From iconic figure skaters like Dick Button and Dorothy Hamill to the “Miracle on Ice” hockey champs, great Winter Olympians of the past continue to inspire us in the present.
Watching each new crop of Winter Olympians is always a source of inspiration—we can summon a lot of motivation of our own by seeing these determined, accomplished individuals working hard to achieve their dreams. But there’s something extra special about seeing our past champions continue going strong well into their older years. Great Olympic athletes prove to all of us that grit, purpose and determination aren’t limited to the young, and that being a winner and a champion is about much more than just athletic ability.
In many ways, the Summer Olympics are the traditional legacy of the Greeks, featuring running, boxing, wrestling, long jump, javelin, discus — all events that the ancient Greeks competed in. The winter games have only formally been around since 1924, in Chamonix, France. From 1908 on, spectators did get to enjoy a couple of winter events in the Summer Olympics — namely, figure skating and ice hockey — but it wasn’t until 1924 that these competitions were expanded to become an “International Winter Sports Week,” later designated as the first official Winter Olympics.
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From ski jump to skeleton, from biathlon to bobsled, the winter games are a showcase of thrills and (literally) chills from athletes who devote their careers to sports on snow and ice. As a four-time host of the Winter Olympics, the earliest being in 1932 in Lake Placid, New York, the U.S. has boasted a long list of ski, skate, sled, and snowboard champs, many of them pioneers in their field. But where are some of these world-famous Winter Olympians now? Read on to find out what a few of our old favorites are up to.
Figure skating was the first winter event to be officially included in the Olympics, way back in 1908, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. has an impressive history of Winter Olympians who have wowed us on the ice over the years, and are still making their mark outside of the rink.
One of the most recognizable among the male figure skaters is Dick Button, who won back-to-back gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Winter Olympics and is credited for landing the first triple jump ever—and the first ever American to win the Olympic title.
After his professional competitive career, he continued to be a driving force in the ice-skating field, going on to found the World Professional Figure Skating Championships in 1973 and, beginning in the 1960s, he became a familiar face on television yet again as an analyst for figure skating broadcasts. Though the 84-year-old isn’t attending the Sochi games, he’s still watching—and he’s tweeting, too.
Our female figure skaters are no less impressive.
Tenley Albright, who won a silver medal in 1952 and a gold in 1956, went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School and became a surgeon, a faculty member of Harvard Medical School, and chair of the Board of Regents of the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. Currently, she is Director of the MIT Collaborative Initiatives, a nonprofit that aims to address sweeping social issues like healthcare and global finance.
Carol Heiss, who won a figure skating silver medal in 1956 and gold in 1960, went in a very different direction from skating.
She starred in the 1961 film “Snow White” and the “Three Stooges,” and, eventually, went on to become a highly regarded figure skating coach.
A look at the most famous American Winter Olympians of the past wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Peggy Fleming.
Peggy earned the only gold medal to be awarded to the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics, a statistic that’s hard to imagine now. She persevered through the death of her coach in a plane crash in 1961, and a successful battle with breast cancer in 1998. She became a recognizable media icon, appearing in television specials and as a commentator, often with Dick Button. Currently, she and her husband operate a small vineyard in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.
Dorothy Hamill, now 57, became known as America’s Sweetheart, not only for her characteristic hairstyle, but also for her competitive determination on behalf of the United States.
She won gold at age 19 at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, and invented a signature move called the “Hamill camel.” Over the years, she continued skating, touring with the Ice Capades and other productions, and receiving a number of honors for her skating achievements. She still participates in “Broadway on Ice,” despite battling breast cancer, and last year she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Eric Heiden, now 55, might be in the running for our most successful Winter Olympian, at least in the field of speed skating.
He was the most successful athlete at the 1980 Lake Placid games, winning gold in all five men’s speed skating events — the only athlete ever to do so in the sport’s Olympic history. But his accomplishments don’t stop there. After his speed skating career, he went on to become an award-winning competitive road cyclist, and then an orthopedic surgeon, not only with his own successful practice, but also as a team physician for professional basketball teams in Sacramento, California, as well as the U.S. Olympic speed skating team.
Speaking of being unstoppable on and off the ice, what about that famous Miracle on Ice? That was another accomplishment from the landmark 1980 Winter Games, in which the U.S. ice hockey team defeated the favored Soviet Union team and went on to capture the gold medal.
Mark Johnson played for that team, scoring the game-winning goal in the gold-medal match against Finland. Now 56, he’s still immersed in the ice hockey world. He played professionally for several years after the 1980 Olympics, coached the U.S. women’s ice hockey team to a silver medal in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and is currently head coach of the women’s ice hockey team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Despite their many and varied accomplishments, in the Winter Olympics and beyond, what all of these champions have in common is the fact that they haven’t stopped working to achieve their goals. They prove to all of us, athletic or not, that aging is not an obstacle to true determination — an inspiring example for young and old alike.
Editor’s Note: All photos courtesy of Olympic.org.
Who are your favorite Winter Olympians from the past? Feel free to share your opinions on champions past and present in the comments below.