The journey to earn an Olympic gold medal is rarely achieved without challenges. But for some of these elite athletes, the lessons learned stretch far beyond the podium, becoming guiding lights for life’s other obstacles. These are the stories of four gold medalists and how the Olympics prepared them for life’s hardest fights.

Billy Mills

(Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Billy Mills shocked the world by winning the gold medal in the men’s 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Mills was largely unknown heading into the games. A Native American who was orphaned by the age of 12, Mills grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He did not always think he would be a runner and attributes the years he spent playing in the trees and swimming with his siblings to how he made his high school team at all. He attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship and says the racism he experienced, along with the grief of losing his parents, sent him into a deep depression. Running and the pursuit of his Olympic goals helped to get him through his loneliness.

After graduating in 1962, he entered the Marine Corps while continuing to train for the next Olympics. In 1964, as a first lieutenant in the Reserves, he made the team. His win is considered one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.

In 1986, Mills co-founded the nonprofit Running Strong for American Indian Youth. The organization helps provide food, water and shelter to Native Americans, while also empowering the youths through educational programing.

Amy Van Dyken-Rouen

(Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Amy Van Dyken-Rouen stunned audiences in 1996, becoming the first American woman to win four gold medals at a single Olympics.

Growing up with severe asthma and a number of allergies, Van Dyken-Rouen had to shop around to find the sport that was right for her. Even when it was recommended that she try swimming, it did not come easy. Van Dyken-Rouen’s persistence not only got her across the pool but eventually made her an NCAA champion at Colorado State University and then an Olympic champion.

After winning four gold medals in 1996, she went on to earn two more in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Among American female Olympic swimmers, she has won the second most golds.

She retired after Sydney, but in 2014 she found herself using her training as an athlete to push through a severe injury that would change her life forever.

Van Dyken-Rouen went on to create several foundations, including Amy’s Army, which helps provide wheelchairs and medical supplies to those in need. She competes in adaptive CrossFit and is currently the second fittest sitting woman in the world.

Shannon Miller

(Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Shannon Miller’s versatility as a gymnast was unmatched in the 1990s. She was a member of the 1996 Olympic team that later became known as the “Magnificent Seven” — the first U.S. Olympic gymnastics team to win gold. The team gold was Miller’s seventh medal, solidifying her as the most decorated American female gymnast.

Miller officially retired in 2000 after injuring her knee during Olympics trials. She went on get her law degree and launch a company focusing on health and fitness.

By 2011, Miller says that she lost sight of her own health as she worked to balance her many career endeavors and her family. She admits she almost rescheduled a meeting that revealed that she had ovarian cancer. Miller faced some low moments during chemotherapy, but she thought back to her days as an elite athlete and embraced the idea of using a team to help her through her diagnosis.

In 2021, Miller celebrated being cancer-free for 10 years.

Greg Louganis

(Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

Greg Louganis has been regarded as the greatest diver in Olympic history. Winning golds in both the springboard and platform events in 1984 and 1988, he is the only male diver to sweep the diving events in consecutive Olympics.

The highly decorated diver announced his retirement after the 1984 Olympics, but he could not leave a battle with USA Diving regarding trust funds to offset training costs for athletes. He stayed in competitions, winning the world championships in Madrid two years later, and then going on to Seoul for his third Olympics.

During the preliminary rounds of the 1988 Olympics, Louganis startled the world when he struck his head on the board and bled into the pool. Louganis was petrified; not because of his injury, but because he had recently been diagnosed with HIV. There was not as much information available about the virus at that time, so he kept his diagnosis a secret. Despite there being little risk to any of the other divers, Louganis received criticism for not going public about his condition sooner.

Today, Louganis is no longer silent and uses his Olympic platform as a motivational speaker and an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate.