The summer Olympic games will conclude this weekend in Tokyo, Japan. Spectators from coast to coast have kept their eyes glued to the big names, the marquee events and the medal count (the U.S. had 98 as of Friday to lead second-place China, 79).

Big names like Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky are packing their suitcase full of medals. American surfer Carissa Moore became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the sport. And Tamyra Mensah-Stock became the first black woman to win wrestling gold for the U.S.

An Olympic experience is unlike any other. Just ask Islamorada resident and former MLB player Doug Mientkiewicz, who represented the USA in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. From defeating a powerhouse to hitting a go-ahead grand slam and wearing gold around the neck, Mientkiewicz looks back on the Olympics, what it meant to him and the memories that will last a lifetime.

The Olympics meant everything to me growing up. I became hooked in 1980 watching from Toledo, Ohio. Mike Eruzione played on the Toledo Golddiggers, which was a minor league hockey team, who was my favorite player. Watching with my dad while Mike scored the winning goal against Russia, I was hooked from that point on. Years later at the 2000 Sports Illustrated Man of the Year event, I got to meet and hang out with him, which was one of the most exciting moments of my life. 

Words cannot do enough justice for my entire Olympic experience. From the opening ceremonies, all the way to winning the gold medal, the whole Olympic Village experience was amazing. The feeling of unity for our country was second to none. Walking into the opening ceremony with the likes of Kevin Garnett, Mia Hamm and endless other incredible athletes was an honor in itself. 

I have been fortunate to wear the USA on my chest on three separate occasions. Once at 11 years old in Japan for the USA team, once in college on the USA team, and then in Sydney, Australia for the Olympics. The sense of pride is second to none. It is humbling and the highest honor there is. 

Our mindset heading into the games were “Gold or bust!” even knowing that Cuba had never lost an Olympic game. Obviously, Cuba was the favorite but we felt that we had experience heading into the games. I played with the same Cuba National Team in 1994, so I knew how good they really were. But we had a bunch of guys who would not be intimidated by facing them. Japan had teams for years that were good enough to beat Cuba but were in awe and intimidated by them. Watching Cuba play in the semifinal game for 4 hours, we were begging for them to win. The only way this was going to work for us is to win the gold medal and have to beat the best to win it. 

Tommy was perfect for us. He put a name and a face on a team that the world had never heard of. Everyone knows the name Tommy Lasorda. He kept telling us “when this is all said and done the world will know your name and what you all will accomplish.”

To put only one memory on this experience is almost impossible. The camaraderie, the bond built with a bunch of teammates is second to none. But I would say hitting the go-ahead grand slam in the bottom of the 8th against Korea and then three days later, hitting a walk-off homer against them to put us in the gold medal game, has to be 1 and 1A. 

Every year on Sept. 27, we  (the team) all toast each other. We try to get everyone we can involved from players, coaches, front office, trainers, you name it, either via text, Facetime, Zoom. We all raise our glass and say the line Tommy always gave us after a win: “the fruits of victory.”

Getting the gold medal placed around your neck is an emotional high. I couldn’t help but to think of all of the sacrifices my parents made for me to get me to this point. And seeing my mother and father in the stands, directly across from me, I could not fight back the tears any more. All of the hard work, all of the things I missed out on along the way, to get me to this moment. Hearing the national anthem play, and seeing our flag raised a little higher than everyone else’s, is what it is all about. Baseball is America’s pastime. We brought the gold back to where it belongs, for the first time in USA history. Our motto was “we didn’t go 3000 miles to lose.”

You always try to use experience in teaching. There is a lot that I use. For example, before the games started, we played exhibition games, and I was awful, they threatened to send me home. Moving to game one against Japan, I got a broken-bat single at my first at-bat and everything slowed down and became surreal for the next two weeks. Everything I visualized, happened. Basically, if you keep believing and trusting the process, things can change fast and on a dime. If you have confidence and believe that you are one swing from getting in a slump, or one pitch away from getting out of a jam, anything is possible. 

— Doug Mientkiewicz is owner and captain of Olympic Gold Fishing in Islamorada.

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Jim McCarthy believes in community reporting, giving back and life on the water. A workout fanatic, diver and a bogey-golfer, Jim loves chicken wings, Marvel movies and sports.