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Time Can't Dull Olympic Thrill for Cathy McMillan
July 22, 2012Hoke County High School
For decades after she came home from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a silver medal, the sign greeting visitors driving into Raeford on U.S. 401 told them that the Hoke County town was home to Kathy McMillan.
Many years ago, in a round of civic upgrades, the sign was removed.
And while many in the town haven't forgotten her, reminders of her nearly decade-long run as one of the world's best long jumpers have vanished.
The landing pit installed a few paces outside the door of Hoke County High School's auxiliary gym - built so she could train in the winter by coming up to speed in the warm gym, bursting through an open door and launching into the sand outside - has long been paved over.
There's still a large plaque in the trophy case in the school's gym lobby, outlining her accomplishments. But occasionally when current girls' track and field coach Regina McLaughlin brings her name up in pep talks, team members, whose Raeford roots don't go back very far, react with blank stares.
For many, McMillan's greatness exists in black and white photos, yellowed newsprint and stories that have been told and retold. Time and distance have conspired to make memories of her triumphs seem somehow less vivid.
But when people stop and consider her story, McMillan's ride from Raeford to the Olympic podium still inspires awe.
"We were just lucky," said McMillan's high school coach Bill Colston. "You just can't plan something like that."
A continent away in Santa Monica, Calif., McMillan is enjoying the life of a former Olympian - traveling to meets, offering advice to current athletes and serving on the board of the USA Track and Field Alumni Association.
Her track and field exploits are still a large part of who she is. But, she said, they do feel like long ago. Except, that is, every four years when the Olympics roll around.
The memories bubbled to the surface when she was one of the members of the 1976 team honored at the Olympic trials earlier this summer. She said it will happen to her again when the Olympics kick off in London. She'll be at home, watching closely, vicariously experiencing the emotions.
"I've been there and done that," McMillan said. "You feel that thrill come over your body. I'm just excited for them. The adrenaline flows, hoping that they make it, feeling what they feel. It's like you're competing too."
McMillan's Olympic moment came when she was 18, about a month removed from her high school graduation.
The summer before the 1976 Olympics, she finished second in the senior division at the USA Track and Field Championships as a little-known high school junior.
That set up a rapid rise to stardom as she spent the next year competing in meets across the country and in Europe.
She also helped Hoke County win a fifth-straight state title and set a high school record - 22 feet, 3 inches - in a meet in California. Thirty-six years later, the record still stands.
By the time she made it to the Olympics, she was considered the nation's best hope for a medal in her event.
But when she got her opportunity in Montreal, nothing came easily.
On a drizzly, cold afternoon, McMillan said she struggled to get loose. It took until her last jump of the qualifying round to reach the final. Even then, it left her 10th in the standings.
"There were a lot of negative things coming against me," McMillan said. "There were a lot of challenges, but I made it. . I was determined."
In the final, McMillan regained her edge, eventually putting up a distance of 21 feet, 10¼ inches, just 2½ inches shy of East German Angela Voigt's first-place distance.
McMillan ended up going last in the final round of jumps. As the only athlete from North America left in the event, she had the crowd at Olympic Stadium on her side, clapping in rhythm as she began her attempt. Not only did she land beyond Voigt's mark, she also surpassed the previous world record.
But the flag was up signaling that she'd stepped on the block at takeoff. The jump was a scratch. She'd have to settle for silver.
"The crowd booed the official," said Colston, who was in the stands with members of McMillan's family. "They showed it again on the big screen and they booed it again. We almost fell out of the upper deck."
More than three decades later, McMillan has no regrets. She said it was a good call.
It was also the last time she would compete in an Olympics. The United States boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow and an injury sidelined her in 1984.
"You always think about it; you always think about what could have been," McMillan said. "But, I'm grateful to have a silver medal."