Linda Cornelius Waltman will probably be watching the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Vancouver next month. Like while watching all Olympic Games since 1980, she will likely feel a pit in her stomach for what she missed out on as a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Pentathlon Team.
Waltman, like all of her Olympic teammates, had their dreams of Olympic glory dashed as the United States team boycotted the Moscow Games in response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.
Featured in the book BOYCOTT: STOLEN DREAMS OF THE 1980 MOSCOW OLYMPIC GAMES, ($25.95, New Chapter Press, www.boycott1980.com) Waltman participated in the 1980 Olympic Trials knowing that the team would not travel to Moscow, but was able to find reach an incredible level of satisfaction by earning a spot on a team that would not compete.
BOYCOTT: STOLEN DREAMS OF THE 1980 MOSCOW OLYMPIC GAMES, written by Tom and Jerry Carccioli, chronicles the stories of Waltman and her fellow Olympic team members who trained thousands of hours for their once-in-a-lifetime chance at Olympic glory in Moscow only to become pawns in a political Cold War chess match between superpowers. The book also outlines the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that led to the boycott, efforts by some athletes to overturn to the boycott by legal means and the entire 1980 team’s eventual ceremonial gold. Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale wrote the book’s foreword.
Waltman’s profile is excerpted below.
The first thing Linda Cornelius Waltman wanted to do was call her parents. “They were not able to be at the trials,” she emotionally recalls. “I’ll always remember calling my parents—who were, basically, uneducated, poor people—and saying, ‘Your daughter made an Olympic team.’ ”
Linda Cornelius Waltman enjoyed her greatest Olympic triumph in the trials, on the track at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and not in Central Lenin Stadium in Moscow. “They gave us a dozen roses and then we took our victory lap,” Waltman recalls. “It is probably the closest feeling that I would’ve ever had to being in the Olympics, because everybody in that stadium stood up and they never stopped clapping from the time they announced you and the three of us took our victory lap. They cheered and stayed on their feet the entire time.”
The fans in Eugene lustily cheered that day because they knew, as the athletes did, that the U.S. Olympic team would not be traveling to Moscow later in the summer for the XXII Olympiad. “For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot,” Waltman says.
The journey toward earning that once-in-a-lifetime started in Fort Worth, Texas. “I remember my dad coached me in high school,” she says. “He would get off of work at General Motors and we would go up to this four-lane cinder track. He grew up in a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozark Mountains. This was a man who just loved his daughter. He didn’t have a knowledge of track or a fancy camera or anything to train with. He just did what he thought was right. He went out there and put in hour after hour after hour with me.It’s amazing that I made the team.”
Waltman was from a generation of female athletes that did not enjoy today’s benefits of Title IX. Her R.L.Pascal High School didn’t even field a girl’s track team until she was an upperclassman. “Prior to that I ran on summer teams, clubs, and participated in AAU Track and Field and other club track,” Waltman remembers. “Through the efforts of several people, my father being one of them, they continued to push the Fort Worth athletic director to implement track for girls in high school.So, when I was a junior, they implemented a pilot program in five high schools to see if the girls really could run and like it.”
In 1975, Waltman’s senior year, all the high schools in the Fort Worth area offered track and field for girls. “You could do three running and two field, or two running and three field, and that was the maximum,” she recalls. “Every single meet I went to I did the maximum amount of events I could do. My specialties were the quarter-mile and long jump. My senior year I set a national high school record in the long jump at the state meet.”
Not having money to further her education following high school, a full scholarship was the only way the burgeoning pentathlete could afford to go to college. Ideally, Waltman wanted to stay close to home and compete in the Southwest Conference. “My dream was to go to the University of Texas, but no Southwest Conference school offered full scholarships for women,” Waltman explains. “So, I ended up going to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on a full athletic scholarship.”
With the burden of having to pay tuition off her shoulders, the UNLV track coach asked Waltman about her goals. She said she wanted to make the Olympic team. Since she had competed in five events in high school, reasoned she would become a pentathlete. Waltman enthusiastically accepted that challenge in 1976, the first step of which was learning to hurdle and throw shot put. So she embarked on learning two new disciplines to accompany three others—high jump, long jump and running the 800-meter.
Still wanting to return to her native Texas, Waltman decided to leave the Nevada desert. “Texas A&M said they had never offered a female athlete a full athletic scholarship, [but] they told me they wanted me,” she says. “So I applied to transfer and remain on eligibility. It was approved and I transferred to A&M my sophomore year.”
At Texas A&M, Waltman not only became the first woman in school history to receive an athletic scholarship, but she was also the first female student-athlete on scholarship in the entire Southwest Conference. “A lot of it back then was you had to be real self-motivated,” Waltman says. “There was a lot of pressure, I guess, to perform well. My vision was still the Olympic team, and I got a lot of support there.”
With her style of training established from her early days working with her father, Waltman never really needed the push of a coach’s words. When she arrived on the Aggie campus, the Athletic Department had just allotted a paid position for a full-time track and field coach. The year before, the coach had been a volunteer and member of the school’s cross country team. The new coach didn’t know much, so Waltman was told to just continue her previous training regime. “A lot of what I did was on natural talent,” Waltman says. “My fiancé actually ended up coaching me. I was never filmed—there was not a lot available to us back then. You had to use a lot of common sense. Basically, he coached me the year I made the Olympic team and we squeezed in workouts between school and work.”
Having graduated in 1979, Waltman needed financial help to continue her pursuit of Olympic glory. “In 1980, my husband was still in his senior year at A&M and we had to squeeze in workouts,” Waltman recalls. “Many times during the day, between classes, we were out there by ourselves. A&M supported me. The athletic director for women at the time, Kay Don, went around to the Aggie clubs all over the state and told them, ‘We have a girl who wants to make the Olympic team and we have to support her.’ She actually got donations from Aggie clubs that went into a fund, and she created a checking account that funded my training and travel for the year so that I could commit most of my time to working out.”
But then came the boycott. Waltman’s “happily-ever-after” ending to her Olympic story concluded in Eugene, Ore., as she circled the track in the victory of realizing her dream. The 1980 Olympic Summer Games in Moscow would have been her only chance to test herself at the highest level of competition. Her husband had been accepted to law school in Lubbock, Texas, and they were moving on with their lives. “For me,” Waltman says, “that was the one chance I had. One of us had to go to work, so I started teaching and coaching.”
After moving to Lubbock, she tried to regain the spirit that carried her to work toward Moscow. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old couldn’t muster the energy to train and sacrifice four more years. “I remember that Fall thinking I would start training again. I was running and trying to do some things, but I could never get it back. There was a sadness, and I just couldn’t get that high again that soon. For me it was the end of my athletic career, and I moved on with my life.”
Waltman has since been inducted into the Texas A&M Hall of Fame, and now works as the superintendent for Public Parks and Recreation in Boerne, Texas, and has served as commissioner of the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation for the past 23 years.
Despite the loss of a dream, Waltman contends that losing the chance to compete in the Olympics has not been the biggest disappointment of her life. “As you become a mature person and lose friends to illness, those are things that are big disappointments,” she says. “Has it been a big disappointment? It’s up there. I had never made an Olympic team. Several of the others had made several Olympic teams prior to ’80, and they knew what it was all about. I don’t know that I had that understanding at the time. I have since gotten that understanding of all the things that I’ve missed, and it angers me. I’m very angry because it shouldn’t have happened.”
Waltman, a mother of four, ponders her missed opportunity each time the world gathers to celebrate youth and sport every four winters and summers. “I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Winter or Summer Olympic Games, and seen the American team march in, that I don’t think about missing out on that. Every time,” she says. “It never feels any better. It’s really not about what you do at the Olympics. It’s being a part of the Olympics.You’ve heard that statement before and it really is true. That is something you shouldn’t take away from an athlete who’s given so much and worked really hard.”
Though she doesn’t dwell on it, the ultimate sadness that resides in the recesses of her soul reappears when she’s reminded about her experience in 1980.“I don’t feel like one of the lucky ones, that’s for sure. It’s just sad. It’s being unique without really wanting that uniqueness.”
In the end, though, she is proud. Proud to have accomplished a goal that, by today’s standards, is probably unachievable in the way Waltman pursued it. “My parents were both working-class folks. They did not have high school degrees, and they worked in factories. I just really wanted to do well to bring honor to them. Along the way, that became very important to me. I wanted to do something with my life, and I knew my route was going to be through athletics. That’s why I pursued that vision of a scholarship with the next thing on the list being the Olympics. That is the ultimate—to make the Olympic team.”