On the day she won two Olympic gold medals and set a world record, Cathy Ferguson felt lost and alone.
Just 16 but at the peak of her swimming career during the 1964 Games, she sobbed atop the podium in Tokyo as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
Ferguson had captured gold in world-record time in the 100-meter backstroke, then swam the lead leg of the 400-meter medley relay en route to another U.S. victory.
So why did Ferguson feel so empty?
“I feel like there’s a hole,” Ferguson recalls sheepishly telling a fellow Olympian and close friend hours later.
Every four years during every Summer Olympics, Ferguson, now 68, travels back in her mind to the most joyous but admittedly most confusing time of her life.
Every four years during the Summer Games, Ferguson – now 68, living in Clovis and chief executive of the region’s Girl Scouts – travels back to a moment that was both the most joyous and confusing of her life.
“That is a really tough time,” Ferguson says, oddly enough while sitting in her Fresno office decorated with Olympic memorabilia.
“You’re getting your award and the people are cheering and everybody’s happy. But I’ve really lost something. I’ve lost a goal. What do I do now?”
What’s left to chase when you’re already the best?
Ferguson lost her drive to defend her crown at the 1968 Games and was ready to get out of the pool for good.
1:07.7 Then-world-record time for Cathy Ferguson in winning the 100-meter backstroke at the ’64 Games
“There comes a time when you know you can’t win anymore,” Ferguson says. “And when that time comes, it’s really hard to say goodbye.”
Psychologists refer to the struggle as one centered around “athletic identity” – when personal identity and self worth are tied strongly to performance.
In Ferguson’s case, she thought, who was she without the gold medals and world record?
Ferguson says one area the United States still lags compared to other countries is “detraining” its athletes: “Helping athletes move past their successes and onto what they can do with the rest of their lives.”
Girl Scouts executive
With help from teachers, coaches, family and friends, Ferguson eventually found new achievements to chase – lofty goals that would require her intense preparation and focus. She went on to earn a doctorate in education, taught as a university professor and eventually turned to nonprofit work, which led her to the Fresno area.
Ferguson these days is CEO for the Girl Scouts of Central California South and has lived in Clovis for the past eight years.
In between, she found time to return to the pool to coach and reconnect with the Olympics. Ferguson served as president of the Southern California Olympians to help athletes adjust to life after the Games. She took part in the Olympic Torch Relay for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“Once you’re an Olympian,” she says, “you’re always an Olympian.”
Coached Katie Ledecky’s mom
She’s even connected to this year’s Rio Games.
In the 1970s, when Ferguson taught and coached at University of Great Falls in Montana, she crossed paths with a young swimmer named Mary Gen Hagan.
Or as she’s known today, Mary Gen Ledecky, the mother of Team USA headliner Katie Ledecky.
“She’s a true champion; you really have to watch her,” Ferguson says of Ledecky, who has won three golds in Rio. “She’s such a cool gal.”
The youngest of Ferguson’s three daughters almost made the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Allison Brennan was an alternate after finishing third at the U.S. Trials.
It’s so much more than that gold medal. It really makes a statement in your life about, one, who you are, what you had to go through, and the lesson that you learned.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Cathy Ferguson, who now lives in Clovis
Ferguson says she’s watched every Summer Olympics since 1964. Her own Olympic feat lives on in the record books and now through video on YouTube. But for her, the personal memories suffice.
Mostly, each Olympic year serves as a reminder of lessons learned and how she filled the emptiness that occupied her thoughts amid victory.
“It’s so much more than that gold medal,” Ferguson says. “It really makes a statement in your life about, one, who you are, what you had to go through, and the lesson that you learned.
“Because in reality, you take that, and you keep on going, to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.”
Cathy Ferguson file
TWO-TIME GOLD MEDALIST AT ’64 TOKYO OLYMPICS
- Gold medals: 100-meter backstroke, 400 medley relay
- From Central California and back: Born in Stockton but grew up in Burbank; earned doctorate in education from U.S. International; taught as college professor; moved to Clovis in 2008 for current job as CEO for Girls Scouts of Central California South Council
- Family: Husband Greg Panten and daughters Catie, Kellie and Allison
- What she thinks of the Valley: “It’s my home. Everyone here is so nice.”
- Ferguson’s medals today: Originals were lost when her parents’ house was robbed in the ’70s, but she received replacements from Japan and now stores them in an undisclosed location.