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Tuesday, September 19
Woodhead was devastated by boycott

Former U.S. Olympic swimmer Cynthia "Sippy" Woodhead remembers sitting in her high school classroom, embarrassed at the tears that were about to overcome her. Without saying a word, she would stand up, walk through the doors of Riverside Polytechnic High and head home. There, she would sit in her room and cry.

The Athletes of the Boycott's Wayne Drehs caught up with five 1980 Olympians to reflect on the boycott 20 years later. Their stories:

  • Boycott still lingers
  • Swimming's Jill Sterkel
  • Rowing's Anita DeFrantz
  • Track's Bruce Kennedy
  • Basketball's Bill Hanzlik
  • Track's Tonie Campbell
  • Just 16 at the time, Woodhead was ranked No.1 in the world in four freestyle swimming events and was a U.S. record holder in six freestyle events. But the 1980 U.S. Olympic boycott kept her from the Games where she was going to shine. And she didn't know how to handle it.

    "I was very depressed and disillusioned by the whole thing," Woodhead said. "It was tough enough being a teenager, plus this. And there was nobody to relate to. So I used to just walk out of school and leave. Somehow, my parents, my teachers, everyone dealt with it. They knew that I didn't want anyone to see me cry."

    Things didn't get easier for Woodhead. She set her sights on the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but countless setbacks made the run to L.A. a difficult one. First, in 1981, there was a bout of mononucleosis. In 1982, Woodhead broke her leg. And later that same year, a nasty case of pneumonia set in.

    Woodhead was so drained she failed to make the U.S. National Team that year. She bounced back in '83, making the U.S. team and competing in the Pan-Am Games, but her confidence had eroded.

    "It was awful. Those four years (between Moscow and L.A.) felt like ten," Woodhead said. "It seemed like everything went wrong. But I felt I owed it to myself to compete in 1984, make the team, and actually go to an Olympics, so I pressed on."

    A heavy underdog at the '84 U.S. Championships, Woodhead faced the demons of her past head on. Though she qualified in just one event -- the 200-meter freestyle -- that in itself was a victory. She went on to win a silver in the Games, but the second-place finish was bittersweet.

    Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead
    Cynthia Woodhead runs triathlons instead of swimming competitively.

    "I enjoyed it, but I didn't," Woodhead said. "It felt like I was watching a movie and wishing I could have been there in my top form, at my peak. It certainly wasn't a highlight of my life."

    As Woodhead looks back 20 years later, she says she isn't angry. She considers her case one of "bad timing" and chuckles when thinking how she was too young to drive, vote, or enlist in the army, but old enough to be a pawn in an Olympic boycott.

    "I understand it more now," she said. "Back then I took the stance to support my country, thinking that I could compete at that level again. But I absolutely agree now with what we were fighting about."

    The entire experience was put into perspective for Woodhead in 1995, when her then-husband of seven years fell asleep behind the wheel and died in a car accident.

    "It makes you think about things," Woodhead said. "But I don't wonder, 'What if?' That's not me. I don't let that happen. Obviously I've had some speed bumps, but I'm lucky. I enjoy my life."

    Woodhead, who now lives on the California shore with her two golden retrievers, said her silver medal sits on a shelf and slowly erodes from the Pacific Ocean breeze. She briefly considered a comeback attempt in 1996, but decided against it. Instead, she spends her free time surfing, golfing and swimming to stay in shape.

    Now 36, Woodhead has found a sense of pleasure watching 33-year-old Dara Torres qualify for this year's Olympics.

    "Us older girls, we have a much better perspective on everything," Woodhead said. "And we're stronger, too. At 14 or 15, it's not a mature body. Thirty-year-old muscle and strength is so much different."

    Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for


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