Winning a gold medal last August in the 2016 Olympics is a moment I will never forget. I wanted to go home that night. All I could think was: “I need to get back to Arkansas. I need to fly home to see my mom.” Of course there were two more weeks to spend in Rio after my event – and the closing ceremonies to attend – but all I could think about was being at home with Mom. Everything I’ve done has been for her.
My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 11 years ago, when I was 17 years old. I’m the youngest of six kids, and she always did everything for the entire family, as so many mothers do. She cooked and cleaned and was always ironing and folding my shirts for me. She showed her love through all of those everyday things she did for all of us. My father – who is now her caregiver – was working long hours, so she was the one raising me every day.
I remember the signs.
I remember her cooking meals and then forgetting to finish preparing them. Sometimes she would leave dinner behind to burn or be recooked later. I remember her staying out late and getting lost. There were so many little things that started to become bigger issues.
It was hard watching this happen, because Mom was always there for me. She took me to my football practices and supported me at all my track and field meets. She would scream so loud at my meets that I could hear her over everyone; there was never a time I didn’t hear her. She would do anything for anyone – that was just the type of person she was.
I remember one day in high school when I came home and I saw how badly Mom’s hands were shaking. It was just weeks after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I could already see how sick she was getting. For the first couple of years after her diagnosis, it was rough for me, not really having anyone to talk to about the situation. It was hard just to focus at school.
Luckily, my brother was there. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him. He told me that Mom had told him everything she wanted us to do. He said: “Jeff, she told me to tell you that you have to finish school.” I remember crying for almost an hour. My eyes were bloodshot, all red. Didn’t they know how hard it was for me to comprehend all of this? I didn’t know where to turn, or who to talk to.
I rarely tell anyone what’s going on in my life; I am naturally quiet and tend to keep things to myself. But I do know that awareness needs to be brought to Alzheimer’s disease, so I will continue to raise awareness of this disease by sharing my family’s story. I want people to tell me their own stories. I want to keep the lines of communication open. When we talk about how we are facing this disease, it helps us feel less alone.
My mindset during the Olympics in Rio was that no one was going to beat me. In my head, it was all for my mom. “I will not lose. I will win gold for her. I can control this moment, and make it mine.” I focused and worked hard, worrying about no one but myself in the moment of competition. It took a whole lot to get to that point, but I did. And I won.
I feel like I am winning every day. I take after my mother, I hope. I am a nice person who cares about everyone. I will talk to someone living on the streets, offer money or help, and give my blessings – that’s how I cope with my situation. I continue to help others as my mom would.
I’m the first man from the U.S. to win gold in the long jump since 2004 and I’m looking forward to pushing myself even further, focusing on sprinting before the next summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. I know I can do it. To the naysayers, I say: “Just watch me. I will do it.”
My mom continues to inspire me. Every day, she still fights through the disease, with my dad by her side. I am so happy she is alive, and that I could bring the gold back to her and place it in her hands. That is all that matters. Mom taught me to keep on fighting, and that is what I encourage other people dealing with this disease to do, whether you’re the child, spouse or friend of a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Talk to each other, support each other and stay grounded. You aren’t alone.
About the Author: Raised in McAlmont, Arkansas, Jeff Henderson is an American track and field athlete. Jeff took first place with an 8.38 meter leap in the long jump at the 2016 Summer Olympics, bringing home a gold medal to his mother. Jeff encourages anyone in the midst of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to find someone to talk to. Follow him on social media via Facebook and Twitter.