King of the Hill? Mike Hill wonders what could have been in 1980 Olympics
As he watched the Winter Olympics on TV last month, Mike Hill remembered another time when Russia was in the Olympic spotlight.
It’s not a good memory.
Thirty-four years ago, the summer of 1980 was supposed to be Hill’s year. That was the year that would mold him, push him into the Olympic spotlight and possibly be his crowning achievement.
It was his year.
As a world-class decathlete who competed alongside the most famous decathlete of them all — Bruce Jenner — Hill was poised to contend for gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Hill never got that chance and 1980 drifted away just like a non-Olympic year.
Like virtually all potential 1980 Olympians, there’s one man who is squarely at the center of their disdain: The 39th president of the United States.
“I have the same feelings today that I did back then,” Hill said, looking fit at 63. “They let politics get involved with the Olympics. I felt Carter put his foot in his mouth and couldn’t get it out, so he had to follow through with his threat.”
Hill doesn’t hold his tongue when he talks about President Jimmy Carter, the man who ultimately shut down Hill’s dream of Olympic glory.
The U.S., behind Carter’s decision, boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
As he watched athletes from all over he world, including the U.S., compete in Sochi, Russia, Hill wonders why the boycott happened.
“It didn’t do any good, it had no impact,” he said. “The boycott was such a waste of time.”
Soviet forces didn’t depart Afghanistan for another 10 years.
“The (United Kingdom) let the athletes vote, and they voted to compete. Here’s our No. 1 ally and they voted to go and their government allowed them to go,” he said. “So why didn’t they let us take it to a vote?”
But the past is the past, and Hill has moved on. He moved to Grand Junction three years ago when he came to do a bicycle ride.
“I rode the (Colorado National) Monument, and that was it, I said, ‘I’m moving here,” he said with a laugh.
For the past two years he has brought his track and field expertise to the Fruita Monument High School track team and coach Sean Mulvey.
Hill won’t help with the team this year, but Mulvey, who also is the Wildcats’ football coach, said his two years with Hill was a tremendous learning experience.
“I have gotten so much better as a coach in my preparation and planning,” Mulvey said. “I am truly indebted to Coach Hill. Over the course of the two years we have worked together he has helped me develop a better system for coaching. His expertise has been greatly appreciated and has been invaluable to my growth as a coach.”
Hill’s dream of Olympic glory is no boastful, outlandish exaggeration. He was good, one of the top decathletes in the nation for the better part of a decade.
In 1972 and 1976, he placed seventh in the Olympic trials. In another four years, he would be 30 and at his athletic peak for the demanding sport.
He left Southern California to attend the University of Colorado and fell in love with the state about 40 years ago.
In 1978, he was the best decathlete in the U.S.
“I definitely had a shot (at a medal),” he said about the 1980 Olympics. “I was national champ in ‘78, so 1980 was my best shot.”
All through the 1970s and in 1980, he found himself in Russia competing on multiple occasions.
It’s a bittersweet memory when he talks about competing in the country that would host the 1980 Olympics.
Instead of Moscow in the summer of 1980, Hill ended up in Buenos Aires, Argentina at a meet with elite athletes who weren’t competing in the Olympics.
Instead of targeting his training to peak for the Olympics, Hill instead trained to peak for two events in South America, several weeks after the Games.
“Those were my Olympics,” he says, adding he didn’t win but he did well.
Hill dreamed of becoming a decathlete when he was 10 and read the Jim Thorpe story. Regarded as one of the greatest all-around athletes ever, Thorpe won the 1912 Olympic decathlon in Stockholm, Sweden. King Gustav V bestowed Thorpe with the title “World’s Greatest Athlete.” That title is now given to every winner of the Olympic decathlon.
A DECATHLETE LIKE BRUCE
In 1976, Hill brought his video camera to Montreal to film the man who would bring the sport back to the U.S. spotlight and bring the winner unimaginable fame and riches.
The image of Bruce Jenner finishing the 1500-meter run, then taking a victory lap waving a tiny American flag is one of the most enduring images in Olympic history.
Sports magazine covers, TV interviews, the Wheaties box — Jenner became the most famous athlete in the world.
There would be no Olympic medal, no tiny American flag, no Wheaties box, no fame for Hill in 1980.
Fame wasn’t what Hill was after. After more than two decades of tireless training, he just wanted the chance to compete, represent the U.S. in the Olympics and maybe win a medal.
There’s still a sliver of frustration in Hill’s voice at times when he talks about his missed opportunity.
“You donate all your time and energy, six to eight hours of training, seven days a week, and back then, we didn’t make any money,” Hill said.
Even though his disgust for Carter remains, he says Jenner was a good guy with great athletic ability and supreme focus. Hill also laughs about the person Jenner has become.
“I wouldn’t change my life for his, that’s for sure,” Hill says. “With all those Kardashians, no thank you.”
Hill and Jenner were fellow U.S. decathletes up until 1976, when Jenner took his gold medal and fame and retired from the sport.
Hill chuckles when he admits that he’s watched the Kardashians on TV a time or two to get a glimpse of Jenner.
“He certainly has changed a lot,” Hill says about the former world’s greatest athlete.
AN END TO COMPETITION
After the 1980 Olympics came and went, Hill put his focus on Los Angles and the 1984 games. But the brutal physical impact of the decathlon had started to take a toll on Hill’s body. In 1982, he was still one of the top six American decathletes and made the U.S. team that competed in Europe.
As 1984 rolled around, it was clear that he was done. His Olympic dream was officially put to rest.
“In 1984 my body just couldn’t hold together anymore. The body just said enough,” Hill said, without a chuckle or a smile.
He said his best events were the long jump, the 100-meter dash and hurdles. He also thinks he could have been an Olympic contender in the 400 hurdles if he concentrated solely on that event.
Reflecting on his decathlon days, he lets out a groan. “Totally exhausting. It’s a totally exhausting two days. It really took about three weeks to recover,” he said.
He quickly notes that the 400-meter run — the last event on Day One — is by far the toughest event of the decathlon.
“Some people think it’s the 1500 meters, but that’s the last event, so you can run it as hard as you want because you’re done after that,” he said.
Following his competition days, Hill has coached track and field at the high school and college levels and worked with adults with disabilities.
Although he won’t be volunteering with the Fruita Monument track team this year, he’s still hoping to find a paying coaching position.
He said he loves working with young people and truly enjoyed his two years at Fruita Monument.
“The kids didn’t complain at all, they were great. They have Sean, who has a great personality to work with the kids and they believe in him,” Hill said. “And I really enjoy working with kids.”
Mulvey said Hill’s work with young athletes was a pleasure to watch.
“Coach Hill is an amazing person to have around young athletes,” he said. “He has an intensity and focus about him, and the work that he does helps young athletes aspire for greater things.
“The thing that makes Mike so special is his willingness to give so much of himself to others.”
As an all-around athlete who dabbled in the team sports of football, basketball and baseball, Hill said there’s no substitute for the invaluable experience that comes with individual sports like track and field and wrestling.
“Team sports are great,” he said. “But to have the opportunity to be in an individual sport helps so much mentality. It’s all you, you don’t have anyone else to rely on. It’s so different from a team sport.”
At 200 pounds, Hill is only about 20 pounds heavier than he was at his athletic prime. He stays in shape at the gym, cycling, hiking and just being active. But the wear and tear of his athletic career is still with him.
After four surgeries on his right shoulder and another four on his right knee, plus a balky back, Hill admits the aches and pains will probably be with him forever.
Like the Greek decathlon itself, Hill says 1980 is ancient history. But it’s obvious that what-if thoughts creep into his mind sometimes.
After 39 years, Hill still holds the decathlon record at CU, a great source of pride. But it remains the haunting 1980 what-if question that can never be answered. There were many U.S. athletes that targeted 1980 as their year.
Maybe bronze, silver or gold was the goal. Maybe just memories of competing on the Olympic stage. But there were no medals for these athletes. No Wheaties box, no Olympic memories, no “Dancing with the Stars,” and no love for Jimmy Carter.
Hill has countless memories and honors of a successful career from decathlon competitions around the world.
He holds up a small diary notebook he purchased while competing in the Soviet Union in early 1980. “MOCKBA-80” is written on it. It means Moscow 1980. He has a number of keepsakes from 1980: Olympic pins that he exchanged with Soviet athletes, the 1980 Olympic mascot pin of a Russian bear and his No. 2 U.S. bib number. Those mementos now reside in a box in his home.
The notebook is still in pristine condition and doesn’t have a single word written in it.
There’s nothing to write. He has no Olympic memories. Only the haunting disappointment of a boycott and a shattered dream.