The following article is from the August 2016 issue of VeloNews.
Certainly, there was no shortage of big cycling performances at the 1984 Olympics. The U.S. came away with plenty of golds—men and women, road and track. And none of them belonged to Nelson Vails. He won silver in the sprint, bested by fellow American Mark Gorski.
But Vails’s was the name that stuck, the story that jumped out—a feel-good narrative that Olympic announcers could rely on for a bit of extra-human interest.
In an age of hairnet helmets, he had a bright red hard-shell airbrushed with the New York City skyline. He was the kid who learned to ride in Harlem, the bike messenger plucked from the Manhattan streets, the guy who was at the Olympics only because the Soviet boycott opened up an extra track slot for each nation. And he was the first African-American cyclist to ever medal at the Olympics.
“I didn’t really have a sense of how big it all was until after the Olympics was over,” he says. “Like when I got a message from the president of Columbia Pictures.” (He had a cameo in the Kevin Bacon movie “Quicksilver,” and also served as an advisor.)
While Vails may have had a story that appealed outside of cycling circles, he wasn’t the only American track star from 1984. Team USA came away with gold in the individual pursuit, courtesy of American cycling legend Steve Hegg, who added silver in the team pursuit. Hegg would go onto 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’s had a thriving business career since retiring from cycling, also made waves with his bold talk ahead of the gold medal race.
“At the press camp, Nelson and I were seated side by side, and some journalist from Europe asked what we were thinking,” Gorski recalls. “Nelson said something like, ‘I’ve realized my dream. Whatever happens, I’m thrilled.’ Then the reporter turned to me. My answer was, ‘I didn’t come here to get the silver medal. If I don’t win gold, I don’t even want the silver medal.’
“I don’t want to say the race was over right there, but Nelson, maybe to some extent, was happy just getting to the final. That’s not to say he didn’t ride his heart out, but it was unfinished business for me until I won gold.”
1984 U.S. Olympic Games medals by American riders
ALEXI GREWAL (men’s road race); CONNIE CARPENTER-PHINNEY (women’s road race); STEVE HEGG (men’s individual pursuit); MARK GORSKI (men’s sprint)
REBECCA TWIGG (women’s road race); DAVID GRYLLS, STEVE HEGG, PAT MCDONOUGH, LEONARD NITZ, BRENT EMERY (men’s team pursuit); NELSON VAILS (men’s sprint)
RON KIEFEL, ROY KNICKMAN, DAVIS PHINNEY, ANDREW WEAVER (men’s team time trial); LEONARD NITZ (men’s individual pursuit)