Memories Like Gold Medals

by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & lot of people know Celeste Shaw now as the irrepressible owner of Chaps, a Western-themed caf & eacute; and restaurant in the Latah Creek Plaza. Many others have known her as a nurse at Deaconess Hospital. But few people know about another chapter of her life, from the days when she was a lanky teenager named Celeste Shikany, living in eastern Montana. Had the politics of the time been different, millions of people might have learned her name as a competitor on the world's largest athletic stage. But the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow brought her dreams, and those of many others, to a premature end.

As a junior high student in Havre, Montana, Shaw used to escape her turbulent home life by going to the high school fields and playing there. She'd entertain herself by running the track and jumping off the old long jump board into the dirt. One day, the high school football coach happened to be there, preparing for a game, as she played in the long jump pit.

"I just took a jump off the board, and he came over and asked if I had ever done that before," she recalls. "He thought I had broken the high school's long jump record."

The coach retrieved a measuring tape from his car and determined that, sure enough, she had beaten the Havre High School mark -- at the age of 12, with no training, wearing simple sneakers. She began training with the high school team and competing in meets, and soon she was breaking records at the state level as well. In 1978, just before her 14th birthday, she qualified for a regional Junior Olympics meet in South Dakota, where she won the long jump event, moving on to the nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska. There, she caught the eye of Fred Jones, a renowned track and field coach who led the Los Angeles Mercurettes, a club that functioned as a regional training center for Olympic-caliber athletes. He invited her to join the club.

"I got on an airplane in Great Falls," she says. "I had nothing. When I arrived, there was a box waiting for me from Nike -- I had been picked up for sponsorship, so I had all of the latest equipment: sweats, running gear, spikes. I was pretty much given all I needed to just train and practice."

Through 1978 and 1979, she spent several months each year training and competing with the Mercurettes at UCLA. Everyone there had the common goal of reaching the 1980 Olympics. During that time, she ranked among the top 10 long jumpers in the nation and jumped her personal best of nearly 20 feet.

"I hadn't really known anybody else who shared that [Olympic dream] or talked about it," she says. "But when I arrived there ... you're finally surrounded by people who share that same vision, and it's the most inspiring, magical world. It's a camaraderie of spirit. You find yourself supporting people, even in your own event. Everybody drives each other to be stronger and faster and more willing to hurt a little bit more, to go further, to better their own personal time or personal distance. And it was incredible to me."

At Christmas in 1979, she returned home to Montana and continued training with her high school team. Soon after, her mother received a phone call saying that Celeste need not return to L.A. because the U.S. would likely be boycotting the Summer Games.

"The tragedy was, I never wanted to run again," she says. "I had to just stop. I couldn't do it. I was stripped of something I'd worked really hard for ... It filled a void in my heart, and to have that taken away, it was like a rape. And you don't go back to that."

In her scrapbook of photos and clippings, there's a page from early 1980 with the headline, "Heavens, what a year ahead!" But every page behind it is blank.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & couple of years ago, Shaw met Dr. Ben Young, a Denver HIV physician, when he was visiting Spokane. Like Shaw, Young spent 1978-79 gunning for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team -- as a sprint cyclist. He was a member of the Junior National Team from 1977-79, under the tutelage of legendary cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz -- Eddie B -- who also propelled Greg LeMond to the world stage.

"I was named to the precursor to the final Olympic team, the Olympic Talent Squad," says Young. "I got to live in the Olympic Training Center [in Colorado Springs, Colo.], to get food, housing and training. But then we had a little change of plans."

Late in 1979 or early in 1980, Young was preparing to return to Colorado for training when he received a letter about the boycott. Even though it wasn't official yet, the likelihood of a boycott forced him to rethink his priorities.

"I'm Chinese-American, first generation, first-born son, so there was a lot of pressure to get on to my career," he explains. "At the time, that meant it was time to go to college. In hindsight, others went on to [train for 1984] and went on to great success -- but that just wasn't an option for me."

Rather than training for the Olympic Trials, Young went to college, then on to an M.D./Ph.D. program at Cornell. He returned to competitive cycling briefly in the late 1980s, but his moment had passed. Like Shaw, he'll never know what might have been.

"With all the media attention to the superstars of the Olympics, what gets lost is that for every Michael Phelps, there are hundreds who just manage to get there," Young says. "And for every one of them, there are hundreds like me who would have cut their testicles off to just walk into the stadium. I wasn't just a typical guy who rode a bike -- I was pretty damn good at it -- but it was still a fleeting opportunity. We had that fleeting moment, and it was taken away from us for reasons beyond our control."

In his work as an HIV specialist, Young now spends several weeks a year in Russia, eastern Europe and central Asia. On a recent visit to Kiev, he found a street vendor selling pins from the 1980 Moscow Games. He purchased a Moscow Olympics cycling pin for himself and picked up a pin emblazoned with Misha the Bear, mascot of the Moscow Games, for Shaw. He mailed it to her from Moscow's Red Square.

"Meeting Celeste was like meeting somebody out of the blue [who shares] a very joyous part of one's life that a lot of people don't -- but also this very painful part that was never resolved," he says. "We didn't get to complete the story. We're this unquantitated potential of what might be that never got to be measured. Most people just don't understand that, so when you meet people who do, it's a special kind of bond."

Neither Young nor Shaw talk about their experiences much -- "It's like reliving a divorce," Young says -- but time has allowed the good memories to take their rightful place alongside the bad.

"It didn't quite turn out the way I wanted it to," says Young, "but I have a lot of amazing memories."

As another Olympiad wraps up, Shaw says now, "There's not a way to make it better, other than to really reflect back that it was a gift to even participate. It was a miracle in my life, and I learned a lot from it. Those were moments in my life that I wouldn't trade for anything. Those memories are like gold medals to me."

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