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ZEPHYRHILLS — He heard the question plenty of times in the first few weeks after the Olympics. Where do you keep your gold medal?
And each time, Jason Rouser would lie.
He’d say it was locked in a safety deposit box at his bank. But really, it was inches away, under his pillow, or tucked in his pocket with the green ribbon pressed against his side — somewhere nearby so he wouldn’t have to separate himself from the achievement of a lifetime.
Ask the former U.S. sprinter where he keeps his medal now, 16 years later as new Americans are preparing for the London Games, and you get a different answer. It’s at home in a wooden box in Dade City, where he runs a personal training business and coaches track at Zephyrhills. He rarely looks at it or brings it out, unless someone asks.
“It’s been a long time since ’96,” said Rouser, now 42.
On a rainy afternoon at the Bulldogs’ track this week, Rouser opened the box again.
• • •
Rouser was always fast, quick enough that an elementary school teacher predicted he’d become an Olympian, but the Oklahoma native’s first love was football.
He played tight end and safety in high school and still glows when he mentions former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer shouting his name from across a parking lot before a track meet. It wasn’t until he started clocking blazing 400-meter times as a junior in high school that he switched his focus to track.
“I’d rather run around 400 meters than get hit across the middle,” Rouser said.
Rouser earned All-America honors for the Sooners but failed to qualify for the 1992 Olympics in the 400. He turned pro after college, toured the world and teamed with Michael Johnson on relays, but the failure of 1992 never left his mind.
In college, Rouser got by on sheer athleticism and the long strides from his 6-foot-6 frame. He worked hard enough to please the coaches, but not hard enough to become an elite runner. In the buildup to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he trained harder than ever, plowing through rain and snow at Oklahoma, to make up for it.
“That sting of not making it in ’92, I had to wait four years,” Rouser said. “Yeah, I was ready. In ’96, it was on.”
He ran a 44.17 twice in the Olympic Trials to finish sixth and claim a spot on the 4x400 relay team.
When Rouser arrived in Atlanta, the atmosphere overwhelmed him — watching Muhammad Ali light the cauldron at the opening ceremonies; wearing the same colors as the Dream Team II and Andre Agassi; representing his country like his father, a soldier in the U.S. Army.
“It’s different representing the United States and having that on your chest and having the world watching you,” Rouser said.
So just before he left the Olympic Village for his first race, the normally calm Rouser did something he had never done before.
He threw up.
• • •
Rouser raced well in Atlanta. In the first heat, the United States battled Qatar for the lead after the first leg before Rouser helped his team open up an insurmountable lead in the second. NBC’s telecast called him a “hulking figure.”
But after he helped America qualify for the finals, his coaches replaced him with Orlando native Alvin Harrison. Rouser watched his teammates finish first to win him a gold medal.
“I’m not bitter about that at all,” Rouser said.
A leg injury sidelined him in 1999 and doomed his chances of qualifying for the 2000 Games, but his speed earned him another taste of the Olympics — in bobsledding. Rouser tested the track and sleighs as a forerunner for the U.S. team to prepare for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
After his athletic career ended in Salt Lake City, he moved to Dade City, the hometown of his wife, Janay. His gold medal boosts his training business, Goal Works, and it still comes up in conversation, with strangers and teammates.
“It opened a lot of doors for me,” Rouser said, “and it still does.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.