One of my favorite parts of the Sochi Olympics was watching Meryl Davis and Charlie White win gold in Ice Dancing. Davis and White both grew up in Royal Oak and still live and train in the Metro Detroit area. In honor of their win, and all the Michiganders in Sochi, here are my five favorite medal-winning Michigan Olympians:
Michigan’s first Olympic medalist, sprinter Ralph Craig won gold in the 100 meter and 200 meter at the 1912 Stockholm Games. 2 golds in one game is nothing to scoff at, but what really impressed me is that Craig returned to the the Olympics 36 years later, as an alternate for the yachting team at the 1948 London games. The 59 year old Craig did not get a chance to compete, but he did receive the honor of carrying the American flag at the opening ceremonies.
Diver Richard Degener competed in two Olympics, 1932 in Los Angeles and 1936 in Berlin. He won bronze in 1932 and gold in 1936, both in the 3 meter springboard event. My favorite part of his story comes right after his victory in 1936 – a few monthes later, the White House presented Detroit with a plaque honoring its athletic victories (the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings had all recently won championships). Initially, the plaque was going to honor a baseball player, football player, hockey player, power boat racer, and a boxer. The boxer would be famous Detroiter Joe Louis. However, a stunning loss by Louis weeks before the plaque was finished caused the makers to remove his image and replace it with a more up-and-coming-star: Degener. I love this story because few people remember Degener today but Joe Louis is one of the most famous Detroit athletes of all time. I’m glad Degener got a brief moment in the spotlight, he certainly deserved it!
Another sprinter, Eddie Tolan repeated Craig’s feat of winning both the 100 and 200 meters at one Olympics – 1932 Los Angeles. Tolan, who grew up in Detroit and attended Cass Technical High School, had some serious hometown pride. He played football at Cass Tech, and was often quoted saying that “the six touchdowns he scored in one game as a 131-pound quarterback at Detroit’s Cass Tech High School was his greatest thrill, rather than his double win in the Olympics.”
Michigan’s first female medal winning Olympian was speedskater Sheila Young. Young won gold, silver and bronze at the 1976 Innsbruck games in the 500m, 1500m, and 1000m, respectively. Young is part of an incredibly athletic, and Olympic, family. Her husband Jim Ochowicz, and brother, Roger Young, both competed in cycling at the 1972 Munich games, with her Jim going on to the 1976 Montreal games as well. Her brother’s wife, Connie Paraskivin-Young, was a speedskater like Sheila, competing at the 1984 Sarajevo games before switching to track cycling, for which she won a bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul. Sheila’s daughter, Ellie Ochowicz, followed in her mother’s footsteps, competing in speedskating in 2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Turin and 2010 in Vancouver. Wow!
Shelley Looney is a hockey player who won gold with in the 1998 Nagano games and silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City games. Her other claim to fame? In 1980, as a kid in Brownstown, she wrote a letter of thanks to Canada for their role in rescuing the six Americans who escaped from the U.S. embassy at the start of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Her letter was actually turned into a single by Mercury Records, called “(This is My Country) Thank You, Canada).” Her gratitude didn’t extend to hockey, however, as she scored the game-winning goal in the 1998 game to beat Canada and win the gold medal.
Honorable Mention: Mark Wells and Ken Morrow
I have to give a final mention to Mark Wells and Ken Morrow, both member of the 1980 Miracle on Ice hockey team. Not only are they both from Michigan, they also both attended and played for Bowling Green State University, my own alma mater (yes, I went to school in Ohio). Go Michigan, but also, go Falcons!