The Olympic Games are when the best athletes in the world have the opportunity to showcase their talents to see who the most elite really is. Not only that, but they do it in front of an audience of hundreds of millions of people. Throughout the history of the Olympics, there have been some athletes who have had to overcome a lot of obstacles to get to the top.
Let’s take a look at five stories of inspirational Olympic athletes who had adversity thrown at them, only to come out on the other side with a gold medal.
A native of Riverdale, Illinois, Betty Robinson found out that she was fast when a teacher saw her trying to catch a train home from school. During her teenage years, Robinson started competing against the best in the world and it was clear that she had what it took to be the fastest. After winning gold at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Robinson suffered a major setback after being involved in a plane crash.
Thankfully, Robinson survived, but it was going to be a long road back. Robinson couldn’t get into the right position for a 100-meter race due to injuries but was able to train for relay races. After missing the 1932 Olympics, Robinson returned for the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. Along with the rest of her team, Robinson was able to claim the gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay. Robinson returned to normal life afterward, living until the end of the 1990s.
The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia ended up having a ton of memorable moments, especially in the gymnastics competition. The host Americans sent the team known as the Magnificient Seven, which included Tucson, Arizona native Kerri Strug. Strug had competed at the previous Olympics and was part of the bronze medal-winning team in Barcelona. Anything less than gold in 1996, though, would be seen as a failure.
Strug started training in gymnastics when she was just three years old and had struggled with a stomach injury and weight loss that almost knocked her out of competition. Thankfully, Strug was able to get back into form, but she suffered a serious ankle injury during the 1996 games. Still, Strug landed perfectly during her performance and held firm, being carried off by coach Bela Karolyi after sealing the gold.
It took a long time for snowboarding to be included in the Winter Olympics, and there were many elite athletes ready to make their mark when the sport was introduced. Among them was Max Parrot, who started training in the sport before his 10th birthday. Parrot then went on to become one of the greatest snowboarders in the world, winning medals at the X Games. However, in 2019, Parrot received some hard news.
Parrot was diagnosed with cancer in early 2019, just months after winning a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. He had to undergo chemotherapy, and despite feeling physically overwhelmed, Parrot continued training for the 2022 games. With the crowd in Beijing looking on, Parrot was able to win his first gold medal in the slopestyle competition. “You have no cardio, you have no energy, you have no muscles,” Parrot said of his recovery, adding that being on the podium “feels amazing.”
Gail Devers is perhaps the ultimate testament to peak athleticism shining through despite a myriad of health problems. The Seattle, Washington native was a standout athlete in her hometown and earned herself a scholarship to UCLA where she began training for the 1988 Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, Devers began suffering from health problems.
Devers had migraine headaches and lost some of her vision, leading to a Graves disease diagnosis. She had to undergo hormone therapy and radiation treatment while also developing foot ailments that set her back even further. Still, Devers was able to continue training for the Olympics and qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Games. While there, she claimed the gold medal in the 100 meter sprint.
When you think of runners these days, you probably picture them wearing the most state-of-the-art sneakers. Even in the 1960s, shoe technology had come a long way and the best athletes were wearing the best shoes. That wasn’t the case for Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia, however. Instead, he ran barefoot all the way to Olympic gold.
For his second Olympic run, though, Bikila did wear shoes, which may have explained why his time improve so much. Not only that, but Bikila set the new world marathon record in both of his Olympic runs. Bikila went on to become an icon, helping to boost interest in distance running throughout all of Africa.