Sunday, April 22, 2018

St. Petersburg's Nicole Haislett has changed plenty in 20 years since winning Olympic gold medals

For most of us, the medal display might border on the gaudy. Walk through the door, and the gold would be there to stare at you.

Yeah, if most of us were to win three Olympic gold medals, visitors would know all about it. The medals would be in a specially made case, and there would be spotlights and video highlights in the background and if you pushed a button, the Olympic theme song would play.

Nearby, there might be a T-shirt stand.

Just for the memories, you know.

In the case of Nicole Haislett-Bacher, swimming gold-medal winner, things are somewhat more subtle. Her medals, as near as she remembers, are inside a Bed, Bath & Beyond bag. She thinks she remembers which closet she put the bag into, but she doesn't sound certain of it.

"We have a curio (cabinet),'' Haislett says, laughing. "They were in there for a while, but someone on our street had a robbery, so my husband (Ricky Bacher) took them out and hid them in a drawer, then they went into the bag. I've never had them on good display. I'm so ashamed.

"I'm not sure why I didn't in the early stages. I was moving around a lot, and I was still swimming, and at one point, I had a lot of plaques and awards. It seemed like too much. I wanted to decorate. I didn't want to have … plaques. Now, people come over and want to see them and I have to say, 'Hold on … I have to find where they are.' ''

Haislett laughs again, and the sound bounces across two decades to her days as the golden girl of the '92 Olympics.

Was it really that long ago? Haislett, 39, of St. Petersburg, is more than twice the age she was when she took home three gold medals from the Games in Barcelona. She has been a coach. She has been a chef. She has gotten married. She has had a daughter. She has grown up.

These days, Haislett works as a physical therapist and activities counselor at the Fountains of Boca Ciega Bay, a retirement community. She finds the work interesting, rewarding.

And yet, everyone's memories of 1992 are always close. She will meet someone, and inevitably, a mutual friend will bring up swimming, and Olympics, and gold medals. Haislett rolls her eyes at such moments, but there are worse designations to have than Olympian or gold medalist. Those are the titles that follow an athlete forever.

"For me, winning the gold medal was a reward for al the hard work,'' she says, looking back. "I really dedicated my entire childhood to winning and wanting to be the best, and the Olympics are pretty much the highest achievement in swimming. Making the team and getting that first gold medal made it all worth it. It was a big sense of relief. I demanded a lot of myself, and I gave up a lot. If I had walked out without a gold medal, I would have been devastated.

"People ask me what I was thinking, and it was pretty much, 'Whew!' I had more races, but the monkey was off my back. No one could take that away from me. It's become a part of who I am. I certainly don't say, 'I'm Nicole and I won a bunch of medals.' ''

At 19, Haislett was a serious, driven young woman who had spent a lot of hours staring through chlorine. It was that focus that enabled her to become an elite swimmer, but it also came with a price.

"I think I've changed so much,'' she said. "I was so wrapped up in swimming and competing. I had friends, and I did things. It wasn't like I didn't have a life. But swimming was the No. 1 priority and focus for me. I didn't pay a lot of attention to my friends' lives because I was so focused.

"I would say I was a selfish person, but I had to be. That's what worked for me. I think I was really naive. I didn't think I took everything in. I wish I had been a little older so I could appreciate it more. I was definitely a young girl with medals on her mind.''

The former Lakewood High and Florida star won three, including a masterful 200-meter freestyle, in which she set a world record, and two relay medals. That victory in the 200 can compare with any moment a Tampa Bay athlete has enjoyed.

It was a marvelous Olympics, that one. It was the one with the Dream Team and Gail Devers and Jennifer Capriati and an archer who lit the cauldron with a flaming arrow. Haislett remembers strolling through the village one day and seeing boxer Evander Holyfield. Her buddy Jeanie Wagstaff was asked to help figure out the new-fangled Internet system by another athlete, a guy named Charles Barkley.

Then there was the day that Arnold Schwarzenegger came calling. Haislett was a huge Schwarzenegger fan — a posters-on-the-wall fan — and the two chatted briefly by phone before the Olympics. Schwarzenegger said he was going to visit her during the Olympics. Sure enough, one day, there was commotion, and there was the Terminator outside of Haislett's window. When he opened a Planet Hollywood that night, Haislett was his guest.

It was late, and it was loud, and it was terrific. She saw the beach. She saw the Dream Team win a gold medal.

Two of Haislett's teammates — Dara Torres and Janet Evans — swam into their 40s. But Haislett's career ended in '95, just before the Olympics in Atlanta.

"It was the right time for me, the right decision. People were still of the mentality that you couldn't do it, that you were kind of washed up in your early to mid 20s. Training changed. Coaches changed. Diets changed.

"More than anything, it was a mental decision. I wasn't as committed. I knew I was nowhere near the level of '92, and I didn't just want to make the team on a relay.''

Still, she is an Olympian. One of the things she does display was the torch she carried in '96.

Oh, and there is this. Recently, her husband and 5-year-old girl Blake were driving when Blake spotted "an Olympic car.''

An Olympic car? It was an Audi. Four rings, you see.

The fifth ring? Oh, it's probably somewhere in one of Haislett's closet. Behind the shoes, maybe.

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