On August 12, long jumper Jeff Henderson captured the gold with a leap of 8.38 meters. It was a memorable moment for Team USA—the first US gold medal in the event since 2004. The win might have had fans cheering, but what he did after being awarded his medal brought a tear to their eyes. It reminded us all just what the Games are all about and the spirit that underlies them.
The 27-year-old Arkansas native is a multi-talented athlete who is also a sprinter. He became a serious athlete at age 15 and winning the gold is thus far the pinnacle of his career. In a touching gesture guaranteed to tug the hardest heartstrings, he decided to pay tribute in front of the whole world to the person who helped him climb to that pinnacle, even if she doesn’t remember it now.
Henderson dedicated the gold to his mother. And he confided that she is one of the millions of people world-wide who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease—the most devastating form of dementia. “My mom can’t be here, she has Alzheimer’s,” Henderson told reporters. Both his win and his dedication are bittersweet; his mother’s condition is so far advanced that she no longer recognizes him or remembers that he’s her son.
But Henderson remembers. He remembers all the years she believed in him. He likened winning the gold medal to having a first child—“A gold medal is like a newborn baby. It’s just lovely,” he said—and like a new parent he’s overcome with emotion when he imagines sharing his achievement with her. “When I put that medal in her hands,” he said, “I’ll be crying.”
I think the whole world may shed a tear too. Congratulations, Jeff.