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75 YEARS OF STARS AT THE PAN AMERICAN GAMES: 1978 – 1987

The countdown for the Top 75 athletes who have competed at the Pan American Games continues with the stars from 1978 to 1987.

1978 – MARY T MEAGHER (USA) – SWIMMING

Mary T Meagher of the United States competed at her first Pan American Games when she was just 14 years old. Not only did she compete in the swimming events at San Juan 1979, she dominated the competition in the 100m butterfly event on her way to setting her first world record. However, her first chance at an Olympic medal was thwarted due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow 1980 Olympics. She then competed at the U.S. National Championships in 1981, putting on one of the most impressive performance the world has ever seen in the sport of swimming. Mary set new world records in both the 100m (57.93s) and 200m butterfly (2:05.96) events, records that would stand for the next 18 and 19 years, respectively. 

She claimed her first World Championship title in 1982 before returning to compete at the Pan Am Games at Caracas 1983, winning her second gold medal at the Games, this time in the 200m butterfly. She finally competed in her first Olympics at Los Angeles 1984, winning an impressive three gold medals in the 100m and 200m butterfly and 4x100m medley relay events. She returned to the Olympics for the final time at Seoul 1988, winning a bronze in the 200m butterfly as well as the silver in the 4x100m medley relay to finish her outstanding career. 

1979 – TEOFILIO STEVENSON (CUBA) – BOXING

Cuba’s Teofilo Stevenson is recognized as one of the best boxers in history and one of just three boxers to have won three Olympic gold medals. Before he stepped in the Olympic ring, Stevenson first donned the gloves at the Cali 1971 Pan American Games where he would settle for the bronze medal after falling to eventual champion Duane Bobick of the U.S. in the semifinal. However, this would mark Stevenson’s only defeat in international competition throughout his legendary career. Teofilo took his revenge against Bobick at the Munich 1971 Olympics, defeating him in three rounds in the quarterfinal before climbing to the top of the Olympic podium for the first time. 

He would grow accustomed to wearing the gold medal around his neck for the next 20 years. He returned to the Pan American Games at Mexico City 1975, winning his first gold at the Games and would repeat the feat at San Juan 1979. Stevenson was well on his way to becoming a national hero after claiming his second Olympic title at Montreal 1976. He was offered $5 million USD to turn pro and fight fellow boxing icon Muhammad Ali, turning it down out of the love of competing for his beloved Cuba. His legendary status was confirmed at the Moscow 1980 Olympics, winning his third and final Olympic gold. His impressive career also featured three world championship titles and two gold medals at the Central American and Caribbean Games.

1980 – ISIAH THOMAS (USA) – BASKETBALL

The leader of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons in the NBA, Isiah Thomas is one of the greatest point guards and players in the history of basketball. Before attending college, Thomas was selected to join the U.S. National Team and compete at the San Juan 1979 Pan American Games. He led Team USA to the gold medal in Puerto Rico in what would be his only international appearance for his country due to the controversial decision to leave him off the 1992 “Dream Team”. He was selected to compete for Team USA at the Moscow 1980 Olympic but was unable to do so thanks to the U.S. boycott of the Games. 

Thomas entered the NBA in 1981 and would go on to lead the Detroit Piston to consecutive NBA Championships in 1989 and 1990. They reached the finals in three consecutive seasons from 1988 to 1990, first losing to the L.A. Lakers in 1988 before exacting revenge against the same team in 1989 and then defeating the Portland Trailblazers in 1990 to solidify both Thomas’ and the Pistons team’s legacies in the sport of basketball. 

1981 – ANDRES GOMEZ (ECUADOR) – TENNIS

Andres Gomez of Ecuador is considered his country’s top tennis player in history. He competed at his first and only Pan American Games at San Juan 1979, earning the bronze medal in the men’s singles event. He turned professional that same year and began to specialize in doubles competitions. He won five doubles titles in 1980 and seven doubles titles in 1981 at major international events. 

The prime of Gomez’s career came between 1986 and 1990. He captured the world #1 ranking in men’s doubles in 1986, winning seven international events including his first Grand Slam title at the 1986 US Open. Two years later, Gomez won his second and final Grand Slam title in doubles at the 1988 French Open. One of his greatest triumphs came in 1990 when he reached his first and only Grand Slam final at the French Open. There he would face a 20-year-old Andre Agassi of the U.S. who was also competing in his first Grand Slam final. However, Gomez used his experience to his advantage, eventually winning the championship in four sets that led him to be ranked #4 in the world in singles events that year. 

1982 – EVELYN ASHFORD (USA) – ATHLETICS

Evelyn Ashford of the United States competed in her first Olympic Games at Montreal 1976 at just 19 yeas old but narrowly missed the podium by finishing 5th in the 100m dash. She began to make her mark on international athletics in 1979, winning gold medals in both the women’s 100m and 200m events at the San Juan 1979 Pan American Games. She also defeated the world record holders in both events at the World Cup of Track and Field that same year and was prepared to shine at the Olympics, but that dream was cut short due to the U.S. boycott of  the Moscow 1980 Olympics.

Ashford set her first world record in the 100m in 1983, sprinting past the finish line in 10.79 seconds. She returned to the Olympics at Los Angeles 1984, becoming the first woman to run a sub-11 100m at the Games to win the gold medal in a new Olympic record time of 10.97. She was unable to compete in the 200m final due to a minor injury, but was able to compete in the 4x100m relay where she also lead Team USA to the gold. Following the Olympics, Evelyn ran her personal best of 10.76 seconds to improve upon her own world record that would stand for four years. Ashford went on to win two more Olympic golds in the 4x100m relay at both Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 while also finishing with a silver in the 100m at Seoul 1988. To this day she remains one of the best sprinters in the history of women’s athletics. 

1983 – MICHAEL JORDAN (USA) – BASKETBALL

The most iconic basketball player in history, Michael Jordan of the United States first represented Team USA at the Caracas 1983 Pan American Games. He was the most outstanding player of the tournament, leading the U.S. to the gold medal and setting the stage for what would be a legendary career. He competed at his first Olympic Games at Los Angeles 1984, once again leading Team USA to the victory.

He entered the NBA in the 1984 Draft as the 3rd overall selection by the Chicago Bulls. He would rise to superstardom over the next seven years, leading the Bulls to the playoffs every single year but failing to reach the championship round. Finally in 1991, after consecutive defeats to the Detroit Pistons and fellow legend Isiah Thomas, Jordan and the Bulls finally broke through to the NBA Finals where they faced the LA Lakers, defeating the powerful team in just five games. One year later, Jordan returned to represent Team USA at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, marking the first time that the U.S. team would feature professional basketball players. Often considered the best basketball team ever assembled, the “Dream Team” stormed through the Olympic competition on the way to the gold medal, Jordan’s second of his illustrious career. 

And the victories would keep coming for Michael Jordan. He won two more NBA titles in 1992 and 1993 to give him the illustrious three-peat before retiring from the sport for nearly two years. He returned to the NBA towards the end of the 1995 NBA season and was unable to propel the Bulls to the championship. However, Jordan and the Bulls would go on to dominate the NBA for the next three years, once again winning three consecutive championships from 1996 to 1998 to give Jordan six NBA titles, 2 Olympic golds and 1 Pan American Games gold in his unforgettable and legendary career. 

1984 –  OSCAR SCHMIDT (BRAZIL) – BASKETBALL

While Michael Jordan had one of the greatest careers in basketball history, Oscar Schmidt of Brazil had one of the longest and most successful. Oscar is the all-time leading scorer in the history of basketball combining his professional and international play with 49,737 points. He has the longest professional career in history at 29 years and has scored the most points in history at both the Olympic Games and FIBA World Cup. 

Schmidt competed at his first Pan American Games at San Juan 1979, helping lead Brazil to the bronze medal. He then went on to compete in five consecutive Olympic Games from 1980 to 1996, scoring a record 1,093 points over 38 games despite never advancing past the quarterfinals. Oscar’s first victory on the international stage came at the Indianapolis 1987 Pan American Games. Despite facing the U.S. team featuring Hall of Famer David Robinson and several future NBA players, Schmidt put on one of his best performances of his career, scoring 46 points in the gold medal game to lead Brazil to a 120-115 victory over Team USA. He is undoubtedly the greatest player in the history of Brazil and will always be remembered as a legendary basketball player. 

1985 – GREG LOUGANIS (USA) – DIVING

Greg Louganis of the United States is one of if not the greatest diver in the history of the sport. He is the only man to sweep the Olympic golds in consecutive Games and just the second athlete in history to do so. Louganis competed in his first Olympics at just 16 years old, reaching the final and earning the silver medal in the 10m platform event. He won his first world championship two years later in 1978. Greg made his Pan American Games debut at San Juan 1979, winning gold medals in both the 10m platform and 3m springboard events, a feat he would replicate at Caracas 1983 and Indianapolis 1987 to become the best diver in the history of the Pan Am Games given his six gold medals. 

As with many of the best U.S. athletes from the 1980s, Louganis was unable to compete at Moscow 1980 due to the Olympic boycott by the country. He finally got his shot at an Olympic gold at Los Angeles 1984 and he did not disappoint, winning both the 10m platform and 3m springboard events in record fashion. Louganis added his fifth and sixth World Championship titles in 1986 before returning to defend his Olympic titles at Seoul 1988. While competing at the Games in South Korea, Louganis suffered a concussion when he hit his head on the springboard in the preliminary round. Despite his injury, he continued competing and amazed the world by once again winning gold medals in both events to make history as the best male diver to ever compete at the Olympics. 

1986 – CECILIA TAIT (PERU) – VOLLEYBALL

Cecilia Tait is one of the most famous and decorated athletes in the history of Peru. Nicknamed “La Zurda del Oro” for her powerful left handed strikes, Tait led the Peruvian women’s volleyball team to six medals at the world’s most important sporting events. She began competing for the national team in volleyball in 1978 and quickly made her impact felt at the San Juan 1979 Pan American Games. Cecilia helped lead the team to its fourth consecutive silver medal at the Games, unable to take down the powerhouse from Cuba that won its third of seven consecutive golds at the continental event. 

In 1982, Tait helped Peru reach its top finish in history at the world championships, once again earning the silver medal. She returned to the Pan Am Games at Caracas 1983 where Peru made the podium once more with a third place finish. Peru then reached the podium at the World Championships in 1986 to earn the bronze medal. At her third and final Pan Am Games at Indianapolis 1987, Cecilia helped Peru claim the silver medal once again. However, the defining moment of her career and the Peruvian volleyball team came at the Seoul 1988 Olympics as the team made a Cinderella-run to the silver medal, forever etching their names in the history of Peruvian sport. 

1987 – CARL LEWIS (USA) – ATHLETICS

Carl Lewis of the United States is undoubtedly one of the greatest athletes in the history of the world. He is one of just six athletes to earn a gold medal in the same event at four consecutive Olympic Games. He set world records in the 100m, 4x100m and 4x200m relay events, while his indoor long jump world record has stood since 1984. World Athletics named him the “World Athlete of the Century” and the International Olympic Committee named him the “Sportsmen of the Century” following his outstanding career in athletics. 

Carl quickly made a name for himself in high school and earned a spot on the U.S. team at the San Juan 1979 Pan American Games. The 18-year-old leaper finished with a bronze medal in the long jump, falling behind Brazilian legend Joao Carlos de Oliveira who also won the triple jump event. The loss would mark one of the few Lewis would sustain during his legendary career. He then became the world’s fastest 100m sprinter in 1981 with a time of 10.00 seconds before becoming world-renowned at the inaugural Athletics World Championships in 1983. At the championships in Helsinki, Lewis won three gold medals in the 100m, long jump and 4x100m relay events to establish himself as one of the greatest athletes of his era — but he wasn’t done yet. 

Arguably his greatest achievement came at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics where he equaled the feat of legend Jessie Owens from the 1936 Games, winning four golds in four events including the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay. He set an Olympic record in the 200m and a new world record as the anchor of the 4x100m relay. He won three more gold medals at the 1987 World Championships before returning to compete at the Indianapolis 1987 Pan American Games, determined to secure the continental crown. He achieved his goals, winning two gold medals in the long jump and 4x100m relay events. Lewis would go on to win two more Olympic golds in the 100m and long jump at Seoul 1988 as well as a silver in the 200m. He won his third consecutive Olympic long jump title at Barcelona 1992 and another gold in the 4x100m relay. Carl completed his legendary career at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in the long jump and the ninth Olympic gold of his career. 

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