'I thought it was a condom wrapper': How an Olympian got his gold medal back

By Dan Steinberg

Joe Jacobi and his medal. Photo: Joe Jacobi / Washington Post
Joe Jacobi and his medal. Photo: Joe Jacobi / Washington Post

On Friday evening, Wayne Smith and his 6-year-old daughter went for a long walk near their Atlanta home. On the way back, young Chloe D. Smith grabbed something shiny on the side of the road.

"Why are you always picking up stuff?" Wayne asked her, in a conversation familiar to any parent. "What did we tell you about picking up stuff all the time?"

Smith saw that whatever Chloe had grabbed was gold, and he thought it was a condom wrapper. "That's nasty," he told her. She flung the item away, but it flew through the air like a mini disc, not like a piece of trash.

"Let me see what that was," Smith said, and they picked up the piece of metal and turned it right side up.

"Once I flipped it over," Smith said, "it hit me."

Joe Jacobi, his new friends. Photo: Joe Jacobi / Washington Post
Joe Jacobi, his new friends. Photo: Joe Jacobi / Washington Post

Smith is a local news junkie. ("I stay on the news," he told me. "The news is just a part of me, and I love watching it.") And local Atlanta news had made much of a robbery earlier this month, in which D.C.-native Joe Jacobi's backpack - containing his 1992 Olympic gold medal - was stolen from his car outside an Atlanta restaurant. Most of Jacobi's belongings were found a couple miles from Smith's house, but the medal wasn't recovered.

The "coin" Smith and his daughter found said something about Barcelona and 1992, but it was thin and light, and Smith wasn't sure if this was that medal. He bit into it, and then he took it home and showed it to his fiancee.

"I said baby, I found this gold thing, I know it's gold, I believe it's the man's medal," Smith recalled.

His fiancee said it looked like costume jewelry.

A photo of Chloe D. Smith with the medal she found. Photo: Charlmonique Cunningham / Washington Post
A photo of Chloe D. Smith with the medal she found. Photo: Charlmonique Cunningham / Washington Post

"When he originally showed it to me, I was like why do you let her find this junk and bring it home?" said Charlmonique Cunningham, Chloe's mom. But she searched "gold medal stolen downtown Atlanta," online and they saw the image.

"Okay, this might actually be the medal," Cunningham thought.

The news stories led them to Jacobi's website (StolenGoldMedal.com, obviously), and on Saturday night they emailed him a photo, prompting a reunion that seems too perfect to be true.

Turns out what they found was just the top layer of the stolen medal, minus its ribbon and base. But Jacobi had heard from other Barcelona Olympians of the tops of their medals becoming detached, and he knew at once that Chloe had found (part of) the real thing. He talked with Cunningham that night, and they made plans for Jacobi to drive back to Atlanta on Saturday to meet with them, and search for the rest of the medal. He spent about 90 minutes there on Monday, visiting with Smith and Cunningham, going over the area where they found the top part of his medal, and doing media interviews. They didn't find anything else, but Jacobi was still thrilled.

"I mean, every little single thing that has happened over the last two weeks - I feel like so many good things have come of this, so much kindness has come out of this," he said. "Just by getting a sense of who they were via the email, it just seemed to be yet another extension of that goodness and of that kindness. And when I talked to them on the phone I felt it even more so, and then when I met them in person even more so."

Young Chloe was gone on Monday, visiting her grandma. She didn't want to part with the medal but she talked with Jacobi on the phone, "and that just gave her a lot of joy, so she was like 'okay he can have it,' " Cunningham said.

Joe Jacobi, Wayne Smith and the medal. Photo: Charlmonique Cunningham / Washington Post
Joe Jacobi, Wayne Smith and the medal. Photo: Charlmonique Cunningham / Washington Post

Smith, meanwhile, said he remembers watching the 1992 Olympics. Finding the medal, he said, was "probably one of the biggest moments in my life."

"I wanted to make sure it got back to the right person," he said. "The part that was the most enjoyable for me was to be able to really hold it and also return it to the hand that did all that whitewater paddling to get that medal. So that was the big joy, and to see him and my family smiling."

Jacobi has also done a lot of smiling.

"It strikes me that in the next chapter of the life of that medal, it's about community and kindness, and that is everything we have experienced over the last two weeks," he said. "It doesn't feel like a destination to me; it just feels like a lot of what we've experienced over the previous two weeks is hopefully setting the tone for what we get to do with the medal going forward."

Of course, he also said that the first response when strangers hold his medal has always been "Wow, that's heavy." Those days seem to be over.

- Washington Post

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