The following article is from the August 2016 issue of VeloNews.
Certainly there was no shortage of great cycling performances at the Olympics in 1984. The USA came away with lots of gold – men and women, road and track. And none of them belonged Nelson Vails. He won silver in the sprint, best by American colleague Mark Gorski.
But Vails was the name stuck, the story that sprang out – an emotional tale that Olympic advertisers could rely on for a little extra human interest.
In an age of hair-helmeted helmets, he wore a pink, hard-shelled airbrush with the New York City skyline. He was the kid who learned to ride in Harlem, the bike message picked up from the streets of Manhattan, the guy who was only at the Olympics because the Soviet boycott opened an extra trail for every nation. And he was the first African-American cyclist to ever medal at the Olympics.
“I did not really have a sense of how big it all was until after the Olympics were over,” he says. “Like when I got a message from the president of Columbia Pictures.” (He had a como in the Kevin Bacon movie “Quicksilver” and also served as an advisor.)
While Vails may have had a history that appealed outside of cycling circles, he was not the only American track star from 1984. Team USA came away with gold in the individual pursuit, thanks to American cycling legend Steve Hegg, who added silver in team pursuit . Hegg would pursue a successful road career that would include four U.S. national titles – three in the time trial and the 1994 national road race championship.
Gorski, who has had a thriving business career since retiring from cycling, also made waves with his daring conversation ahead of the gold medal race.
“In the press camp, Nelson and I sat side by side, and a journalist from Europe asked what we were thinking,” Gorski recalls. Nelson said something like: ‘I have realized my dream. Whatever happens, I’m thrilled. ‘Then the reporter turned to me. My response was: ‘I did not come here to get the silver medal. If I do not win gold, I will not even have the silver medal. ‘
“I do not want to say that the race ended right there, but Nelson, perhaps to a certain extent, was happy to just get to the final. That’s not to say he didn’t run his heart out, but it was unfinished business for me until I won gold. ”
1984 American Olympic medals by American riders
ALEXI GREWAL (men’s race); CONNIE CARPENTER-PHINNEY (race for women); STEVE HEGG (Men’s Individual Persecution); MARK GORSKI (sprint for men)
REBECCA TWIGG (race for women) DAVID GRYLLS, STEVE HEGG, PAT MCDONOUGH, LEONARD NITZ, BRENT EMERY (men’s team pursuit); NELSON VAILS (men sprint)
RON KIEFEL, ROY KNICKMAN, DAVIS PHINNEY, ANDREW WEAVER (men’s time trial); LEONARD NITZ (Men’s Individual Persecution)