Sports conversation in this culture will let you believe that it’s all about Red Sox Nation and Carolina Blue and the Silver and Black, that an athlete can make an opponent green with envy by getting red hot and filling an arena with white noise.
But in athletics, there are few things as important, and historic, as the pursuit of gold.
Gold medals are as storied a prize as there is in sport, and one could easily go an entire lifetime without even seeing one up close. It wouldn’t even take every finger of a single hand to count the number of gold medals from Summer Olympics currently residing in Snohomish County.
Kaye Greff, a retired schoolteacher from Mukilteo, has two of them after winning the 100-meter backstroke and being a member of the winning 4×100 medley relay team in the 1968 Olympic Games. Edmonds resident Paul Enquist also has a gold medal, which he earned in the double sculls event during the 1984 Games.
But both of those athletes were raised in other parts of the state. Greff, when her name was Kaye Hall, was a senior at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School when she went to the Games, while Enquist is a graduate of Ballard High in Seattle.
The only two gold medalists with deep Snohomish County ties are no longer in these parts. Rower Rusty Wailes, who earned golds in both the 1956 and 1960 Games, passed away in 2002. Steve Erickson, who joins Wailes as a graduate of the old Edmonds High School, won a gold medal as a 23-year-old sailor in 1984 but now coaches in other parts of the country and spends his summers sailing the world.
Of all the thousands of high-caliber athletes to come through these parts, many of whom went on to compete at the professional level, only a handful have touched gold.
Perhaps that’s why Greff prefers to keep her medals in the shadows.
“They are just tucked away,” she said two days ago, while just beginning her second year of retired life after teaching art at Explorer Middle School in Mukilteo.
“I used to bring them out quite a bit and do talks at clubs and schools and organizations. Then over the years, maybe once a month — mostly at schools and large venues. The last 15 years, not so much anymore. And that’s fine. There are a lot more athletes out there that are more current and relevant.”
And yet Greff is as proud as ever of her feat. She was only 18 years old when she upset Canada’s Elaine Tanner for backstroke gold, then the Tacoma native essentially retired from the sport. Kaye Hall’s only competition following the 1968 Games included a couple world championship events and some meets competing with the University of Puget Sound men’s team — there were no official women’s swimming teams in those days — before she gave up the sport for good in her early 20s.
Her dual-gold performance in Mexico City was the greatest feat of Kaye Hall Greff’s athletic career. About that, she has no question.
“It’s such a big deal to get the gold,” she said. “Back then, it was totally amateur, so there were not all these ways to make financial gains from it. If you didn’t do it, you had to wait four more years. That’s the agony of defeat: all or nothing.”
Perhaps that’s why she has such a hard time watching the Olympics these days. Greff said she often feels more for the silver and bronze medalists than she does identify with those who win gold.
“It’s like falling off a cliff — all or nothing,” Greff said when asked what makes the Olympics so difficult to watch. “You work four years for this, and now you have to get it done — or wait four more years.”
And yet among those local athletes who have earned silver medals, none of them seem to harbor any ounce of regret about what could have been.
Gymnast Brett McClure (2004 silver medalist) and rower Alan Forney (1984) both stood on the second tier of the medal podium and are proud to talk about their feats without ever wondering what it would have been like to wear gold.
McClure, who grew up in Mill Creek and took some classes at Jackson High School, was a member of a 2004 men’s gymnastics team that ended the United States team’s 20-year medal drought in that sport.
“I don’t think of what could’ve been because of how far we came,” McClure said. “From not even smelling the podium for 20 years to being in contention for that top spot, and seeing the American flag raised again, it was so gratifying, so fulfilling.”
Forney has similar feelings about his silver medal in the men’s coxless fours event at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. His boat didn’t settle on a lineup until a few weeks before the Olympic event, so finishing second to the heavily-favored New Zealand boat was considered quite an accomplishment.
“I’m just ecstatic that we won the silver,” he said. “Six weeks before the Olympics, I don’t think anybody was predicting us to be in medal contention. The four I was racing in really came together in a short amount of time.”
The silver medal is Forney’s greatest athletic prize, and yet he kept it in a safe deposit box for a good part of his adult life. Eventually, he decided to keep it at a safe in his home after realizing just how rare it was to have such a reward and that others might gain something from it.
“It’s not one of those things that can be taken with you when your time on earth is done,” the Woodway High School graduate said, “so I’ve let as many kids, and people in general, touch it, wear it and handle it.”
When his daughter, Alyssa, was in the fourth grade, Forney brought the medal, along with his oar and an American flag, into her class for a show-and-tell. But mostly he keeps the medal packed away in a safe and cherishes the memories.
“It was a lot of fun,” Forney said of the Olympic Games and a corporate-sponsored, national tour that followed for ‘84 medalists like Forney and — among others — Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis. “A lot of great memories.
“That’s the neat thing. You can take away the rings, the medals and all the paraphernalia, and you’ve still got the memories.”
McClure never will forget his silver moment, even though he no longer has the medal in his possession. He gave it to his parents two years ago, and they plan to soon have a replica on display in their Mill Creek home.
“They sacrificed a lot to let that happen,” McClure said via telephone from Palo Alto, Calif., where he is an assistant coach for the Stanford men’s gymnastics team. “I definitely have my time to enjoy it, but until then I’ll let them have it.”
Even without the physical medal, McClure still basks in what it means eight years later. In fact, he’s even more proud of his silver moment now than he was at the time.
“Through the process, you’ve been trained to kind of become a robot, in a sense, to go through motions and pretend it’s not the Olympic Games,” he said. “Now, as a coach who’s been through it, there’s a little more perspective.
“To get that far — to make the Olympic team, let alone medal — I have so much greater an appreciation for what myself and the team were able to accomplish in 2004. The magnitude of it was tremendous, and my pride has grown so much.”
Few athletes get a chance to chase gold once, and even fewer get a second shot. Snohomish County only has one person who earned gold medals at two different Summer Games. Rusty Wailes earned one at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne and another four years later in Rome.
Wailes passed away in 2002, but longtime rowing partner and fellow medalist John Sayre of Anacortes said Wailes was “incredibly proud” of the achievement.
Older brother Ron Wailes Jr., who lives in Cle Elum, said his brother kept the medals stored away and rarely brought them out.
“Rusty was a very private person,” Ron Jr. said. “He didn’t really talk about the gold medals a lot.”
The location of Wailes’ two medals now is unclear, although it’s likely they are no longer in Snohomish County.
Lynda DiVito, who is one of his four children and who has since moved to Florida, said there were plans to donate one to her father’s alma mater at Yale and the other to the Pocock Rowing Center in Seattle, but that she’s not sure if it ever happened. Wailes’ widow, Lynn, resides in an assisted living facility in Woodinville and the other family members are spread throughout the Seattle area.
Sayre said living with gold is an achievement like no other.
“It’s an experience that’s absolutely unique,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s an exclusive club you’re in. It opens a lot of doors.
“… A lot of people ask about it. When they ask about it, sometimes they get more than they bargained for. A lot of stories go along with it.”
The kind of golden stories that only a rare few can tell.