Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dating an Olympian: The Pride and the Heartache

Many of us remember the first person who broke our heart, but I wonder how many people have to watch that person become an overnight Olympic champion just a year later.

When John Naber won his four gold medals and set six world records at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, I was just barely getting over the heartache of him breaking up with me. Watching him on the medal stand, soaking up the world's sudden love affair with him, part of me wanted to boast "Hey, it's my ex-boyfriend!" and part of me just wanted to cry, remembering how completely wrapped up in him I was for a year and how much it hurt when he told me that he thought we should just be friends because his life was "complicated."

I met John through my best friend in high school, who swam with him at Ladera Oaks Aquatic Club in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the summer before his freshman year at USC and my junior year in high school. We'd become fast friends that summer and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with John. He was everyone's friend, generous of spirit, and not at all caught up in his developing celebrity. Looking back now, I'm sure that some of his appeal was his developing celebrity, but I also know that I'd never had such deep discussions with a man before about things that really mattered: love, life, religion, and friendship. And I'd never felt so comfortable in a man's arms before. I'd had boyfriends before John, but our relationship felt more mature than my previous relationships, making me feel that I was dating a man, whereas my other relationships had been with teen guys -- probably because John was the first person I'd dated who made me feel... well, not like a grrrrrrl.

I thought my heart would break when John left for college, but we stayed cloesly in touch and when he came home for Christmas, I fell even more in love with him, sure that we'd be together for a while. Our song was "Time in a Bottle" because it seemed that we'd have plenty of it once things eased up for him, since his quest to be an Olympian had pretty much taken over his life. We even joked that I'd be his "towel holder" at the Montreal Olympics the following year -- and I believed it.

When John came home in May, a year after we'd met and become fast friends, he gently told me that he thought it best that we not have an exclusive relationship. He was breaking up with me and I remember it feeling like a knife in my heart. Looking back now, I realize that I what I felt for John was probably more infatuation and admiration than love, but you'd never have been able to tell me that then.

I remembering driving home in a daze, running into the bathroom and sobbing for hours, filling the tub over and over again, letting out just enough water to allow me to keep fill the tub again so my family couldn't hear my deep, tortured sobs. My heart was breaking and to this day I can say that I'm not sure it ever felt so broken since, even though relationships have certainly broken up since then.

The last time I saw John was in the early 1980's, after I'd graduated from college and grad school and had just begun my first career job at Disney. Tom and I had recently moved in together and as we enjoyed a "business lunch" together that day, the always upstanding, always moral John made it very clear, in an almost fatherly way, that he disapproved of my "living in sin" arrangement. I remember it bothering me that I'd disappointed John, even then, but I'd gotten past the heartbreak at that point and regarded his disapproval as almost a compliment because it said that he still cared about me, even years after our romantic relationship had ended.

John and I are still in touch, mostly just through the occasional holiday letter and occasional "how ya doin'?" e-mails. And once in a great while I see him commentating some obscure sports show on TV and then I do yell out proudly, like the 17-year-old cheerleader I was back then, "Hey -- that's my ex-boyfriend!" I'm not sure he knows, even now, how completely smitten I was with him back then, but a girl never forget the first man who broke her heart; I'm just glad it was broken by a guy whose kindness came in truly Olympic proportions -- then and now.

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jennifer said...

interesting, Naber's resume looks very similar to Mark Spitz. Motivational speaker, occasional sports commentator, businessman, endorsements-collector, etc. we'll see if Phelps goes down the same road after he cleans up a bit more in London.

Anonymous said...

The closest I ever got to an Olympian — remember Megan Quann who won a couple of swimming gold medals in the Sidney Olympics? (She was from Puyallup). Turned out I'd dated her FATHER!! He was a water polo star at WSU. No big heartbreak when we broke up though — and I'm sure WE would have never sired a gold medalist swimmer so things worked out just fine!

Goofball said...

oh wow you dated an olympic champion? That is pretty cool to be able to say so (especially now all the heartaches have cured!)

Unknown said...

The girlfriend in me says, "What a jerk!" Mostly because of the "living in sin" comment. But, then he does care if he has stayed in touch that long.

Very nice writing here!

Anonymous said...

Eh, I think you're better off. According to his site, that guy sells his autograph for 3 bucks each. That's not gonna put 3 kids through college.

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