Congressional Medal honors

Twenty-seven years after the 1980 Olympic team was honored with Congressional Gold Medals, the designation has finally become official. Four Lady Vols – the head coach and three former players – are among those who have now received the highest civilian honor in the United States.

For Holly Warlick, the associate head coach for Tennessee and a former player, the news is bittersweet. She was thrilled to learn of the designation, but the Olympic dream was snuffed out for her and hundreds of other athletes because of the prevailing politics of 1980.

In March of 1980, President Carter announced that the United States would boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's military action in Afghanistan. Congress supported the boycott and enacted a law that authorized the president to present medals to the 1980 Olympians on behalf of Congress.

The U.S. Mint produced 650 medals – 461 were for athletes – that were gold-plated instead of solid gold because of cost issues. Thus, the official listing of Gold Medal recipients maintained by the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives did not acknowledge the Olympians, although Congress intended that they be fully recognized as Congressional Gold Medal honorees.

"It's good to hear," said Warlick, a Lady Vol player from 1976 to 1980, of the now-official designation. "I appreciate whoever had the time and the vision to do it."

It was the work of four entities – members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, the United States Olympic Committee, the United States Olympians Alumni Association and Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas – to correct the record books, and their efforts began earlier this year.

Congress' intent in 1980 was to recognize the historical sacrifice the Olympians made, as well as to record the patriotic role of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which has since dissolved.

Warlick was set to compete for the United States on the women's basketball team, along with former Lady Vols Cindy Noble (1978-81) and Jill Rankin (1979-80). Pat Summitt, then known as Pat Head, was an assistant coach for the USA team.

"You work four years to get there and in a matter of months the decision was made to not send us," Warlick said. "Politics and sports come together, but you don't understand it and it just happened. To be honest I didn't agree with it – the majority of us didn't agree with it – but it was out of our control."

The news of being an official recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal – Warlick, Rankin, Noble and Summitt now share a list spot with such notables as George Washington, the first president of the United States – did bring a smile to Warlick's face.

"Absolutely," Warlick said. "But to say that I don't feel a little bitterness towards it, I do. Anybody that is a competitor, I think, would still regret not getting to compete. At the time that was all we had. Growing up, the Olympics was something huge for me. That was the ultimate goal for an athlete."

The Olympics were the highest platform for a female basketball player at that time. The college game had not yet fallen under the umbrella of the NCAA, and there was no NBA-backed pro league such as the WNBA.

"That was the ultimate goal for a female basketball player," Warlick said. "That was it. I went for four summers (traveling across the globe to prepare). It's a lot of time. It's a lot of commitment. We were amateurs doing it in the summer."

Those amateurs will now be officially recognized with the highest honor that Congress can bestow.

"There's a part of me that wishes I could say I was a gold medalist," Warlick said. "I don't get a chance to say that. I just can say I was part of the team."

Warlick can now say, however, that she is a Congressional Gold Medal holder.

Last September, Tiahrt and USOC Chief Executive Officer Jim Scherr sent letters to Lorraine Miller, Clerk of the House, requesting that the medal authorized by the 96th Congress be officially listed as a Congressional Gold Medal. The Clerk's office has since designated the medal as such and added the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic Team to the official list of recipients.

The medals have been awarded over the last 231 years and include U.S. presidents, world leaders, pioneers, inventors, military figures and athletes. Recipients include Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Jesse Owens, David C. Farragut, the Little Rock 9 and the passengers on United Flight 93. George Washington got his medal from the Continental Congress on March 25, 1776.

Warlick, Noble, Rankin and Summitt officially joined the list in 2007.

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