Greg Massialas landed in the U.S. and proceeded through customs in what was to be the most exciting year of his young life. An immigration agent stopped him and asked what he was doing abroad. Massialas proudly said he was preparing for the Olympics.
The agent showed a look of concern.
"Isn't that too bad," he said.
Massialas didn't understand. What was too bad?
There and then, in the spring of 1980, a top American fencer was informed by a customs agent that his dream for that summer had died. The U.S. government decided to boycott the Olympics and keep its athletes home.
"I felt this big, huge void," says Massialas, now 57, in a Skype interview from Budapest.
The Sochi Games have begun with somewhat of a thud, with concerns about Russia's human rights record, its animal rights abuses, its security risk and its preparedness. But in a way, these Olympics are already far more successful from an American point of view than the last time this nation, then the Soviet Union, hosted the Games. Nearly 34 years ago, an entire generation of U.S. athletes lost a chance of a lifetime. Some never got it back. And many are still hurt to this day.
"I'm very disappointed," said Massialas, who is now a U.S. fencing coach based in California. "Personally, as an athlete, that was my best chance."
Russia has changed remarkably since its days as the Soviet Union, and so has its relationship with the U.S. But back in the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter faced an unstable situation that threatened to devolve into war. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and Carter debated whether to retaliate with a grain embargo or a boycott of the summer Moscow Games, or both. In January of 1980, only weeks before the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, Carter threatened a boycott if the Soviets didn't withdraw from Afghanistan. Months passed, and the Russians did not back down. Carter went ahead with the boycott.
"As a 17-year-old, I didn't really understand what was going on and why," says swimmer Tracy Caulkins (now Stockwell), who was the Missy Franklin of her era because of her talent and versatility in the pool. "It was taking away from a lot of athletes. In hindsight, it took the Russians 10 more years to get out of Afghanistan, so it didn't make a difference at all. It makes me a little more sad."
Although the Soviets had invaded a nation to precipitate the problem, athletes' anger at the decision landed squarely on the president. "They looked at it as the Carter administration's fault," said Tom Caraccioli, co-author of the book "Boycott."
"They didn't understand what keeping them from participating had to do with foreign policy."
Massialas spent that summer at his parents' home in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was upset then and that feeling never waned, even though he competed in the 1984 and 1988 Games.
"The U.S. government did nothing to support the athletes over the years," he says, "and all of a sudden they pull the rug from under you."
For Stockwell, training went on despite the decision. She was in Nashville not only with other Americans, but also with some international swimmers who were still going to Moscow. So there was a blend of support, envy and resentment.
"I remember being angry," Stockwell says, "taking it out by bashing through the water, and then thinking, 'Why am I training even if we're not going to go?'"
It wasn't just the U.S. athletes who lost out that summer. The entire world missed a chance to see the best compete against each other in Moscow. Several other nations joined the boycott, and so records set in those Games were immediately flecked with wonder and doubt.
The American swim team held its trials after the Moscow Games, and medal-winning times were put up on the scoreboard for U.S. athletes to compete against. Stockwell calls it "a phantom race."
"My tally, I think I would have won five silver medals and a gold medal," she says. "But you can't really say that. If you put me next to her, I reckon I might have gone a little bit faster. It was quite frustrating and quite hard."
Both Stockwell and Massialas were fortunate in that they got to compete in Los Angeles four years later (in retaliation,the Soviets and other Eastern bloc nations boycotted those Games), but some never got another chance. Stockwell, who is now living in Australia, met some old teammates for lunch in California only a few weeks ago, and her teenage daughter, Maddy, asked if her friends were Olympians too.
"I had to think about it," Stockwell says, "and I said yes."
Her daughter asked, "Did they go in '84?"
"No," her mom said, "none of them did. They were great swimmers and they are Olympians but they never got to go."
The sadness sunk in all over again, more than 30 years later.
"It really hit me," she says.
There were small measures of vindication for Massialas. He worked as a referee at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and he happened to run into Carter and his family. A boyfriend of Carter's niece began asking questions about fencing, and Massialas started to explain that he was a three-time Olympian. The boyfriend kept asking questions, and Massialas kept dancing around the fact that he'd been only twice, saying, 'The first time I was on the team was 1980.'
"He kept asking, 'Well why was that?'" Massialas recalls. "I said, 'Well, there was a boycott.' And again he said, 'Why was that?' "
Carter, who had stood quiet during the conversation, then intervened and said, "OK, that's enough."
Massialas tells this story not with pride, but with that same echo of anger. He's not alone in that. One rower, Anita DeFrantz, told the New York Times in 1996 that the boycott "nearly destroyed me." The wound is still fresh, even now.
"The surprising element," says "Boycott" co-author Jerry Caraccioli, "is how they continue to be affected."
Massialas has no ill feelings about the Games returning to Russia; he's just happy that any thoughts of a boycott of Vladimir Putin's Olympics were quashed at the remembrance of what his team went through 34 years ago.
"Whatever happened back then," he said, "should be used so it never happens again."
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