Dana Hee keeps her Olympic gold medal tucked away in her bedroom drawer. That would have been inconceivable on the day in 1988 when she became the first person ever to clinch the gold in lightweight Taekwondo after training intensively for years.
During that time, Hee said she "literally just ate, slept and thought Taekwondo."
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But, as Hee learned, life goes on after the Olympics, and for gold medalists, coming back to reality can be exceedingly hard.
"You are kind of hit with a certain stance of 'what now?' because you focus so much and you achieve such a lofty goal that everything else seems not good enough," Hee said. "I kept thinking... 'I am an Olympian, I am an athlete, I am this and therefore I should expect more out of life,' and it’s taken me a long time to realize that that's not what's important."
Every four years, the more than 500 U.S. athletes competing at the summer Olympics are quickly catapulted to the spotlight, becoming national heroes for the duration of the two-week event. Some land lucrative endorsement deals or commercial opportunities, while others go back to the gym to train for another four years.
But for the rest, particularly those competing in less high-profile sports, the spotlight can quickly fade as the Olympics come to a close, and some may find that their premier athletic abilities may not always translate into a stable career.
For Hee, that transition was especially wrenching — in Taekwondo, she had found refuge from a childhood marred by homelessness and trauma. At age three, she was abandoned by her parents and spent much of her childhood going through orphanages, halfway houses and foster homes. After becoming the victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, she struggled with self-confidence issues, almost taking her life when she was 20. Taekwondo was her way of "picking up the pieces" and getting her life back on track, she said.
When she returned to the U.S. with the gold medal, Hee said she had become a different person, no longer content with being the "wife who said 'okay, I'll go along' with the husband and do whatever he wants." Ultimately, she and her then-husband parted ways, though Hee said she did not change back to her maiden name — Davidson — because she had already established herself as "Dana Hee."
After her divorce, Hee moved to Los Angeles and became a stunt performer, joining a number of former Olympians-turned-stunt-artists, including track and field gold medalist Dean Smith and gymnastics gold medalist Mitch Gaylord.
Some Olympians have landed gigs in stuntwork, taking advantage of their aerial maneuvers and physical strength to perform difficult stunts, such as high falls, fighting sequences and safe bicycle crashing.
Vanessa Vander Pluym, a former gymnast and UCLA graduate who competed in the Olympic Trials in 1992, said the skills Olympians gain in their quest for the gold prepare them well for stuntwork.
She said retiring from the sport was like "the death of a family member because it’s like the death of a part of yourself."
David Brinton, 45, a North Hollywood resident and former Olympic cyclist who also competed in the 1988 Olympics, said the mental focus he developed as an athlete has served him well as a stuntman.
"We're not flopping through the air and just landing and hoping we don't get hurt," said. "You have to have a really well-rounded skill level... that has the ability to block out fear."
Hee was no different. "I was a tall, thin red-headed lady who could do kicks, so I could stunt double for actresses in Hollywood," she said.
Now, the 50-year-old Big Bear Lake resident splits her time between performing high-level stunts in Hollywood action films and feeding chickens at her ranch in New Mexico. Since the Olympics, she has worked as a model, motivational speaker and Hollywood stunt artist, appearing in the blockbuster films "The Avengers" and "Charlie's Angels." Actors she has doubled for include Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Garner.
She writes, volunteers and helps her neighbors in New Mexico herd cattle and bale hay, which she considers a respite from the hectic pace of Hollywood.
Though it took her several years, Hee said she has finally found her balance between maintaining a career and spending time with her farm animals, which include four horses, two goats, several turkeys and ducks and roughly 20 chickens.
In addition, she said it has not been the gold medal that has changed her life, but rather the process of achieving that gold medal, since training for the top prize forced her to overcome difficult obstacles.
"It has taken me a long time actually to realize that I am not an Olympic gold medalist. Who I am is much more important, and that is just a woman who has achieved greatness despite the odds," she said.
Hee's story resembles that of Olympic judo champion Kayla Harrison, who on Friday became the first American to win the gold medal in Judo. Harrison was sexually abused by her former coach and has said that she hopes to use her victory to combat abuse.
When asked whether she had heard of the 22-year-old gold medalist, Hee exclaimed, "Yes!"
"I love that fact that Kayla actually persevered and went back to her sport," she said. "That's the role models. Sometimes, things like that happen and what do you do? Do you crumble with your life or do you go forward?"
Hee said she chose to go forward.