Published on March 22nd, 2011 | by Alan Abrahamson1
Joey Hagerty, and the Olympic journey
In baseball, when a really good guy retires, they have a ceremony on the field for him, and sometimes they go the extra mile and give him a brand new car. Maybe even a convertible.
In Greco-Roman wrestling, they have a neat tradition when a guy retires. He takes his wrestling boots and puts them at the center of the mat.
In gymnastics, there’s no such ceremonial farewell.
It’s too bad. A class act like Joey Hagerty deserves better.
We in the press are all too ready to pay attention to our Olympic athletes while they are in the white-hot glare of the Games themselves. But when the spotlight fades, what then?
The truth is that in many ways large and small Joey Hagerty embodies what the Olympic dream — more, the Olympic journey — is all about.
He didn’t get into gymnastics to make a ton of money, and didn’t. He didn’t get into it to become the star of stage and screen; he’s not.
He got into gymnastics because he loved it.
He chased the Olympics because he had a dream.
He got to live that dream — against, frankly, crazy odds.
Joey Hagerty, who turns 29 next month, leaves competitive gymnastics an Olympic medalist — even though he never once made a team that represented the United States at a world championships.
If you know gymnastics, you know that’s just implausible.
But it’s so.
Joey said, “I was never on a worlds team. Never on a big, huge team. I always had surgeries. My name was never out there — well, it was out there in a small way. I never had huge accomplishments. I never won the [national all-around] championship. I was the Trojan horse — that’s what Ed Burch called me,” a reference to his coach at Gold Cup Gymnastics in Albuquerque, where he grew up.
New Mexico is obviously not densely populated. But Gold Cup has sent a remarkable number of talented gymnasts to the U.S. team, including 1992 gold medalist Trent Dimas.
So that’s one reason for his success. He had role models.
Joey has three older sisters. He got into gymnastics in the first instance by tagging along after them.
Then, it turned out he was pretty good.
It turned out, too, that he had the one thing you have to have to be an Olympic athlete — the killer passion for whatever sport it is.
That’s what kept Joey going through the surgeries and all the ups and the downs.
Joey’s time came in the spring and summer of 2008.
First, at the national championships in Houston, he won the high bar and took third in the all-around.
Then, at the all-important U.S. Olympic Trials in Philadelphia, he won both the floor exercise and the high bar, and took second in the all-around.
Nine guys make up a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Six are in the starting line-up; three more, at the outset, are designated as alternates. There are all kinds of permutations involved in who makes the list of nine. Who, for instance, could help get points on the still rings? Who on the pommel horse? And so on.
Suffice it to say that a guy who wins two disciplines at Trials, who comes in second in the all-around — that guy, even if he had never before been on a worlds team, that guy was going to be on the Olympic team and, moreover, in the starting-six line-up.
“It didn’t even sink in until we got off the airplane in Beijing — holy cow,” Joey said. “We’re here. We did this — there were ‘Beijing’ signs everywhere. It was really surreal.
“Then we got to the Olympic village and the place was huge. The cafeteria was the size of football fields. It kept getting more and more overwhelming, and exciting, and fun. It didn’t stop. Stuff happened every day. Like, look, there was Kobe Bryant. Oh, my god. There was Roger Federer. Every moment was — precious.”
Practice — even that was a big deal at the Games. “We only got to see the arena once before we competed and seeing 14,000 people — I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a normal gymnastics meet, with a couple thousand people, maybe, but this was a sell-out.
“I wouldn’t say it was intimidating,” Joey recalled. No way. “It was that much more exciting.”
The U.S. team’s journey to and through its week of competition in Beijing was marked by ongoing dramas involving injuries to both Paul and Morgan Hamm. Raj Bhavsar replaced Paul. Sasha Artemev replaced Morgan, in an announcement made Aug. 7, 2008, literally the day before the Games would begin.
Artemev in particular was a gamble. For the U.S. men to have a shot at a medal, he had to produce on the pommel horse.
The U.S. gymnastics team — unfazed.
“Never count us out,” Joey recalled. “We were pretty determined to do our jobs.
“It didn’t even matter who stepped in. It was going to get done. If they had chosen [David] Durante,” at that point the sole remaining alternate, “instead of Sasha, we had the confidence it was going to get done.
“We were a group of nine. We were a clan. A family. All nine of us. They are my brothers for life.”
The competition, predictably, came down to Sasha, and the pommel horse. The gamble paid off. He got it done. The American men took third — a result they calculated on the sidelines as the German team was finishing their final turns.
“We had to calm ourselves down,” Joey said. “We didn’t want to be jerks. We had to contain our excitement. That was really hard. But once the meet was done and we knew we had won the medal, you could see the smiles on our faces.”
And as for stepping onto the podium?
“How do you describe the best moment in your life, other than having a child and getting married? There’s nothing else like it. There’s no way to describe what you trained for your whole life and what you’ve dreamed of. You can’t put words to that.”
Life goes on after an Olympics, of course, and doctors said Joey had to clean out his right shoulder, which he did in December of 2009.
He came back from that, enough at least to do what needs to be done in the gym — you’re always sore if you’re a gymnast. And now the London Games are only about a year away.
But, you know, that passion — it’s just not there anymore.
To be clear: There is no shame in that. None.
They say it takes courage to acknowledge that, and maybe that’s the case, but it takes something much more.
It takes fulfillment, and peace of mind, and serenity.
That’s what Joey Hagerty has.
He earned all of that.
“You have to enjoy what you do,” he said. “I was getting to the point where I didn’t want to go to the gym every day. My body was hurting and still hasn’t fully recovered from the shoulder surgery. I was just ready to move on with my life.”
Joey and his girlfriend, Ashley Van Orren, who is 23, have been together for two years. They’re going to move back to New Mexico and consider their options. Maybe do a little traveling, figure stuff out.
“I was happy being an Olympian,” he said. “The medal on top of that — it’s the frosting on top of the cake. I couldn’t be happier with my career.”
You lived the dream, Joey. Maybe you and Ashley can send us all a photo of the two of you together in Paris, or wherever, okay? Have fun out there.