When it comes to athletics and physical fitness, Olga (Fikotova) Connolly is a professional that keeps setting the gold standard when it comes to following a passion and helping others.
Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) had the first opportunity to make that claim after Fikotova, a standout athlete in a number of sports, took home the gold medal in the discus at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
A marriage and a new life in Southern California soon followed, and Connolly went on to compete as a member of the U.S. Olympic track team in 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972.
When her competitive career ended, much of Connolly’s focus turned to raising four children. But her interest in learning all she could about strength and conditioning never waned. So she studied, taught fitness classes and did some coaching.
She’s now 84 years old, and little has changed in that regard. Her adopted community has been all the better for it.
When the city of Los Angeles started a class at Los Angeles Community College to help women pass the requisite physical exam to join the fire department, it asked Connolly to lead the class.
When the University of California-Irvine started a class for employees who wanted to work out on their lunch break, it asked Connolly to be the instructor. She’s been leading the class, which now also includes students, for 11 years.
In 2008, Connolly enrolled in a class at nearby Orange Coast (Community) College and was soon approached by the track coach, who knew of her background. A discus thrower from Argentina had joined the team, and the coach was hoping that Connolly would be interested in working with him.
It was an offer Connolly couldn’t refuse, and the young athlete quickly got her attention.
“He looked like a 19-year-old Al Oerter,” Connolly said, referencing the four-time U.S. Olympic gold medal winner in the discus who competed during the 1950s and ‘60s. “He definitely had the right build. He knew a lot about the technical part of throwing the discus, but he needed to strengthen certain areas of his body in order to generate energy the right way.”
Connolly’s student was reaching 50 meters with his throws when they began working together and by the end of the season, he was hitting 60 meters. One year later, he won the gold medal at the South American Championship for men under 23 years old, and with it a scholarship to a major 4-year university.
Sharing what she knows is a way for Connolly to show her appreciation for all that athletics has given her. A pivotal point in her life came in 1972 when she was named the captain of the women’s U.S. Olympic track team. As the Games neared, she took part in the selection process for picking a flag bearer for the opening ceremonies. When it came to a vote, the honor went to Connolly.
“For me, it was equal to winning the gold medal,” Connolly said.
“I got every vote but one,” she added, “and that one person said it was because a woman wasn’t strong enough to carry the flag. But the others said, ‘She is.’”
And Connolly proved it, in her own competitive way.
“The flag is on a long pole, and while it isn’t heavy, the wind can cause some problems. So I talked to it. When I saw the Russians walk past the reviewing stand I noticed that their flag bearer was carrying the flag with one arm. So I did it that way, too.”
Connolly said her focus changed after the experience of representing her adopted country in such a special way. Rather than simply focusing on athletes, she said, she felt the need to do what she could to educate the nation on the importance of exercise and fitness.
She views exercise as one of the vital elements to living a productive life; the development of mind, body and spirit.
Connolly became ISSA certified in 2013. Despite all of her experience, she felt something was still missing. “I wanted to learn more about the intricacies of the human body,” she said.
“I study a lot; there’s no one size fits all when it comes to being a good personal trainer. People tend to assume that because you are an Olympic champion you know more [about training]. But in some ways, you don’t. I was taught by what now has become old-fashioned coaching. It’s not what is being taught today.”
In a system that sounds very much like the one that used to be in place in the United States, Connolly said every student took part in basic gymnastics and calisthenics. They were movements that all the kids were able to do; some better than others. Connolly was a natural.
She also had the drive. When she was 14, she decided to put her efforts into being a soccer goalie. Battling through various setbacks, including bloodied knees, she established herself as a standout goaltender.
From there she turned to basketball and was good enough to eventually play on the Czech junior national team. Fikotova was attending a school that combined four years of high school with the first two years of college, and she was studying to be a doctor.
“Going to medical school and playing basketball (on the national team) was hard,” Connolly said. “Our team was playing in the University Games in Yugoslavia. I had a big ego; I knew I was good. But the coach wasn’t playing me. I finally asked him why and told him that I thought it was stupid that I wasn’t playing. I was suspended for two months.”
Fikotova never went back. While she also was playing goalie on the national team in a sport that is now known as team handball, Fikotova decided to find an individual sport to participate in. She settled on the discus.
Two years later, she was an Olympic gold medal winner.
While competing in Melbourne, Fikotova met and fell in love with U.S. hammer thrower Hal Connolly. They were married the following year in Czechoslovakia to much fanfare. When they stopped in New York on their return to the United States, they received the celebrity treatment.
Olga Connolly made appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “To Tell the Truth.”
Her days as a celebrity are over, but she remains a person of influence. She is spending time in Las Vegas these days due to an illness in the family. Never one to sit still in her downtime, she is always checking around town to see if they need a fitness instructor and rebuilding her clientele of fitness enthusiasts. That is her way.