By Mae Margaret Davis
AUBURN - In today's Olympic Games, most of the athletes vying for a spot on the podium grew up devoted to their sports, spending time and resources to improve their craft, often training under the best coaches or with the best teams available.
However, that wasn't always the case for those who wore the uniform with "U.S.A." proudly displayed across the front. For one former Auburn athlete, she feels fortunate that she was able to find a way into organized sports at all, let alone go on to become an Olympian.
Reita Clanton grew up in the small town of Lafayette, Ala. In the days before Nickelodeon and video games, Clanton and the other kids in her neighborhood spent the majority of their free time on the playground and ball field.
For as long as she can remember, Clanton loved playing sports. When she was a child, there were no organized sports available to young girls, so Clanton played recreationally with her friends until she was allowed to join her parents' softball league as a teenager in high school.
When Clanton arrived at Auburn after attending junior college, she was thrilled to have an opportunity to begin playing collegiate athletics. Having grown up an Auburn fan, Clanton always knew she would one day attend school at the Loveliest Village on The Plains. Being able to compete for her Tigers was simply icing on the cake.
"It was a strong desire in my heart," Clanton said. "I always thought I was an athlete, but never had any opportunity until I came here on the cusp of Title IX, which really kind of moved things along for women."
Clanton went on to become a tri-sport star during her years at Auburn. She played basketball under former Auburn head coach Susan "Nun" Nunnelly and played volleyball for Sandra Newkirk after teaching herself how to play the game by watching loop film in the library.
Clanton also competed for a travel league softball team and then went on to coach Auburn's first organized softball team in the mid-70s after she graduated.
After graduation, Clanton initially assumed her life as an athlete was winding down. In 1974, she took a job teaching and coaching a high school girls' basketball team, and it was then that Clanton received a phone call from Newkirk that would change her life.
"She told me she had received a letter from the United States Olympic Committee saying that the new Olympic sport of team handball is going to be an official sport in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal," Clanton said. "They were saying, `We don't have a team. We don't have a governing body, but if it was going to be an Olympic sport, we felt obligated to start one.'
"They just wrote letters to colleges and universities all over the country saying `This is what's happening. This is the prototype athlete we're looking for. If you have anyone that fits the bill, it's an open invitation.'"
With an unexpected opportunity to continue her athletic career, Clanton was thrilled to find out if she was what the U.S. Olympic Handball team was looking for.
"She could have said hopscotch and I would've said yes," Clanton said with a grin. "I still just wanted to play. The athlete in me was still so strong, and I wanted that opportunity."
While she had no previous knowledge of the sport, Clanton traveled to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, to try out for the team and was thrilled when she made the cut. Despite not having adequate training time to qualify for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Clanton and her teammates had their sights set on the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union.
The training process took Clanton places she never dreamed she would go. Her first international trip required a purchase that the wide-eyed Southern girl had to make for the first time.
"I didn't own a coat," Clanton said. "When you grow up in Alabama, you don't own a coat. You have jackets. I did buy a coat, but I didn't know what I was getting into."
The U.S. team trained and competed against international teams looking to learn as much as it could and become competitive with other nations in time for the Olympics.
Having devoted so much of time over the course of several years competing for the red, white and blue, the team was devastated when the U.S. announced it would be boycotting the 1980 Games because of damaged relations with the host country.
"I understand maybe politically we needed to take a stand, but I thought using the Olympic Games as a pawn in that maybe was not the best statement we could make," Clanton said. "I just thought it would've been so cool had we gone and done what we always do and compete really well and let politics in that be separate. I still feel that way because I have such respect of the institution of the Olympic Games and what it's able to achieve."
After taking a hiatus from the team after the announcement of the boycott, Clanton took a position as an assistant basketball coach at Middle Tennessee State University. Soon after, Clanton and her teammates were faced with a choice: train once again with the hopes of qualifying for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, or give up the dream and move on with their lives.
"It was a good job, and I was kind of getting settled in," Clanton said. "The call came again in 1981 to get back together, and I just always let my heart lead the way. I sat with it, and it was a yes again, so I went back and trained again."
The decision paid off for Clanton as the U.S. sent its first women's handball team to the Olympics in 1984. The small town Alabama girl had become a United States Olympian.
As Clanton kicked off her Olympic experience at the Opening Ceremony, she made a point to take in as much of the atmosphere as she could.
"The thing that I loved is that when you're coming through that tunnel, and it's kind of dim, but you could start to hear the crowd," Clanton said. "You could start to hear the music. Then you could start to see the light. Then you come through that tunnel, and the light and the color and the sound; it was just so uplifting. I don't think I remember putting a step down. It felt like you just floated around."
The U.S. team went on to place fourth in 1984, but despite not being able to medal, the team claimed a victory in its opening game against top-ranked China, an experience Clanton says was unlike any other in all the years of training and competing leading up to that moment.
"We were down by five at halftime and came back out and went down by six," Clanton said. "Then, I don't know, we just stayed with it defensively and turned it around, and we upset China and beat them by two. That set us on a good path throughout the tournament. I'll never forget the crowd that night just how incredibly supportive they were. It was just awesome for us."
As she came down from her mountaintop experience at the conclusion of the '84 Olympics, Clanton's handball career was far from over.
She went on to coach numerous Olympic Festival teams between 1985-1995. Her teams won three gold medals and a bronze medal leading up to the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Ga. It was then that Clanton was given the opportunity to become an assistant coach to the U.S. team and returned to see the Olympic flame and rings just 100 miles from her hometown.
"It was a dream come true," Clanton said. "I love coaching and teaching and love the game. It was an opportunity for me, and it was also a way to give back."
After her coaching experience in 1996, Clanton still wasn't done with her Olympic legacy. She was invited to be a part of a special Olympic tradition in 2002 while in Lexington, Ky. Clanton was given the opportunity to carry the Olympic Torch for two-tenths of a mile when it passed through Lexington as it made its way toward Salt Lake City, Utah, for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"Oh what a thrill and what a privilege," Clanton said. "It's so cool what the Olympic flame does to people. Thousands of people were out to witness the torch relay go through their town. Even when I was running, you can kind of take your time and look around. People's faces and their eyes and little children, again, it was one of those things where you don't even feel yourself put one foot in front of the other.
"I was really honored to do that. It was very special because I think people have more of an emotional attachment to the flame and what it stands for as the light of the world and bringing people together in unity."
After serving as a torch bearer, Clanton added another note to her already impressive resume of athletic achievements. The former Auburn All-American has been a part of each of the past three Olympics that have been hosted by the United States as a player in 1984, a coach in 1996 and a torch bearer in 2002.
With all of the experiences Clanton has had over the years, she has a special point of view on the Olympics often forgotten in the midst of the intense competition and rivalry among the athletes and countries during the games.
Win or lose, Clanton looks beyond the scoreboard and the medal podium and sees what the interlocking rings truly symbolized as a participant in the Olympics. She still remembers the Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles and the moment that she realized she was participating in something so much bigger than herself.
"That was when, in the Opening Ceremony when we were parading out, that it just hit me," Clanton said. "That stadium seats about 100,000 people. Everybody was just smiling and happy, and I said, `You know what? There's probably at least one person from pretty much every country in the world sitting here right now, and everybody is happy and everybody is celebrating, and I thought, `And sport has done this?' I thought it was the most awesome thing to be a part of."
When she watches the games again this year, Clanton will look on and reminisce with pride, honor and most of all, a sense of wholesome unity with people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world.
"I really do think that the overriding thing for me was it made me realize what a wonderful institution the Olympic Games is and how it does bring the world together," Clanton said. "Yes, the Olympics are the biggest sporting event in the world, but it's more than the institution of sport. It's an institution of peace. It's an institution of brotherhood and goodwill and celebrating what's excellent about us as human beings."