2024 Paris Olympics

Insights from Terry Schroeder and Will Simpson.

Olympic medalists, Terry Schroeder and Will Simpson, know intricately well the spectrum of emotions that accompany the seismic physical and mental demands of the Olympic Games. As we gear up towards the 2024 Paris Olympics, these two world-class athletes share some valuable insights on the multi-billion-dollar spectacle that is the greatest show on earth.

Will Simpson won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics riding a magnificently feisty horse, Carllson Vom Dach, in team jumping, and Terry Schroeder won two back-to-back silver medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics in men’s water polo against their familiar nemesis, Yugoslavia. He went on to become the head coach of the USA Men’s Water Polo team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and his team won a silver medal in 2008. The experience as a player in four Olympics, and a head coach in two Olympics, has given Terry a 360-degree perspective on the triumphs and heartbreaks of the Olympics.

The remarkably strong friendship between Terry Schroeder and Will Simpson is built from the deep understanding they have of each other. They communicate via a powerful spoken and silent language that is borne from their similar experiences on the world stage.

Terry recounts how much the Olympics took center stage in his life with these memories:

“I first watched the Olympics on TV with my dad when I was 9 years old, and I told him that I wanted to be an Olympian. At the time I was a competitive swimmer and second in the country in back stroke. The talent bedrock was there for me, but I think the mindset dominated and it occupied my thoughts virtually every day – especially when I was practicing swimming and when I started to play water polo. I hear the word ‘sacrifice’ a lot when people talk about the Olympics, but to me, the commitment was never about sacrifice. I viewed it as a tremendous opportunity. I wanted to be the best in the world at what I did, and that goal motivated me every day.”

Viewing it in that positive light does not mean that there weren’t devasting periods along the journey.

“The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics,” says Terry, “was heartbreaking because our team had a significant chance of bringing home the gold medal that year. We had put so much into that goal and when it all got taken away from us, by forces we had no control over, I realized how fragile our circumstances were. In that sense it made the following 1984 Olympics particularly special because 9 of our 11 team members from 1980 ended up making it into the 1984 L.A. Olympics. There was pain along the way, but I never doubted how much I wanted to realize the dream. Every cell in my body yearned for it and was ready for the challenge.”

Will Simpson describes his journey towards the Olympics:

“In the equestrian sport, I started out in the mid-west where the focus wasn’t on my chosen sport. The east coast was where everything was happening equestrian-wise. I was lucky to get a very good horse when I was 13 years old and while I was at a baseball camp, my dad came to pick me up, and he was talking with a counselor. At first, I thought I was in trouble but breathed a sigh of relief when dad said that I had to make a decision: I was being offered a baseball scholarship which would see me through college, and the people I had ridden horses for the past summer had also offered me a full-time job. I had to decide between baseball and riding. I was only 14 years old, and I credit my family with supporting me as I made this huge life-changing decision. Being able to chase one’s dreams with a valuable support network of your family encouraging you all the way is something I will always be grateful for.”

Terry emphasizes what Will touched on by saying, “when you make such a huge life decision, there can be some negativity with people forming opinions and cutting you down, so to have the full support of the people you love is exceptionally important. I surrounded myself with my family and closest friends because they elevated me. You also have to be accountable to those people because they are making sacrifices for you too, and so you move forward with the mindset that you want the goal as much for yourself as you want it for the people you love. You move forward as a team.”

We talk about the nine months leading up to the Olympics where the stakes are high as the trials take place. In Will’s case, he had a new horse, and he had to excel at every stage. His sport also carried the huge responsibility of taking care of a large animal. Traveling across the world for him was incomparable to Terry’s circumstances, and the two men often joke about it as Will reminds Terry, “All you had to carry was a speedo!”

No matter the sport, Terry describes the pressure as exceptionally intense. In the case of water polo, he had to play against U.S. teammates that he loved and supported, but in competition, he had to play against those teammates. He describes how he was one of four centers – and he came in as the fourth center and the youngest of them. Each of the four centers were vying for two spots on the USA team and Terry ended up overtaking them by being the starting center. It must have shaken up the other centers and yet their friendships and their respect for each other endured.

Terry says, “Once I knew I had made the cut for the USA Olympic team, the pressure was reduced. I remember sitting in the green room in 1984 just before our first game, and I was chatting to my teammate, Drew McDonald, and we asked each other if the nervousness was there. Naturally it was, but we both felt that we had gone through so much already, and all that pressure had prepared us for this big moment. We both wanted to go out there and give the game our best effort. My dad had always taught me to give of my best at all times. Sometimes that will mean winning, and sometimes that will mean losing.”

Will describes the moment when he knew he had made the Olympic cut. Terry asks him if his horse was elated too, and Will immediately responds with, “Yep. He got extra carrots.”

Both men emphasize how important the advice from their fathers was during their Olympic careers.

Will says, “Just like Terry’s dad, my dad always told me to give of my best. It didn’t matter if I had the fanciest horses but what did matter was that I give it my best shot. It really helped me to stay on track and show up. From California, I went to the east coast nine months before the Olympics. I won three competitions in a row and then, a freak incident occurred. There was a lightning and thunderclap that was so loud that my horse got a fright, and he tweaked his neck while lying down. The timing could not have been worse. It happened before the last qualifier and my coach told me that if I didn’t ride in it, I wouldn’t make the top ten, which was the ultimate goal of the trials. I was adamant that my horse was in no fit state to compete, and I went to bed thinking I was out of contention. Thank goodness the decision-makers all agreed that my horse would be well for the actual Olympic dates, but then the goals changed again, and I was told that there were four spots on the jumping team. There were ten of us, but the incredible thing about the Olympics is that we all supported each other. We traveled together, ate together, and we all wanted the best for each other. Once I made it onto the actual team of four, there was this huge sense of elation and tears of enormous relief at having qualified for the big dream. The logistics of getting all our horses to Hong Kong was mind-boggling, and once we were there, we realized we had a significant chance of getting on the medal podium.”

Will Simpson, Laura Kraut, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward win gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

I ask Terry and Will about the importance of the mental component in the Olympics and Terry says without hesitation, “It’s almost more important than the physical. In Will’s case, he has to worry about the health of his horse as well as his own health. When your horse gets hurt, that’s out of your control and it’s an extra dimension of worry and uncertainty. The mindset of a horse is huge too. I guess I can relate to that with my teammates.”

Since Terry was the Olympic team captain, he had the responsibility of taking care of all his teammates. He describes it like this: “Once the team is decided upon, there’s no way that I can win a medal by myself, so keeping my teammates healthy, motivated, and mentally together is very important. Having the right mindset is critical at the Olympics. So many athletes have the same level of talent and physical capabilities, but the critical component that separates the good from the great is their mental strength and how much they believe in themselves. That belief system is formed from so many feeds. I can remember my college coach, Rick Rowland, saying to me, in my first year at Pepperdine, ‘you can go as far as you want to in this sport. You have the ability to do whatever you want to do. It’s up to you.’ Having that support really helps you to believe in yourself every day and that is critical. The athletes who never get validation and who are fed negativity find it really hard to rise above it. I found that a key component for me was to have a short memory of my failures and then to snap out of it. If I lost today, I could win tomorrow. It was up to me to show people what I could do with that ability.”

We talk about the relentless quest for the gold medal. Terry was in two gold medal finals against Yugoslavia in 1984 and 1988 and he confirms the gold’s importance.

“The people who rise to the top of their sports are fine-tuned and focused on the gold. Anything below is settling,” he confirms.

Will continues,

“We had been jumping for a couple of weeks in Hong Kong. Thankfully, our horses thrived in the heat, and we ended up in a jump-off where the riders have to go again because of a tie. When it was my turn, I was told that all I had to do was go clear. Speed wasn’t of the essence. I was faced with the biggest jumps of my life, and I relished the challenge and the fact that I was doing what I loved. Winning the gold was everything I had ever dreamed of doing.”

“At the gold medal ceremony that followed,” Will says, “I was exactly where I wanted to be. The feeling on that podium was one of the best feelings I had ever had.”

By contrast, Terry had a heart-breaking experience.

“I didn’t like the Yugoslavian national anthem,” Terry reminisces jokingly and honestly. “I wish we had a jump-off. In 1984, our gold medal game ended in a tie, and we didn’t get a chance for an overtime penalty shootout. We were leading the game 5-2 and then Yugoslavia closed the gap at the end. So, we tied, and they won the gold medal based on goal numbers from the entire Olympics. That was the hardest thing to accept. They didn’t beat us on the day that mattered, so standing on the silver medal podium didn’t feel right. The bronze team next to us were happy because they had won their last game. We tied our last game and yet we lost so there was no celebration in that. The same thing happened again in Seoul in 1988 where we were in the gold medal final against Yugoslavia, and this time there was a new over-time rule when we tied, and we subsequently lost in the penalty shootout. That was a little easier to accept but it was still excruciatingly difficult to hear the Yugoslavian national anthem again.”

Terry’s experience as an Olympic Head Coach in 2008 and 2012 gave him another vantage point, and he says expansively,

“Coaching has more pressure than playing. I think I felt more dissatisfaction with our team’s silver medal at Beijing in 2008 because we came into the games underrated at 9th in the world, and so when we reached the gold medal final, there were such high hopes. I was crying in the stands with the silver medal. I felt that as a coach I could have done more for the team to clinch the gold but so much was out of my control, and I found that frustrating. I enjoy playing more.”

Humor plays a vital role in the alleviation of stress and pressure at that level. Both Will and Terry enjoy a wonderful dose of laughter as they re-enact some especially funny moments that they shared with their teammates. The importance of laughter is a great balance to the all-consuming seriousness of the Games. Terry describes how they put a whole fish from a banquet in someone’s bag. Most of the men read books on trips and so they’d run the prank of tearing out the last 25 pages of their teammates’ books. It drove the avid readers nuts. Both Will and Terry endorse how much one learns about others from traveling and it’s important to respect each other’s differences. In Will’s case, he remembers bringing levity to the closing ceremony when he and his teammates had to wear Ralph Lauren outfits which consisted of berets and baggy pants. When McLain Ward walked out of the elevator, Will started laughing at him. McLain responded with “what are you laughing at? You’re wearing the same silly outfit,” to which Will responded, “but I always dress funny. You dress impeccably.”

After the Olympic Games, Terry describes the great experience he and his team enjoyed going around the country on parades and being celebrated in every state. Will experienced the same post-Olympic elation as he came home with his grooms to Hidden Valley, El Campeon Farm and his family. “I was the first Californian who made it into a jumping Olympic team,” he says, “and my homecoming was incredibly special.”

Both men emphasize how much the team around them were instrumental in their successes.

We touch on post-Olympic depression and Terry provides this insight.

“To be successful at the Olympics, you have to be all in, but if being an Olympian becomes your only identity, you are going to struggle when it’s all done. Everything I had done from 1978 to 1992 was one-dimensional. It took some time to break out of that. I had a beautiful wife, a great career but I crashed and burned. Looking back, I realize that a healthier outlook is to view it as something you did – not something you are. As a coach, I saw my team go through post-Olympic depression. Michael Phelps said that every morning, he had to learn to wake up to a new realization. He was just Michael Phelps – not Michael Phelps the Olympic champion. You adjust to becoming a regular citizen.”

Will’s post-Olympic experience was different.

“I was very happy for a long time after the Olympics,” he explains. “The adrenalin high continued for a while but my chosen sport is different from water polo in that I’m still training and going for it now. An equestrian career is much longer than a water polo career.”

The memories they share are profoundly powerful. Terry’s face lights up as he remembers this:

“One of the happiest memories of my life was the 1984 Olympic opening ceremony. Since Los Angeles was hosting the Games, we were the last team to march into the coliseum. When they announced Team USA, 80,000 people cheered for us, and I was floating as I walked around the track in front of our home crowd. It was incredible.”

Both men strongly agree on what an honor and a privilege it is to represent the United States at the Olympic Games. Their love for their country is unquestionably strong. Terry recalls being the athlete chosen to carry the American flag at the 1988 Seoul closing ceremonies – an experience that was one of the proudest moments of his life.

Terry’s honesty pours forth as he admits, “I’m addicted to the Olympics. If somebody came to me now and offered me a coaching position, I think I’d take it. I’m hooked on the Games. If someone gave me a horse that could sit on the water, I’d do it!”

I ask Will if he’d do it again, and he answers unequivocally, “100% yes. In a heartbeat.”

Terry Schroeder Head Coach USA Men’s Water Polo 2008 Beijing Olympics