Does everything happen for a reason? IS THERE MEANING TO THE EVENTS AND PEOPLE WE ENCOUNTER OR IS LIFE JUST A RANDOM SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES?
Florida. January 2022.
A few years ago I moved home to care for my father in his last year of life. To cope with it all, I signed my young daughter up for swim lessons. It became her passion and her refuge. After only a few weeks she made the local competitive swim team. Recently, she has been taking technique lessons from an incredible woman who has coached at collegiate and professional levels. Brilliant and kind, we drive an hour each way to see her once a week. She is worth the trip every single time.
A few weeks ago, a tall, lean woman swimming in another lane took notice of the impressive instruction and the perseverance emanating from my tiny swimmer. She watched for a while, radiating joy and wonder as if she knows this dance all too well.
AND THEN THEY MET.
A Wisconsin native, standing 5’11”, Wendy Boglioli was naturally athletic. A dedicated and disciplined swimmer, she rose through the ranks of winners, eventually swimming for Monmouth University in 1973. To this day she is one of the most decorated athletes in Monmouth athletics history.
That’s not even the best part.
Wendy told us about a documentary that had been made about her career. On a rainy Saturday, my tiny tot and I watched the film, The Last Gold. For Olympic fans, swim fans, history fans or underdog fans, it’s worth the hunt to find it.
The story is inspirational.
Resilience. Perseverance. Grit. Pain. Disappointment. Fear. Hope.
This story felt somehow familiar.
The entire experience is as riveting as it is heartbreaking.
Here’s what happened….
Montreal Olympic Games. 1976.
Wendy Boglioli competed in medal heats against the East German swimmers Kornelia Ender and Andrea Pollack. The U.S. women had competed against them and other members of the East German team in the year prior. In Montreal, everything was different.
Those women were different.
During the 1990s, it was confirmed that Ender and Pollack were given performance-enhancing drugs as part of the vast East German doping scandal of the 1970s. Wendy would have won the gold medal were it not for the presence of Ender and Pollack, their enhanced physiques and new record-setting abilities.
In 2016, the New York Times reported that the “East Germans claimed at the time that they had developed a vaccine that staved off fatigue. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, documents were unearthed that revealed that huge doses of oral turinabol, an anabolic steroid derived from testosterone, had been administered to the men and women on the East German swim team, as part of a program overseen by the Ministry for State Security that treated aspiring Olympians, some of them not yet teenagers.”
Despite the seemingly insurmountable competition, Wendy Boglioli won the bronze medal in the 100 meter butterfly and a silver medal in the 4×100 meter medley relay in Montreal. She was 21 years old at the time – the oldest member of the U.S. women’s swim team.
It gets better.
Sunday july 25, 1976.
The 4×100 meter freestyle relay was the final event of competition for both the men and women – one of the most prestigious events in Olympic swimming. Wendy Boglioli was the second leg of the relay with teammates Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel and anchor Shirley Babashoff.
Physically, emotionally and mentally decimated by the East Germans, these four women mustered the kind of resilient rally that rarely happens more than once in a lifetime.
Watch this video from NBC Canada:
Against all odds, they won gold, setting both World and Olympic Records.
It was the only gold for the U.S. women in swimming at those games.
It is the greatest win in U.S. swim team history.
About a third of the way through the documentary, a familiar scene flashed across the screen. It was West Point – my beloved rock bound highland home. According to the film, for a few weeks prior to the Montreal Olympics, the 24 member U.S. Olympic swim team trained at the Academy. It was the first time the four women of the 4×100 relay team swam together.
Immediately, I knew why this was so familiar. Although not yet born, I remember my father telling me stories of these Olympians – women with incredibly broad shoulders and eagle-esque wing spans. The first class of women had just arrived at the Academy and hosting these Olympic women in 1976 seemed to validate the All-American-Female-Athlete aura haloing campus.
Instantaneously filled with rabid curiosity and furious focus, I ransacked a box of old photo albums, long since packed away with the remnants of my father’s pastoral study.
And There It Was.
I was looking at a picture of my father, standing tall and proud in the center, with members of the 1976 Olympic swim team at West Point.
On the back of the photo, in my father’s unmistakably graceful handwriting, was the name “Kim Payton.” Kim was the lead leg of that famous 4×100 relay. She passed away in 1986, 20 years after her gold medal win. My father died in 2020. Standing together in the photo, the only ones of the group who have died, they smiled as if to let us know they planned this all along.
My daughter had just had a chance encounter with a woman whose Olympic team met her grandfather 46 years prior – in another land, in another time.
Wendy Boglioli has been married to coach, Bernie Boglioli, for almost 50 years. Together, they coached the women’s team at Yale. Keeping herself intellectually fit, she became a business executive in the long-term care insurance industry. Her trademarked In the Arms of Women initiative was the first of its kind in the industry to recognize the distinctive needs of women clients. Keeping herself physically fit, she became a Master’s athlete, winning multiple medals in Masters cycling, track and field. Keeping herself emotionally fit, she’s a world-renowned motivational speaker and a hero to ten year olds everywhere.
“Dedication is what it takes to succeed. You have to set your mind to it and do it.“
Wendy continues to live an inspirational life.
It will be a long time before I know the full impact Wendy’s perseverance, accomplishments and mentorship will have on my daughter. In the meantime, the Boglioli’s stop by to check on her, cheering her on as if passing the baton one more time.
Heroes among us.
Look for them.
And Run to Win.
"You've all been to the stadium to see the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to Win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You're after one that's gold eternally." 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.