Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak isn’t afraid to go out on a limb. By the time she was six years old, she had already proudly declared that she wanted to be an Olympian.
It was the summer of 1984 in Northern California, and just about six hours down the pike were Los Angeles and the Olympics. At her family’s home in San Ramon, Roberts Sahaydak became captivated by the athletes on her television. Something about the world’s greatest athletes competing in the world’s most prestigious competition sparked her desire.
“It just lit a little fire or something,” said Roberts Sahaydak, co-head coach of the VCU Women’s Soccer team. “From that Olympics on, that was always my go-to thing. When someone would ask, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’[It was always] ‘oh, I’m going to be an Olympian.”
Roberts Sahaydak says she was wowed by American gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s perfect 10 and the star power of track and field’s Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The Roberts family even traveled to the Bay Area to take in a men’s soccer game, feeding little Tiffany’s growing interest. Tiffany was a gymnast. Tiffany ran track. She also played soccer.
In grade school, when asked to draw a picture of what she would grow up to be, Roberts Sahaydak would dream of Olympic glory. One particular school project displayed an oversized gold medal, as well as three little Tiffanys, each competing in a different sport, track, gymnastics and soccer.
“I just wanted to be the best at something, and I wanted to have that gold medal,” she said.
Children often say whatever comes to their mind first. Filtering develops later (sometimes never). CBS even built an entire TV show, “Kids Say the Darndest Things” around the idea. But Roberts Sahaydak wasn’t just popping off. She meant it.
“I think a lot of people and kids have these crazy dreams, but in a way they feel like they’re so far-fetched they don’t really share it with people because they might feel like it’s too lofty or people might make fun of you,” Roberts Sahaydak said. “But I just felt so motivated by it and excited that I just didn’t care. It was easy for me to focus on that goal.”
As the years passed, running and gymnastics fell away as soccer took on a more singular presence in Roberts Sahaydak’s life. By the time she reached high school, she was making a name for herself on the Olympic Development Program circuit. In 1994, at the age of 16, she was named to the United States National Team. At the time, women’s soccer was not played at the Olympics, but that would change at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Roberts Sahaydak’s bold declaration was beginning to come into focus.
Roberts Sahaydak was a starter for the U.S. at the World Cup in 1995 in Sweden. But in the semifinals, the Americans were upset by eventual champion Norway 1-0. Later, Roberts Sahaydak was unseated as a starter.
To make matters even more tenuous, Olympic rosters were set at 16, instead of the 20-player squads at the World Cup. Roberts Sahaydak admits she was nervous in the months leading up to the selection the team.
But her fears proved to be nothing more than that. Roberts Sahaydak eventually won a spot on America’s first Olympic women’s soccer squad.
ON TO ATLANTA
The difference in experiences between the World Cup in Sweden the previous year and the Olympics in Atlanta couldn’t have been greater.
In Sweden, the crowds were sparse. The announced attendance at every United States match was fewer than 5,000 and sometimes dramatically less than that. The Americans were largely anonymous. But in Atlanta, they were practically rock stars. The smallest crowd to watch the United States in 1996 was more than 25,000, and the Gold Medal Match between the United States and China at Stanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. drew 76,000.
“In 1995, you’re playing in a world cup but no one knows about it. It was in Sweden, it was a big deal to us, but the rest of the world doesn’t know,” she said. “All of the sudden with the Olympics, we got a taste of being celebrities. I was really lucky to play in an Olympics where it was in the U.S. because it’s such a big deal here.”
Unlike Sweden the year before, the United States would not falter. In a semifinal rematch, the Americans rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit and defeated the Norwegians 2-1 on a Shannon MacMillan golden goal in overtime. In the final, a Tiffeny Milbrett goal in the 68th minute snapped a 1-all tie and gave the U.S. the gold.
At the medal ceremony, Roberts Sahaydak and Brandi Chastain, whose heroics three years later at the 1999 World Cup would make her a household name, stood atop the podium – gold hanging from their necks – looked towards the sky and sang the Star Spangled Banner at the top of their lungs.
After 12 years of dreaming, little Tiffany finally had her gold medal.
“You just look at it and it just seems like, this story is not real,” she said. “I really did [believe it], but when it’s actually a reality you think, ‘holy cow, I just did this.’”
PASSING THE TORCH
Given how badly Roberts Sahaydak wanted that gold medal and how dogged her pursuit of it was, it’s surprising to learn that it often resides out of sight, tucked away in a closet or tightly wrapped in a sunglasses case. No grand display, no medal adorning the mantle.
But for Roberts Sahaydak, it was never really about the gold medal. It was about what the medal represents: the spirit of competition, achievement of goals and self-actualization.
Roberts Sahaydak, who has led the VCU Women’s Soccer team alongside her husband, Tim Sahaydak, since 2007, recently spoke to her daughter Layla’s child development class about her Olympic experience and the value it has had in her life.
“A big passion of mind is trying to inspire other people, and the best thing about these medals is using them to motivate others,” Roberts Sahaydak said.
She also brought her gold medals (Roberts Sahaydak also earned a gold medal as an alternate for the 2004 Athens Games) for the kids to play with. With boxes, they constructed a makeshift medal stand and hung medals around the children’s necks.
“I love sharing them,” she said. “I love people touching them. I love kids wearing them. I don’t think they should be in some box where no one gets to touch them. I don’t think that’s what they’re about. I want little kids to wear them and feel them and be inspired by them.”
Roberts Sahaydak will watch these London Olympics differently than in years past. It’s the first time she feels that Layla, 4, is old enough to begin to understand them. The Sahaydak’s other daughter, Evie, is two, so it might be until 2016 before she gets her Olympic tutorial. Tiffany hopes the lessons of the Olympics and her own pursuit of gold will set an example for Layla and Evie to follow.
“I’m not saying they have to be Olympians, but I just want to use it as motivation to do whatever they want to do,” she said. ”What the Olympics did for me…maybe by watching the Olympics and seeing women achieve their goals, I’m hoping it will do something like that for them and it doesn’t have to be sports, whatever. Just being your best at whatever it is you want to do.”