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Joe Jacobi, 1992 Olympic gold medalist and qualifier for the 2004 games, taken for a story about his qualification.
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Mark Wiedmer

For a moment, it looked like nothing more than a tin can lid sailing through the air — a tiny, shiny Frisbee launched from the fingers of a 6-year-old child. Fascinating to a kid, yet still a piece of trash, assuredly all but worthless.

Only Wayne Smith couldn't help but notice something different about whatever this was that his daughter Chloe had discovered in a pile of rotting wood and old sneakers near their Atlanta home. Something about the way it glistened in the sunshine, not unlike Willy Wonka's golden ticket.

And hadn't he just read something on the web about retired Olympic canoeist Joe Jacobi having his 1992 gold medal stolen during a car break-in at a restaurant parking lot not far from Smith's neighborhood?

So he asked his daughter if he could see her new toy.

"I had to look at it for 20 minutes before it sunk in," Smith told a Columbus, Ga., television station. "It just wowed me."

But what he did next should wow anyone concerned about the goodness of humankind these days. Through the website Jacobi's family had set up to draw attention to the medal — www.stolenmedal.com — Smith contacted the Ducktown, Tenn., resident.

"I didn't want to prosecute anyone," Jacobi said. "I just wanted my medal back."

So as soon as Smith reached out to him, Jacobi made good on his pledge of $500 to anyone who would return the medal, then promised the Smiths he would visit Chloe's school this fall to show the portion of the medal she found.

We say "portion" because while the shiny real gold cap that identifies the medal as coming from the 1992 Olympics, as well as bearing the likeness of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, was returned, the heavier, less precious metal the cap bonds to and the ribbon it dangled from have yet to be found.

Nevertheless, as Jacobi said during a visit to the Times Free Press last week, "That medal doesn't define me. I have a very unencumbered relationship with it. If I'd lost it forever, how could I be disappointed after all the good things that have happened because of it?"

It would be easy to be disappointed with the upcoming Rio Olympics before the first flashbulbs from the opening ceremony have fired. Filthy water for open-water swimmers such as McCallie graduate Sean Ryan to slog through in pursuit of their own Olympic medals. The Zika virus. A crime wave so violent that a foot and other body parts washed ashore this past week near the Olympic beach volleyball site. A government so cash poor that a banner hanging in the Rio airport recently declared: "Welcome to hell. Police and firefighters don't get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe."

In fact, Jacobi said the one bright spot of these Games just may become the whitewater competitions, since they're completely manmade and the water goes through a filtration system.

"The water is actually getting cleaner every time it goes through the pumps," said Jacobi, a former CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the national governing body for Olympic-level paddle sports in the United States. "They've got kids swimming in it right now."

Yet to view Jacobi's life alone through the Olympic experience is reason enough again to embrace the Summer Games, which begin 33 days from today.

It's not just that Jacobi and racing partner Scott Strausbaugh were the first American team to win a gold medal in whitewater slalom, which they did at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Or that Jacobi lobbied to bring the '96 Olympic whitewater competition to the Ocoee River. Or that as part of the Nantahala Outdoor Center he's worked tirelessly to improve dramatically the tourist potential of western North Carolina and southeast Tennessee, often against stiff, stubborn opposition.

Said Jacobi: "Think what a healthy Ocoee (economy) could mean to the quality of life in Chattanooga."

It's not even that a 34-year-old Jacobi fought his way back to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, with teammate Matt Taylor to finish eighth, a feat almost as remarkable as his gold medal performance, given that he hadn't been back to the Olympics since Barcelona.

No, it's his perspective on it all, beginning with that break-in. At the time his medal was stolen three weeks ago as he and wife Lisa prepared to send daughter Seu — an aspiring whitewater athlete — off to train, he could have been angry or lashed out at criminal behavior.

Instead, he said of the person who broke in his car, a person still at large: "It's hard not to think of that guy going through the back window of my car. He's always just one choice away from turning his life in a good direction."

Life is always taking us in different directions than we'd planned. The 46-year-old Jacobi is a far different person than the 22-year-old who won Olympic gold. He's a husband, a father, a businessman and a blogger of "Sunday Morning Joe," a motivational text he creates each week at jacobimedia.com.

"I don't want my life judged by my Olympic performances," he said. "I want to be judged by how much I ultimately helped others."

To that end, his CEO days behind him as he pushes for better health for himself and all those around him, he says, "Every day, the most important choice we can make is to choose health."

Of course, he's also aware that people are more willing to listen to him because of a shiny piece of gold be won 24 years ago this summer.

"Oh, that medal's meant a lot," Jacobi said. "It gets you to a lot of doors. But you still have to walk through."

And should that medal later be lost or stolen, you have to hope that any person walking past it would view it as a treasure rather than trash.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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