[Ed.'s Note: When Mag senior writer Alyssa Roenigk got back from her trip to the Olympics, her computer was completely fried. This story was nearly a casualty of techincal difficulties but was miraculously pulled from the wreckage today.]
When athletes arrived in the Olympic Village in Beijing this year, they received everything from free jackets and T-shirts to haircuts and dental care. But none of the Olympic swag created buzz like the pairs of bracelets developed by 2004 Olympic rowing silver medalist and IMG Olympic consultant Kate Johnson for Johnson & Johnson's Hearts of Gold program.
"We wanted to create something athletes would want to wear and would be inspired to share with someone special who helped them on their Olympic journey," Johnson says. "I always thought I'd get an Olympic rings tattoo after Athens, until my friend Scott gave me a bracelet from Mauritania, Africa, where he was in the Peace Corps. It's engraved with my initials and the five rings and is so special to me. I wear it every day. That's where the inspiration for these bracelets came from."
Before they began designing the two bracelets—the "gift" bracelet is an imprint of the athlete bracelet and both feature a traditional Chinese chop, or engraved seal, as well as the Olympic rings and Beijing logo—Johnson—who is no relation to the J & J family—made it clear there was only one way athletes would wear the gift: If it excluded all corporate branding. "Johnson and Johnson totally bought in," she says. "So we were able to give the athletes an inspired gift without a corporate logo."
Thanks to Johnson, athletes had one last task before they could close the books on their Beijing experience: figure out who gets the other bracelet.
Swimmer Natalie Coughlin's choice was an easy one. "My, coach, Teri McKeever has made the biggest difference in my life," she says. "She has been my coach for eight years and has been so important to me."
"I chose my mother," says pole vaulter Leila Ben-Youssef, a 26-year-old Stanford grad who competed in her first Olympics in Beijing for Tunisia, her father's home country. "She has been my cheerleader for the past couple years. Even when I was told I should retire from the sport, my mom believed in me."
Rower Michelle Guerette, a silver medalist in Beijing in the single sculls, made her decision over lunch in the Athlete's Village. "Don Langford, the president of U.S. rowing, told me he has a photo of him and me on the medal podium from Athens on his desk," she says. "I couldn't believe it. Without him, our organization wouldn't have the resources to send athletes to compete at the Olympic Games. He is the unsung hero of our team and I would like to honor him."
Swimmer Christine Magnusson chose her University of Tennessee teammate Meghan Tomms … and her UT teammate Michelle King. "I'm going to enjoy my bracelet for now," she says, "and then give it up, too."
Canadian rower and 2008 gold medalist Adam Kreek chose his aunt, Jill Stainforth. "I was debating at first," Kreek says. "My wife Rebecca deserves it. But my aunt provided housing for Rebecca and I while I was training. That was pretty incredible."
U.S. rower Anna Cummins chose someone close to the bracelet project: her 2004 teammate Kate Johnson. "Every time I look at the bracelet, I think of Kate," she says.
Of course, not everyone could be so decisive. "That bracelet has caused me more stress than the whole competition at the Olympics," says Canadian badminton player Anna Rice, a two-time Olympian. "I have decided and changed my mind about 10 times."
While most of the athletes who picked up a pair of bracelets from the Right to Play booth in the Olympic Village might not have been aware of the corporate sponsor behind them, its message resonated. For a few Olympians, it hit even deeper.
Princess of Dubai Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed Al-Maktoum, who competed in Taekwondo, stopped by the booth and told Johnson about her experience as the only female athlete competing for the United Arab Emirates. "She said she was proud to be their flag bearer at Opening Ceremonies, but that being the only woman also makes her sad," Johnson says. "She wished she could give a bracelet to every woman in the UAE."
New Zealand marathoner Liza Hunter-Galvan, a 39-year-old mom, broke down into tears when Johnson presented her with the bracelet. "She told me she and her family had been in a car accident a year earlier and her husband had pulled her and her daughter from the car," Johnson says. "Everyone survived, but her 13-year-old daughter suffered permanent brain damage. She said she ran the marathon for her daughter, who has been her inspiration, and she couldn't wait to tie the bracelet around her wrist."