Going into the 1984 Olympics, no one predicted the U.S. Men’s Gymnastics Team would win gold. Describe that moment on the podium when the team was awarded its first-ever Olympic gold medal.
My overwhelming emotion was just gratitude. I was so grateful to everyone who helped me to do what I was able to do in gymnastics. I stood on the victory stand and I could see out in the crowd my coach, who gave 12 years of his life coaching me. I could see the people who worked at USA Gymnastics, which is our governing body. I looked at other coaches who I knew over the years. I looked at my wife, who was in the arena. My parents were there. I had friends there, even friends from my elementary school that I saw there. And so many of them were in tears. And I realized that they were sharing this victory and this moment with me, and I felt that they contributed to it. I was just so grateful to them and to my Heavenly Father for the privilege I had of having this life up to that point that I could pursue these goals and pursue this sport that I love so much. And I was grateful for my teammates and their influence on me in the daily training and the environment and all that.
You also captured the gold medal in the pommel horse by scoring a perfect 10. What went through your mind when you saw your score? Did you know you had performed a perfect routine before you saw the results?
Going into the final on the pommel horse, I was tied with a gymnast named Li Ning from China. And he went up before me and he scored a perfect 10. I'm pretty good at math, so I knew that to tie him for the gold medal, I had to score a perfect 10. Any fault, any mistake, any step on the landing or any sort of blunder during the performance would guarantee that I don't win the gold medal. Knowing that, I gave an all-out effort right from the start. Meaning, I didn't really pace myself like I should have and I had a very difficult dismount at the end of the performance and I had to make a decision: do I do the hard dismount, and risk falling off and not winning any medal, or do I do an easier one and guarantee that I win a medal, but it probably won't be gold? And I had to make that choice during the performance and I remember saying to myself, “Peter, you gotta do what you've trained for,” and I trained to do that harder dismount so I went for it and I made the routine successfully. But with all that emotional turmoil of having to make that decision, I wasn't convinced that it was a perfect performance, so I resigned myself emotionally to the silver medal. And then when I saw the 10 it was just shock and joy.
And what was important is that my coach, Makoto Sakamoto, made tremendous personal sacrifices for me. I was so grateful for all he's done for me, and I wanted my coach to be able to say that he coached an Olympic champion. I wanted to win an individual gold medal for him. So in the all-around competition, which was 2 days after the team competition, I took a silver medal, and I missed the gold medal by .025 points, and so I didn't get that chance. So winning the gold medal in the pommel horse was another way for me to say thank you to my coach, so he could say for the rest of his life, “I coached an Olympic champion.” That was really important to me.
What kind of “missionary moments” did you have during the 1984 Olympics?
I wouldn't say the moments came at the games themselves, but certainly as I would travel around, competing as a member of the US team, I had a chance to room with a lot of great guys and great gymnasts, and you have conversations that over time lead to discussions on faith and discussions on scripture and things like that.
I did meet my wife in school and she was not a member. She was on the gymnastics team at UCLA, and I had a chance to share in her conversion process and baptize her while we were at UCLA.I baptized her and we were married in the temple about a year after her conversion. That's what made becoming a gymnast all that really matters—through my sport I met my eternal companion.
What lessons have you learned as an athlete that can be applied to other areas of your life?
One of the things we learn is that life doesn't always go according to plan and we're going to make mistakes. In the learning process, I fall off the pommel horse, I fall off the high bar, I make mistakes in competitions and in some cases they're huge disappointments to me at the time. Yet if we learn from our mistakes, we realize it's okay to fail in that learning process, so long as we learn from our mistakes. The learning moments are sometimes very painful ones, yet I'm so grateful for the times I had those struggles, because that's what made me a better athlete, that's what made me a stronger athlete, that's what made me focus more on fixing my weaknesses so I could become an Olympian and hopefully an Olympic champion. So that's one lesson I learned: there are struggles along the way, life is not going to be simple, and it is not going to be easy, and yet, if we put our heads down and go to work and stay focused, we can overcome them and we always end up stronger in the end, so long as we don't give up.
You have been married to your wife, Donna, for nearly 30 years. How do you keep your marriage strong?
She's my best friend, we can talk about anything, and we do talk about everything. I think what's most important is just to keep focused on the basics of the gospel and to pray regularly as a couple, to pray regularly as a family, to engage in scripture study individually and as a family, and to go to the temple. There really is no magic formula; it's just the basics that we've been taught in the scriptures and taught by our church leaders to focus on. And there really isn't much more to that. If we stay focused on gospel principles, then we can enjoy the blessings that come from that.
You and your wife have five children. What is the most challenging part of being a dad?
To make sure I understand each of my children individually. They all have their own strengths and they all have their own qualities and their own characteristics, and it's important to understand them as individuals. And so I've always tried to find out what their interests are and give them opportunities to explore their interests, whether it's in a sport or an academic area—just doing what I can to help them explore the life they want to have, from an athletic standpoint, from an educational standpoint, etc. But the joys are unlimited.
As a gold medalist, how do you teach your kids that winning isn’t everything?
Life is about facing challenges, and sometimes we win and sometimes we don't. I lost a lot more competitions than I won. I'm fortunate that the ones I did win were big ones, like the Olympic games, but there are many, many other competitions I was in in which I didn't do so well, and those are the ones that make me stronger, and I think my children have learned that as well.
When you’re not giving motivational speeches or working as chairman of the Board of USA Gymnastics, what do you enjoy doing?
Growing up in southern California, I learned to surf. I'm not a very good surfer, but I enjoy surfing, mostly because I get to spend time with a couple of my boys who love to surf, and my daughters are surfing too, and we enjoy that part of southern California. We love the beach. I love to ride bicycles, I love to mountain bike, and I started running once my daughter started running in high school, so as a result I recently completed the St. George Ironman Triathlon, which was a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon. That was the hardest thing I've ever done, and it was really fun. I thought it'd be a good way to celebrate being 50. I wasn't very good at it, but I did complete it, and maybe someday I'll do another one. I enjoy finding challenges, I enjoy having objectives with deadlines when it comes to doing things athletic, so I always try to have something on the horizon to shoot for, to train for, and to stay in shape for. And that's fun for me because that reminds me of my days as a gymnast.
Who are your heroes?
My coach was a two-time Olympian, just a pillar of integrity, and he taught me not to compromise in my training. He never compromised in terms of his devotion to his athletes, and I just can't repay him for all he's done for me. He's just a great man. He was my coach from age 11 until my last day of gymnastics at age 23.
My father had a great influence on me. My dad did gymnastics when he was a boy and loved it, but when he was 29 years old, which was well before I was born, he contracted polio, and he's been somewhat handicapped ever since. So I never saw my father do gymnastics, but what I did see in my father was always a positive attitude, always a smile, and never complaining about what other people called a handicap. And I had to go home to that man after every workout, and I just couldn't go home complaining to him because he never complained. So that helped me to work harder at gymnastics.
If you go further into sports history, one of my sports heroes is Eric Liddell. He was a Christian minister and he chose not to run on Sunday at the Olympic games, when he was supposed to run the 100 meters. He ended up running the 400 meters instead and ended up winning the gold medal as well. He was a man of deep faith.
You can also check out some of our other interviews with prominent Mormons.