Gil Roberts was part of the men’s 4x400-meter relay team in Rio de Janeiro.
Taking the baton from teammate Tony McQuay, Gil Roberts only had one thought: “Just go.”
And he did.
Completely zoned in, Roberts didn't pay attention to anything or anyone around him for the next 45 seconds. He knew if he did his job, running those 400 meters as fast as he could, his team would be in a good position to win.
After passing the baton to LaShawn Merritt, Roberts pulled up to watch. As Merritt passed the 300-meter mark, Roberts began to celebrate in his head. When Merritt crossed the finish line – ahead of his competitors – Roberts felt a rush of relief.
“Thank God!” he thought. “I'm going home with a gold medal!”
And with that, Gil Roberts became only the third Texas Tech University alumnus to win an Olympic gold medal.
Taking it in
Roberts' journey to the Olympics was no picnic. After an up-and-down career hindered by repeated injuries, the former Texas Tech standout and six-time All-American felt lucky just to make the Olympic team in July.
Once he knew he would finally get a chance to achieve his childhood dream of representing his country on the international stage, the 27-year-old was determined to absorb every moment.
Contrary to the media reports heard stateside, Roberts' first impressions of Rio de Janeiro were positive.
“I thought just how beautiful of a city it was,” he recalled. “It was my first Olympics, so I'd never been in an Olympic village before, with all the different countries side by side.”
The opening ceremony was awe-inspiring, but it also was interesting on an academic level for Roberts, who got his degree in sociology from Texas Tech in May 2012.
“I don't know how to describe it; it's something I've watched in past Olympics, seeing people walk out, representing their country,” Roberts said. “It was a great moment for me, a moment to just take it in. I wanted to record every moment. My parents told to me enjoy everything, so that's what I tried to do.”
A week into the Olympics, Roberts competed in his first event: the 400-meter dash. In his heat, he got off to his usual fast start and maintained a good position, placing second at 45.27 seconds and advancing to the semifinals.
“I felt good,” he said. “I got through by not extending myself too much.”
The same strategy, however, didn't work the following night. After another fast start, Roberts was neck-and-neck for second with only 100 meters to go, but fell behind to finish fourth in the heat at 44.65 seconds. It was his best time this season but landed him a ninth-place finish overall, 0.16 seconds behind the final qualifying spot for the medal race.
“I should have taken off and run it like a final,” Roberts said. “I was trying to save up for the final and I didn't even end up making it. It was really hard for me, especially being one spot out.”
As disappointed as he was, Roberts knew he had another shot for a gold.
From the beginning, Roberts and Merritt had been told they would run in the final of the men's 4x400-meter relay on Aug. 20. So on Aug. 19, they watched from the sidelines as teammates Arman Hall, McQuay, Kyle Clemmons and David Verburg finished second in their heat, less than one-tenth of a second behind the Jamaican team, to advance to the final.
The next night, Roberts knew it was his turn, and he was determined to bring home a medal.
“I said, ‘Let's do this; I'm not leaving empty-handed,'” he said.
As he watched Hall pass the baton to McQuay, Roberts took a deep breath and cleared his head.
“I've done it time and time again; I've done this my whole life,” he said. “You just do your job. You get out and go and do your job.”
McQuay was in second place during his leg, but during the baton pass, Roberts regained the lead and Merritt carried it past the line, beating Jamaica by 0.86 seconds.
The euphoria of the moment and the realization of achieving his goal was too much to process.
“From me being at one of my lowest points after the individual 400-meter to one of my best moments, they were night and day from each other,” Roberts said.
Roberts and his teammates draped American flags around their shoulders for the traditional victory lap around the track.
“I can't explain how that made me feel,” he said. “I wasn't tired at all. I could've run another 400 meters as excited as I was at that point.”
Just a short time later, he and his teammates found themselves atop the podium, hearing the national anthem and watching the American flag hoisted toward the sky.
“It was amazing,” Roberts said. “I don't even know how to really explain it. When you think about that moment, you think, ‘What's my reaction going to be? Am I going to cry?' But it was just pure joy; I couldn't stop smiling. I couldn't wait to get the medal around my neck. Listening to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' and getting to represent my country, it's nothing but a blessing. It was everything I ever dreamed of, to be honest.”
A changed man
Perhaps the biggest surprise about becoming an Olympic gold medalist is the way Roberts now sees himself.
“With all the support I've gotten, from letters I've received in the mail from kids writing in, I've gotten a sense of my own place as a role model to kids,” he said. “I look at myself and I'm more conscious and careful of the things I do and say, because I see kids looking up to me and watching me.”
The gold medal that now lives on his nightstand is a constant reminder. And even with the added pressure of living up to that gold standard, Roberts certainly is not ruling out another Olympics.
“I think it's definitely a possibility,” he said, “but it's all about my health. It always has been. If I'm healthy, I'm good to go. If not, I can't compete.”
Looking back on the experience, Roberts is grateful it happened, but he's also grateful the stress is behind him so he can relax for a little while.
“I'm taking about a week to get my body back and recover, then I'll start getting ready for the next season and the goals I want to accomplish next year: making the medal stand again at world championships in the individual and 4x400,” he said. “I'll do what I've done this season and continue to get better.”