FORT WORTH, Texas -- The years haven't mitigated her disappointment. How could they? In the normal course of affairs, dreams get revised and abandoned all the time, but a dream shouldn't come to this. About this nothing was normal: Linda Cornelius Waltman's dream was torn away, snatched from her, like a purse by a runaway miscreant, ripped from her hands just as she embraced it.
"What were the odds?" she asks rhetorically. "After all those years of running on cinder tracks and in grassy fields, of training at night, of digging holes in the ground because we didn't have starting blocks and of my father clapping his hands because we didn't have a starter's gun, what were the odds that my Olympics would be that Olympics?"
Thirty years ago last Sunday, the United States Olympic Committee voted to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow. Waltman, who grew up in the Ryan Place neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas, and graduated from Paschal High School, was among those Olympians forced to stay home.
Even now, she says, she can't watch the Games on television without the memories and frustrations returning, without the old disappointment bubbling up again. That was to be her time, her glorious moment, 30 years ago, and she knew there couldn't be another.
"It never feels any better," she says. "For me, when I look back on it now, it was a broken dream. I knew I wouldn't be able to come back four years later."
Waltman was a track athlete, competing as a youngster on AAU teams and with clubs. In those pre-Title IX days, girls frequently didn't have much support or many resources; often they didn't have coaches, or rarely had coaches with experience and expertise. For most of her early athletic career, Waltman recalls, her father, Howard Cornelius, coached her after work.
Following his instincts and recognizing in his daughter an uncommon talent, he would take her to the nearby Paschal track in the afternoons and evenings, where he would encourage her through workouts intended to hone her speed and enhance her spring. The quarter-mile and the long jump were her best events.
Paschal didn't have a girls' track team until her junior year. And then it was only a pilot program. This, after all, wasn't far removed from the era of Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 until 1972: He once said that women were beautiful when they swam but lost their charm when they competed in track and field.
Waltman very much wanted, she says, to go to college in Texas. But in 1975, no school in the Southwest Conference, that old guardian of feminine charm, offered women a full athletic scholarship. And so, her scholarship opportunities limited, she initially attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
A year later, however Waltman transferred to Texas A&M, where she became not only the first woman in the Southwest Conference to receive an athletic scholarship but a two-time All-American in the pentathlon. And during that entire journey, from Fort Worth to Las Vegas to College Station, she dreamed of the 1980 Olympics.
When asked about her goal, that was it. That was why she learned to run hurdles and throw the shot put. She graduated from Texas A&M in 1979; she married; her husband, Robert, an athlete himself, became her coach; but she basically put her life on hold so that she could not just follow but realize her dream. And she was still training for the Olympics, still embracing that dream when, on Dec. 27, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Brundage argued that the Olympic ideal superseded philosophy and politics, that the Olympic movement overrode nationalism and jingoism. And from that quaking but seemingly high ground, as president of the United States Olympic Committee, he opposed a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler's Berlin back yard. Brundage, of course, has been criticized, probably justifiably, for anti-Semitism and sexism. And by more modern standards, meaning the standards of 1980, he was also, at the very least, willingly naive.
Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, by brothers Tom and Jerry Caraccioli, details the events surrounding the boycott and briefly shines a spotlight on many lives affected by it. The Soviets invaded with tanks and as many as 50,000 troops to support the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a communist organization whose control of the country was threatened by mujahedeen insurgents, who were secretly aided by the United States.
In January, in his State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter denounced the invasion and promised the Soviets would pay for it: "The Moslem world is especially and justifiably outraged by this aggression against an Islamic people. ... I've asked our allies and friends to join with us in restraining their own trade with the Soviets. ... And I have notified the Olympic Committee that with the Soviet-invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow."
Carter didn't have any authority over the USOC, but with polls indicating overwhelming support for a boycott and with sponsors, what few there were in those days, threatening to withdraw, the vote was inevitable, even if somewhat reluctant. On April 12, 1980, the USOC voted -- 1,604 to 797 -- to boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Still, Waltman, who had set a world record in the trials, didn't believe it would happen. How could it? If it didn't happen in 1936, how could it now? Something would be worked out; something would intervene. What are the odds that my Olympics would be this Olympics?
Waltman was not among the 25 Olympians who, with one USOC executive, filed a class-action lawsuit against the USOC. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed.
Eighty countries competed in the 1980 Summer Olympics, including England, France and Ireland; 65 didn't, including Canada, China, Saudi Arabia and, of course, the United States. Nadezhda Tkachenko of the Soviet Union won the women's pentathlon.
For making the team that didn't go, the U.S. Olympians received a gold medal, along with the appropriate accoutrement, uniforms and patriotic jackets. They got a trip to the White House, although some didn't shake Carter's hand.
Still, Waltman says, she and the other members of that team somehow feel "a little less Olympian."
She tried to train after that, she says, as if there could have been for her a 1984 Olympics, but she had lost her motivation. After all those years of training and struggling to reach that dream, that moment, her Olympics, which, in the end, the mighty and powerful said wasn't hers at all, she was done. And at 23, she needed a full-time job; she needed to move on.
Today, she's the director of Parks and Recreation for Highland Village. Her son, Bobby Joe, who's in the Army, just returned from Iraq. Her parents still live in Ryan Place. And although she doesn't dwell on the events of 1980 and will say she's probably a better person for all that happened, the disappointment remains with her, even after 30 years.