This three-time Olympic men’s gymnast once described himself as a cross between Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan.
Blaine Wilson had a one-of-a-kind personality and a performance record rivaled by few others in USA Gymnastics history. The pierced, tattooed and motorcycle-riding Ohioan preceded the Hamm twins, Jonathan Horton and Danell Leyva and John Orozco as the rock of U.S. men’s gymnastics.
He won five straight U.S. all-around titles from 1996 through 2000, a record he shares with George Wheeler. The 1936 Olympian Wheeler won his titles when the floor exercise was called “calisthenics” and ended his career to go into the Navy for World War II.
Back to Wilson. He competed in three Olympics, winning his sole medal in his final Games in 2004 as part of the U.S. team that bagged silver.
OlympicTalk recently caught up with Wilson to reflect on his career and discuss his current work.
OlympicTalk: Let’s talk about your Olympic experiences, beginning with 1996 [the U.S. men finished fifth; Wilson 10th in the all-around].
Wilson: I was young [21 years old] and just in awe of everything. You don’t realize how much of a big stage you’re on. I didn’t realize it until we actually walked out for our first day of competition. The curtain swung open, and 45,000 people in the Georgia Dome were chanting U-S-A. Wet behind the ears is all I can say.
OlympicTalk: In 2000, you were the leader, but it’s been said you overtrained [U.S. men were fifth; Wilson sixth in the all-around].
Wilson: I think we did overtrain just a little bit too much. I expected a whole lot of things to happen and was pushing to make things happen. I got a lot of media. I think I let a lot of that get to me. Instead of focusing on what I had to do, I believed it had already happened. Before I knew it, the Games were over. I should have done so many different things.
OlympicTalk: In 2004, you finally got that Olympic silver medal as a team veteran.
Wilson: I was only fortunate enough to compete in two of six events in the team final -- parallel bars and still rings [solid 9.712 and 9.637 scores]. I would have liked to do the all-around, but we had guys much more equipped to get higher scores [Paul Hamm and Brett McClure].
I remember getting to the last event, and I had to watch my teammates on high bar. Something I had worked my entire career for, a team medal, knowing it was completely out of my hands, I couldn’t watch it. I sat with my back to the high bar. All I did was cheer based on how my teammates were reacting. It made me sick and happy at the same time.
OlympicTalk: Who was your favorite fellow competitor?
Wilson: My idol was John Roethlisberger [1992, 1996, 2000 Olympian]. Still to this day. He taught me a lot about being passionate and wearing the American flag on your heart.
Internationally, I looked forward to competing against everybody. I hated competing against Russia, but I respected them. China, they were always smiling at us, unless things were really going south and they were sour. Japan never really showed any emotion.
OlympicTalk: What about competing against Russian legend Aleksey Nemov [12-time Olympic medalist]?
Wilson: If you didn’t know him, people would say he’s a real jerk. But I got a chance to go on tour with him, and he was a whole different cat. Between him and [Belarusian] Ivan Ivankov and others, there were a lot of guys I had the utmost respect for. Watching Nemov in his heyday, there was nobody touching him. He was phenomenal.
OlympicTalk: What was it like being a part of U.S. men’s gymnastics as it evolved into one of the best teams in the world?
Wilson: I’ll never forget watching shows [early in my career] calling it the “dark days of U.S. men’s gymnastics” [laughs]. I was fortunate to come up in that time.
I loved being in the limelight. I loved being on TV, being different. It helped USA Gymnastics. You either liked me or you hated me.
We were close in 1996 and close with some problems in 2000 and then finally got it done in 2004. The only thing that really got to me was that John Roethlisberger retired before I could win a medal with him.
OlympicTalk: What are you doing now?
Wilson: I’m part owner of Integrity Gymnastics in Plain City, Ohio, 20 minutes outside of Columbus [where Wilson attended Ohio State].
I enjoy watching the kids attain a goal or get a new skill, do well at meets. It’s almost worse for me now [than when I competed] because I’m watching and I can’t control what they do at meets.
I also have three kids and a lovely wife [1996 U.S. Olympic rhythmic gymnast Aliane Baquerot]. Jackson, my 4-year-old, takes some gymnastics classes. My younger son, Bodhi, will be 2 on June 1st. He’s definitely not a gymnast. My daughter, Wakaya, is 11 and 5 feet tall, so gymnastics is definitely out of the question. Maybe golf or basketball.
OlympicTalk: Tell me about a current U.S. senior gymnast you like.
Wilson: I love Sam Mikulak. I was coaching the girls at SCATS Gymnastics [in Southern California] when he was there, in 2006 I think. I had a chance to help him out.
OlympicTalk: What would you like to see changed in gymnastics?
Wilson: I’m really not a fan of the open-ended scoring. It’s terrible for the fan base. You have a lot of people watching the sport who don’t have a dang clue what’s going on. The 10.0 system is the way to go, and you have to find a way to bring it back.
Also the state of men’s college gymnastics. The fact is we only have 16 or 17 teams left. Temple should be ashamed of themselves for dropping the men’s program. Cal was in danger of losing their program. Air Force is in danger of losing their program, and there’s nothing they can do about it because it’s a government program.
If you look at the amount of guys on any U.S. Olympic Team, the majority of people came from college programs. I know USA Gymnastics is doing as much as they can, but that’s only one avenue.
OlympicTalk: Where do you keep the Olympic silver medal?
Wilson: It’s downstairs on a shelf with the rest of my wife’s memorabilia from the 1996 Games.