Aly Raisman knew she wanted to be an Olympic athlete when she was a little girl, watching the 1996 American team’s performance over and over again as she set her sights on the 2012 London Games.
Doug Collins, meanwhile, was an unheralded kid from Illinois State when he stepped on to the basketball courts in Munich in 1972 before embarking on a journey through the NBA as a player and a coach.
And, as both athletes told some 700 people gathered at the Katz Jewish Community Center's annual sports awards night in Cherry Hill Tuesday, it was an unyielding desire to chase their dreams—plus a ton of work along the way—that got them to where they are.
“If I only had one year…I would’ve signed up for it,” said Collins, who ended up being a four-time All-Star and has been the head coach of four different NBA teams, including the 76ers. “Not in my wildest imagination did I ever think I would be standing here, doing all the things I’ve been able to do.”
For the 18-year-old Raisman, getting to the Olympics was a dream that began when she started out in gymnastics at 2 years old, fueled by the images of that ’96 team’s unlikely run to gold and a passion for the sport that manifested itself early.
By 2009, when she made the national team, the dream began shifting to reality, and Raisman said it felt something like destiny.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I always knew I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she said. “I kind of always had that feeling I would be there.”
Two gold medals—one team and one individual—and a bronze later, Raisman said the Americans’ run at London was the chance of a lifetime.
“It was just an amazing experience in the team competition,” she said.
The individual competition, where she won gold in the floor exercise in her routine performed to the Hebrew folk song, “Hava Nagila,” a nod to her Jewish heritage, was no less exciting.
Her somewhat unorthodox choice of music got the crowd involved, something Raisman said made it memorable.
“It was just something I felt a lot of people could relate to,” she said.
And as a Jewish competitor, Raisman said it was meaningful to have her moment of triumph come on the 40th anniversary of tragedy for Jewish athletes—the 1972 massacre at the Munich Games.
Collins was in Munich at the time of the terrorist attack, and said he remembers seeing the Palestinian gunmen atop a balcony at the athletes’ village as the men’s basketball team headed out to practice.
“We had no idea what was going on,” he said.
Following the attacks and the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, Collins said a black cloud hung over the gold medal game against the Russian basketball team, but the athletes pressed on after Olympic officials allowed the Games to continue.
“As a 21-year-old kid, that’s not easy to do,” Collins said.
Those Olympics would eventually end in controversy for the Americans, who refused to accept their silver medals after losing to the Russians in a final marred by multiple restarts in the final seconds after Collins sank what was otherwise the game-winning free throw.
While Collins said the team still has no intentions of ever accepting those silvers, they haven’t completely turned their backs on those Olympics.
“If they want to give us a duplicate gold like they did with ice skating one year, we’ll take it—only if they say we won the game,” he said.
More important than that, Collins said, is his legacy, something he said young athletes should strive to do. He cited his academic All-American status as a key piece of that, and told young athletes to maintain that balance between sports and academics.
“You can do both—don’t let anybody every say you can’t,” he said. “Leave your mark.”