Note: This story was brought to my attention from the wafflehouse incident at the USATF School in Asheville- Lynn Smith who I met once is a story that I will be sharing every year with my track athletes. Never ever give up.
On Friday morning, Smith was in the front row at the Bird’s Nest, the mammoth main stadium, coaching Fountain. It was his second Olympics experience. His first one, 12 years ago, is the one he and his mother try to forget.
My mom, whoo! Smith said after coaching Fountain from the stands through the first session of the heptathlon, in which women compete in seven track and field events. I know (my mother) was mad at me. I was supposed to go by her house before I left (for China), but I just didn’t want to do that goodbye.
I was trying to stay calm and not think about it, and the last thing I wanted to see was her face, like, ‘It’s the last time I’m gonna see you, because I know what happened the last time.’ Or, ‘I’m gonna have to come see you again like I did the last time.’ I didn’t want to go through that whole emotional deal. She would’ve got emotional, and I would’ve got emotional.
Smith was one of 111 people injured (one woman died) at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when a terrorist’s pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Park, the hub of the Games. Smith survived, with the help of miracles, but he still carries scars and memories. The memories came rushing back when he stopped to talk after Fountain’s glorious morning performance, wins in the 110-meter hurdles and high jump.
Smith took two writers back to that night in Atlanta, when the buddy road trip of a lifetime turned into a tragedy.
Smith, then 30, and his good friend Eric (Chick) Johnson, then 34, flew from Dayton, Ohio, to Atlanta the night of July 27, eager to live a sports fans’ dream. They were arriving a few nights earlier than originally planned because Johnson’s aunt, an Olympics volunteer, had scored two coveted tickets to a U.S. Dream Team game for the two hoops junkies.
They landed, excitedly rushed to Johnson’s aunt’s home and found a note from her: If you want the Olympics atmosphere, come to Centennial Park. The two grabbed quick showers, stopped for burgers and got to the park at half past midnight.
Centennial Park was the spiritual hub of the Atlanta Olympics, always teeming with people, buzzing with energy. Chick and Lynn had been at the park about 45 minutes and were standing on a large lawn, listening to the live music of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.
Johnson noticed a group of police shooing people away from a light tower about 30 feet away. Smith raised his hand to point at something, and then the world blew up.
A pipe bomb, stuffed into a green knapsack and left near the light tower by terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph, sprayed a fireball of nails and scrap metal. Smith and Johnson were hit hard.
Johnson took five fragments, all in the stomach area. One sliced a vein. He thought he’d merely had the wind knocked out of him, but then blood began seeping out of his stomach, soaking his shirt.
Smith was hurt worse. A chunk of metal blew through his chest, front to back, taking out the bottom of his left lung and leaving a hole in his back the size of a tea saucer.
Then, almost instantly, the unluckiest man at the Olympics became the luckiest.
Smith ran a few steps, staggered and fell into the arms of a woman who was an off-duty nurse. She found the exit wound and jammed her fist into Smith’s chest cavity to slow the bleeding.
It was a push-me, pull-you thing, Smith said Friday. I was trying to take her hand out of my back, and she was trying to keep it in.
Another crazy bit of luck: Two ambulance drivers had just finished their shift and decided to drive to the park and hang out, soak in the atmosphere. They got to Smith immediately, but an argument ensued.
The two paramedics wanted to load Smith into the ambulance, but a triage nurse who had rushed to the scene ordered the men to place Smith with other victims in a field triage area, where injuries would be evaluated and treatment prioritized.
The two ambulance guys said, ‘You’re not going to stop us, we’re taking him right now,’ said Smith, who never lost consciousness.
Then there was another argument, because the triage people wouldn’t let the off-duty nurse ride in the ambulance with her fist in Smith’s chest. After much debate, someone else was allowed to ride with Smith and keep his wound plugged.
Johnson wound up having two surgeries. Smith had seven and was in the hospital nearly a month.
I don’t remember the first 12 days (in the hospital), Smith said. All I remember is I got this (he fingered a small bump near his mouth) because I kept trying to take the ventilator out of my mouth to ask them how Eric was and to ask them about Aaron (Smith’s then-year-old son, back in Dayton).
A month later, Smith quietly left the hospital and returned to Ohio and eventually to his job as a volunteer track coach at Central State University in Wilberforce, near Dayton.
He worked with some top athletes over the years, and in 2005, he met Hyleas (pronounced hy-leece) Fountain.
She was a four-time NCAA heptathlon champ at Georgia and placed fourth at the ’04 U.S. trials, one spot short of making the Olympic team. She was ranked seventh in the world in ’05.
Soon Fountain moved to Dayton to work with Smith, who is now the women’s head track coach and men’s assistant coach at Central State. However, a string of injuries slowed Fountain’s progress.
When things didn’t go well in ’06 and ’07, Smith said, they (the media and track world) had basically written her off and were looking for the next up-and-comer.
Smith and Fountain stayed the course, often scrambling to find workout tracks, Fountain financing her dream quest by working in the garden department at Home Depot.
But they made it to China, coach and athlete, flying pretty much under the hype-hoopla radar. Smith was keeping his old Atlanta memories pushed down, until the tragedy on the day after Opening Ceremonies, when the father-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball coach was stabbed to death by a maniac in Beijing.
That’s the only time I was nervous, and it wasn’t for myself, Smith said.
It was for his mom.
I gotta get to a phone, he said he told himself, to tell her the guy who was killed wasn’t me. Knowing my mom, she was probably going berserk.
Friday afternoon, after the two heptathlon events, Smith walked out of the Bird’s Nest and into the first blue-sky day of these Olympics.
It had been, after all these years, his first time at an Olympics venue.
Yeah, Smith said quietly, I never made it in Atlanta. … I finally made it to the stadium.