven’t had it with me, it just helps me to appreciate even more the guy I got to paddle with, my teammates, my coaches, those experiences and those memories. You can’t take that way. It isn’t the medal that makes that great. It’s the memories and experiences and being able to share that is meaningful to me.”
Which is why Jacobi had the medal in his backpack in the first place. He often speaks to schools and groups and media members. He thinks tens of thousands of people have probably held the medal over the past 24 years. Some online commenters have criticized him for leaving it in a backpack in his car in a restaurant parking lot, but he said the point of having an Olympic gold medal isn’t to hide it away somewhere.
“We won that medal 24 years ago, and I made the decision back then that I didn’t want to keep it in a safety deposit box,” Jacobi said. “I understand the risks that go along with that, but to me it was an easy choice. The medal’s meant to be shared. I see the difference it makes when people touch it and hold it. They engage with the Olympics a lot more, and perhaps they formulate their own dreams, Olympic or otherwise.”
That’s why Jacobi said he “can’t get upset about” the loss, and that he thinks there’s an opportunity here for whomever has it. Jacobi likes talking about good and bad decisions; breaking into his car, he said, was a bad decision.
“But I think within that bad choice, the person who has the medal can still make a good choice,” Jacobi said. “And that good choice, yes, can be good for me, good for us because we’re back to being able to share the medal again, but it can change that person as well. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a low point in your life or a high point; every day you’ve got to wake up and make good choices. This is an opportunity for that person. We’re not interested in prosecuting; we’re just interested in trying to create an environment that makes it as easy as possible for that person to get the medal back to us.”
Hence, the website and the media interviews. I’ve known Jacobi online for years as a diehard Redskins fan, but I’ve never actually talked to him about his Olympic experiences before this week. So I suggested that losing his gold medal actually gave him a chance to talk more about why he cares about the medal in the first place.
“It has that affect too,” he said. “ I think the Olympics are meant to be shared.”