Opinion

CEO PROFILE — Raising the Bar

It’s been nearly 20 years since Tim Daggett scored a perfect 10 on the horizontal bar to clinch a gold medal for the U.S. men’s gymnastics team in Los Angeles. Today, he’s a diversified entrepreneur, balancing life as business owner, coach, broadcaster, and motivational speaker. He says success comes from bringing the same intensity to those assignments that he did to his Olympic quest.

But as nearly everyone from this region knows, he didn’t just get into gymnastics; his perfect 10 on the horizontal bar helped propel the U.S. men’s team to a gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, putting the West Springfield native into the national spotlight in the process.

And because of his ambitious/aggressive nature, not to mention a strong commitment to excellence, Daggett has made the very most of the opportunities presented to him by that day in the Olympic sun — and what happened in the years to follow.

Indeed, he has enjoyed success as a diversified entrepreneur, with ventures ranging from TV commercials to a gymnastics school that bears his name. He has gained acclaim as a motivational speaker, centering his talks not so much on the triumph in 1984, but his ultimately unsuccessful effort to return to the Olympics in 1998 and the lessons he learned from that experience. Meanwhile, he is a successful television commentator — now preparing for next summer’s Olympics in Athens — and a coach of many aspiring gymnasts.

In a wide-ranging interview, Daggett told BusinessWest that his Olympic experience — like other moments that catapult individuals into fame — certainly opened some doors. But those same doors can close quickly if people fail to commit the same time and energy to their new endeavors that they did to the ones that earned them their fame, he noted.

"There were probably 50 Americans who won gold medals at that Olympics who could have honed their story to be just as good as mine," he said of the public-speaking aspect of his business career. "But within a year, the phone stopped ringing for most of them because they didn’t apply the same energy to their business that they did to becoming an Olympic gold medalist."

Two decades later, Daggett’s phone still rings — he’s actually had to cut back on his speaking engagements to spend more time with his family — because he continually hones his message to provide value to his audiences, which include business groups, individual companies, and sales teams.

And he applies that same formula to his other ventures, knowing that if one stands still, opportunities to advance will be lost.

"A lot of people told me after the Olympics that I had to take advantage of my opportunity while I could, because it wasn’t going to last for long," he said. "Every time someone said that to me, I said to myself, ’I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And I believe I have."

Exercise in Commitment

While the perfect 10 in 1984 is what Daggett will be remembered for, he told BusinessWest that the defining moment in his life came a few years later as he was attempting to return to the Olympics.

While executing a vault at at the World Championships in Rotterdam, Holland in 1987, he shattered his left leg, breaking both the tibia and fibula. The injury was so severe — "I looked down and saw the bone sticking out of my leg" — that amputation was a real possibility and the talk among doctors wasn’t about whether he’d compete again, but whether he’d walk again.

But nine months later, Daggett was leading the field after two events in the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City. The pain in his leg would eventually force him to withdraw from that event, but merely making it back from that horrible injury to world-class competition was the highlight of his athletic career.

Daggett retells the story of his recovery during many of his motivational speeches, during which he talks about commitment to excellence and the hard work it takes to succeed — at anything.

"My talks all vary with the audience and the circumstances," he said. "But there are common threads about teamwork, overcoming adversity, and not letting go of dreams. There are messages there for everyone in business."

Daggett’s exploits on the lecture circuit are just part of a multi-faceted enterprise. He also does commentating on both men’s and women’s gymnastics for NBC, and he is the hands-on owner of his school in Agawam, Tim Daggett’s Gold Medal Gymnastics. He’s also co-written a book, a memoir titled Dare to Dream, and coaches a number of young gymnasts, many of whom have enjoyed success at the collegiate level and beyond.

He attacks each of these pursuits with a passion similar to his drive for the gold medal. For his broadcasting exploits, for example, he devotes several hours each week to keeping track of not only the U.S. gymnasts, but those from around the world. The workload will only escalate as the Summer Olympics approach and Daggett must prepare himself to not only comment on what happens on the gym floor, but know — and tell — each athlete’s personal story.

Meanwhile, he’s at his home office at 7 each morning, and then at his gymnastics school by noon, often to stay well into the evening. He’s also there every Saturday. Daggett has expanded the school twice since he and a partner purchased it in 1990, and he’s now exploring plans to franchise the business regionally and perhaps nationally.

"I could always hire someone to run the school, and maybe someday I can," he said. "But I like being there, and I feel I need to be there to make this as successful as it can be."

Daggett, who studied psychology at UCLA while on a gymnastics scholarship, and says his business experience prior to the Olympics was limited to working in the family’s music store as a youth, said success in his various endeavors has come the hard way — as in gymnastics — through work and commitment. It’s also a result of making the most of the opportunities that his fame has afforded him.

And those opportunities started coming hours after his performance on the horizontal bar.

Indeed, in the days to follow, Daggett was on every morning news show, and many of the evening talk shows. He never got his face on a Wheaties box, but there were several other opportunities to get in the spotlight — and make some money.

"For about four months after the Olympic games I was in at least one city a day, sometimes two or three," he said. "I was doing appearances, television, exhibitions, demonstrations, and motivational talks."

There were some regional and national endorsements and sponsorships, said Daggett, noting that he had contracts at one time or another with Nissan, Coca-Cola, several apparel makers, and some local car dealers. There were so many opportunities, he’s actually lost track of them.

"It’s embarrassing … I don’t even remember some of the products I endorsed, there were so many of them," he said, adding that the intense travel schedule often led to some confusion as well.

Off The Mat

Indeed, a few years after the triumph in Los Angeles, Daggett remembers waking up in a hotel room not knowing what city he was in.

"It was scary; I looked out the window and said to myself, ’where am I?’ I had no idea," he said. "I started rifling through my stuff looking for clues that might tell me where I was. That’s when I realized that I still wanted to be a gymnast."

And it was then that he started preparing for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which he thought would be his best, only to incur setbacks that would in many ways inspire his later business success — and help him inspire others.

The first came when, while practicing for the 1987 American Cup, he fell 15 feet from the horizontal bar. Landing on his head, he ruptured a disc in his neck and incurred a tremendous amount of nerve damage on his left side. While most neurosurgeons told Daggett his career was over, he found one who thought otherwise and followed his advice. He was in traction for 10 days, followed by aggressive steroid injections and intense physical therapy. Only a few months later, however, he found himself in medal contention in two events after the first day of the World Championships in Rotterdam.

He told BusinessWest that when his feet hit the ground after that fateful vault, he heard a sound like the crack of a rifle shot. In the process of breaking two bones in his left leg, he also severed an artery and lost a life-threatening five pints of blood.

"I knew I suffered a super-serious injury," he recalled. "While I was in the hospital, one of the doctors said to me in broken English, ’we’re going to have to operate immediately.’

"I said to my trainer, ’don’t let them cut me over here — let me get home,’" he continued. "And he said, ’then you’ll lose your leg.’ So I reconsidered."

After five surgeries to repair the considerable orthopedic and vascular damage, Daggett was back in competition at the Olympic trials. He recalls with great frustration having to withdraw in the second day of that event, but he says his comeback — which no one thought was possible — yielded the most memorable and special moments in his life, save for his marriage and the birth of his children.

"That whole experience taught me more about life than anything that I had done prior to that," he said. "I used to say that in many ways it is what defines me; now I say that it does in all ways.

"I know what it took to make it to the Olympic games and win a gold medal," he continued. "And I know what it took for me to come back from that injury and make it to Salt Lake City — and the comparison is ridiculous."

Daggett knew after Salt Lake City that he was through in gymnastics, but he was really just getting started in business. He went back on the road, keeping a pace similar, if not more grueling, than the one he set after the ’84 Olympics.

He developed a one-man gymnastics show — often doing six performances a day — that he took to malls across the country. Meanwhile, he did exhibitions for Nissan, IBM, Coca-Cola, and an electronics franchise called the Incredible Universe. The work was lucrative, but also exhausting.

Meanwhile, he ramped up his motivational speaking exploits, and was at one point enrolled with 35 different speakers’ bureaus. He said offers to speak kept coming in because his message, while outwardly about sports, easily translates to the world of business.

Balancing Act

In fact, for some of his motivational speaking engagements, Daggett will borrow a pommel horse from a local gym and actually conduct a short routine for his audience. He says he does so to drive home points about such things as strength, flexibility, balance, change, and critical mass — and how they apply to business as much as they do to gymnastics.

This is part of the "program," as he calls it, which also includes video of both his triumphs and tragedies in gymnastics. And by honing that package, Daggett has remained an in-demand speaker — earning $7,500 or more for each appearance — years after nearly every other member of his Olympic class and most subsequent classes have faded from public view.

"I can show business people how change is important, and how they should think outside the box when it comes to their performance," said Daggett. "One of the reasons I’ve been so successful and I’m still doing this is that I keep the message relevant; I’m very opinionated on being successful and the ways to get there."

But life on the road isn’t easy, as he learned in the months just after his Olympic triumph, and Daggett said he knew years ago that even though he could, he didn’t want to spend 200 or more days a year away from home.

That’s why he decided to diversify his business interests more than a decade ago and purchase a small gymnastics school in West Springfield called New England Gymnastics. Daggett’s name was soon put over the door, and the business was moved to Gold Street in Agawam and a site that was eventually expanded to its present 80,000 square feet.

Daggett said the school serves a number of functions for him personally and professionally. First, it gives him a chance to stay close to gymnastics, something he knew he wanted soon after he officially retired. But it also allows him to stay in this area code, and it gives him what should be a reliable revenue stream for down the road, when his endorsement and speaking work slows down.

The school itself has diversified over the years, adding a martial arts component and some dance to the repertoire, but it is mostly about gymnastics, with more than 1,000 children coming in for lessons each week. And while instructing the young people in proper tumbling techniques, Daggett and his staff are offering life lessons as well.

"As the kids grow through the program, the object for them is to still have fun, but it becomes a lot more about having dedication, making some sacrifices, having commitment, and learning how to have a goal," he said. "We help them, step by step, to accomplish those goals.

"School is important," he continued, "but I firmly believe that many of the tools that our children need to become successful individuals in society can be more easily learned in an environment where play is more prevalent."

For the future, Daggett says he will limit his speaking engagements to a few a month, while continuing to work for NBC. Meanwhile, he says his gym, which is unique in many ways because it is more personal than the huge facilities in some parts of the country and more comprehensive than small, ’mom-and-pop’ outfits, could eventually be franchised.

For now, he is focused on keeping his business enterprises diverse, while maintaining the image that he has so carefully crafted.

"My image is who I am," he said, noting that he has turned down a number of opportunities to pitch products locally. "And all these things I talk about when I speak to different groups — they’re real. That’s why if I don’t think something is a good match for me, then I won’t do it."

Sticking the Landing

On the surface, Dare to Dream would appear to be a book about winning an Olympic gold medal. It’s not.

It’s mostly about what happened after that perfect 10. It’s a story about overcoming adversity and finding success after gymnastics. And the best part about that story is that it’s still being written, said Daggett, who told BusinessWest that he is exploring a number of other entrepreneurial opportunities and has new goals to meet and dreams to dream.

He’s proven to everyone who said the door of opportunity would close quickly on him that he can keep it open — but only if he continues to apply himself as he did when going for the gold.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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