Two hundred seventy-one gold medals were awarded at the 1996 Olympics. For some winners, such as tennis star Andre Agassi, the games were just one chapter in a storied career. For Derrick Adkins, who takes a subway to work every day without being recognized, his gold-medal performance in the 400-meter hurdles was the pinnacle.
"There's just a handful of household names coming out of any Olympic Games, and they're gonna make millions," said Adkins, 42, who now lives in Lakeview. "The rest of us, even if we won golds, go back into obscurity. It's nothing that I complain about, but it is a little difficult with the ups and downs of going in as an athlete and then having to transition out of athletics and into being a hardworking citizen."
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Adkins, who started his track career at Malverne High School, said he is part of a group of athletes, many of whom he personally has spoken to, who have had to find a way to cope with life after their competitive glory.
"It's not easy to peak in your 20s, to do the most significant thing of your life in your 20s," Adkins said. "But it's something we have to deal with."
In 1996, Adkins was dealing with the opposite challenge. For a recent graduate of Georgia Tech, the games coming to Atlanta brought added pressure for Adkins. Despite winning the 400 hurdles at the 1995 World Championships, he didn't consider himself a favorite to win, and neither did The Associated Press, which picked him to finish second.
"I was not totally confident and didn't know I was gonna win," Adkins said. "I even had a statement prepared for losing. Being the Atlanta, Georgia Tech boy . . . it was a lot of pressure. I knew that even if I lost, media and NBC cameras would come up to me and ask a bunch of questions."
Adkins never gave that statement. In fact, he never trailed in the race. Adkins used his quick burst to take a lead at the first hurdle, and held off a late charge from Zambia's Samuel Matete, his most formidable competitor. He posted a career-best time of 47.54 seconds, beating Matete by 0.24 seconds to take the gold.
Sixteen years later, Adkins works as a consultant and adviser for The Armory Foundation, a nonprofit organization that houses a top-tier track and field facility in Manhattan, and mentors student-athletes in both athletic and academic endeavors. Adkins directed the Armory College Preparation Program, which offers student-athletes SAT tutoring and college counseling, and helps them seek out scholarship opportunities, for five years. Adkins, who was inducted into the Nassau County Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, also promotes the annual Derrick Adkins Holiday Classic, a high school track and field meet in April at Mitchel Athletic Complex.
"I get joy and fulfillment out of working with young people because there's something to look forward to," Adkins said. "You see the young people progressing pretty quickly in both their athletic careers and in their academics, if you're able to motivate them well enough."
Even though his pupils are too young to remember the 1996 games, Adkins said his crowning achievement serves as a platform to influence and motivate.
"Usually, their parent or their coach or their teacher has to tell them about it," Adkins said. "And even then they're just a little bit like, 'So what? I've never heard of him.' But when they actually see the NBC coverage on YouTube of me running the race, they're a little more impressed and excited to hear from me.''