September 23, 2019

A Jewish Olympian Reflects

As an athlete training with a single-minded focus of becoming the best I could possibly be, I think I sometimes lost sight of the big picture. I had no idea of the impact that our gold-medal victory in the 1984 Games would have on not only my life, but on the lives of others as well. The men’s gymnastics team went down in history as the first and only team from the USA to medal as a team, and I became the first American gymnast in history to receive a perfect 10. Yes, those Olympics were an amazing experience for my teammates and for me, but there was something beyond the success that took place.

I remember thinking to myself how special it was during those Games that the entire Israeli gymnastics team came up to the podium to cheer me on during the event finals for the still rings. I had great feelings towards the country of Israel for several reasons. One, I was raised in a Jewish family, attended religious school, had a Bar Mitzvah, and, of course, learned of the importance of our heritage. And two, I was able to go to Israel and compete in the Maccabiah Games in 1981, which to this day I look upon as one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not only did we, as American Jews, get to travel to and see the country of Israel at 20, but we also got to interact with the Israeli athletes and experience their culture first hand. So, as I approached the still rings to be lifted up, it dawned on me that I was not only competing for the USA, I was in fact going to make a lot of Israeli citizens proud too. I ended up winning the bronze medal on this event to add to a gold, silver, and another bronze, truly surpassing all of my dreams and expectations for the Games. When I landed my dismount I remember the ‘home’ crowd erupting in thunderous applause, but it was nothing compared to the six men and women gymnasts from Israel standing behind the podium.

Now, some sixteen years after those 1984 Games, I can’t tell how much it means to me that I was able to have such a positive impact on the sport of gymnastics, as well as make not one but two countries feel a sense of pride that one of their own brought home the gold. After those Games, I traveled to Israel yet another time for the Maccabiah Games, only this time I was not an athlete but an honored guest with Mark Spitz.

What started out as a somewhat tunnel-visioned pursuit of an Olympic dream has turned out to me to become something that I cherish even more than the medals – the fact that I was able to share that success with my country and my heritage. As I leave the house this afternoon to share my Olympic medals, the Olympic torch, and my Olympic experience with the students of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, I am reminded that the Olympic Games are for all of us, Americans, Israelis and Jews around the world.

Mitch Gaylord won individual silver and bronze medals and led the U.S. men’s gymnastics team to a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games. He lives in Los Angeles.