What comes next? Photographing the lives of our sports heroes after the Olympics
U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! The Olympics have arrived and it is time for us to send our most brilliant athletes to compete against their counterparts from around the world while we all cheer from the stands (or our living rooms). But after weeks of intense competition, the fanfare will die down and the Olympians will return home. And, as King George asks in Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, "what comes next?"
While I tend to go home from work and take a bath, some Olympians come home from the games and make a powerful impact on the nation. With their newfound status as sports heroes and icons, they have the opportunity to leave a legacy in their communities and influence the lives of individual athletes around the world, long after the medals are awarded. Ken Regan, an icon in his own right in the photography world, documented athletes in and out of the Olympic stadium, preserving the impression they left on the public. The museum has acquired a recent collection of over 600 of his photographs documenting sports figures, celebrities, and politicians, including two historic Olympians who chose to make a difference.
MARY LOU RETTON
At the age of 16, gymnast Mary Lou Retton made Olympic history as the first American woman to win a gold medal in the individual all-around at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. She was thrust into the spotlight as her charming smile and wholesome attitude captured the hearts of Americans.
Immediately following the games, Retton signed major endorsement deals with McDonald's, Vidal Sassoon, and Wheaties. She became a household name as she was literally in your house, the first-ever woman featured on the Wheaties cereal box in your kitchen cabinet. Her success story remained in the hearts and minds of Americans as long as those boxes remained on the shelves.
Retton's omnipresence resulting from her endless endorsements had a profound impact on American youth; a new generation of female gymnasts emerged who wanted to be Mary Lou when they grew up.
In addition to her advertising presence, Retton encouraged children to stay active on her weekly children's fitness program, ABC Funfit, in 1985. At one time she even had her own move on the uneven bars: The Retton Flip. Today Retton remains an advocate for health and fitness, traveling the world as a "Fitness Ambassador" and motivational speaker, continuing to share her story and her signature smile.
Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee took the world by storm when she became the first African American woman to win an Olympic medal in the long jump, win back-to-back gold in the heptathlon, and score over 7,000 points in heptathlon (five times—no big deal). However, her incredible achievements go far beyond her command of the track; she is also a strong presence in her community.
After winning two gold medals in Seoul, South Korea, Joyner-Kersee was signed by McDonald's. Together they created the McDonald's Dream Machine, a program designed for Joyner-Kersee to give motivational talks to young people at schools, community centers, and Ronald McDonald houses. She was able to use the corporate reach of McDonald's to connect with kids and teens one-on-one.
The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation, created in 1995, provides scholarships to youth and honors urban community leaders, promoting education and unity in her neighborhood. The foundation raised over $12 million to build a new facility named for the Olympian in her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. The youth and sports facility, which opened in 2000, provides a safe space for members of the community to escape neighborhood crime and instead learn and participate in athletic programs.
Joyner-Kersee is not only focused on keeping members of her community safe and healthy, but also athletes who suffer from severe asthma, like herself. Diagnosed at the age of 18, Joyner-Kersee suffered a near-fatal asthma attack in 1993. This experience pushed her to seek proper treatment and encourage other asthmatic athletes to do the same. She developed a program called Friends to Asthmatics in order to educate people about the disease and assure asthmatic athletes that if they followed treatment plans, they could still go for gold.
Ken Regan was a man who had a reputation as big as Joyner-Kersee and Retton, who was trusted by politicians and rock stars alike to capture them in the limelight. So why was a photographer who was present when The Beatles landed in America in the '60s also present in the gymnasium of a high school in East St. Louis?
Just like these athletes who lead public and private lives in the Olympics and at home, Regan devoted his career to capturing both the show-stopping experiences and the quiet, intimate moments of celebrities' lives. While Retton and Joyner-Kersee traveled the country sharing their message of health, fitness, and glory, Regan used his camera to tell stories that the public might not see on a magazine cover.
The act of documenting these athletes' post-Olympic work has become part of Regan's own legacy.
These female Olympians are a couple of our American sports heroes working to make a difference back home in the United States. As we gear up for Rio, keep your eye out for those few who will continue on and change the world and how photographers document their experiences on and off the Olympic scene.
Sami Wright is an intern in the Photographic History Collection in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She is a junior undergrad studying history, art history, and museum studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland.