Mike Barrett, center, was all smiles after his 1968 Olympic ring was returned to him by Bruce Deming, left, and Sean O’Malie, right.

As the evening was drawing to a close at a fashionable restaurant here, literally in the shadow of Capitol Hill, Mike Barrett was overjoyed, and at the same time a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.

“It’s surreal for this to have happened the way it happened,” he said. “ ... it’s a story I don’t think most people would believe. If you wrote it, nobody would buy it.

“There’s got to be some meaning in all of this.”

Barrett’s 1968 Olympic ring was returned to him last Sunday — nearly 20 years after he last saw it — by two northern Virginia attorneys — Sean O’Malie, who found the ring in October, and Bruce Deming, who did the leg work to locate Barrett.

Barrett and his wife, Carolyn, drove to Washington from their home in Nashville, Tenn., to retrieve the ring and take the two attorneys out to dinner.

“You were destined to win that ring, and you were destined to have it back,” Deming told Barrett soon after the ring was presented back to him atop a glass of champagne.

There were thank-yous from Barrett to the attorneys and recollections from Barrett about his Olympic experience that had the two lawyers on the edges of their seats.

And more than one toast to the return of the ring and new friendships; plans were already being made for O’Malie and Deming to travel to Nashville a year from now for a reunion with the Barretts.

“Absolutely,” Deming said.

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Barrett, the former Richwood High and West Virginia Tech great, received the ring after helping the U.S. Olympic basketball team to the gold medal at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.

He thought he had seen the last of the ring in the 1970s when he put it under the seat of a demo he was driving while working for a car dealership in Hampton, Va., and the car was stolen off the lot, later to be found wrecked near Charlotte, N.C. But the dealership brought the wrecked car back to Hampton and the ring was where he left it.

In early 1988, Barrett gave the ring to a family member with whom he later lost contact. Somehow, and it remains a mystery, the ring ended up in O’Malie’s files, along with just about everything else he had accumulated in his 20-year law practice, including a utility receipt when he first opened his office.

Earlier this year, O’Malie decided to relocate his practice to Fairfax, Va., and in October, he began moving from an office in Arlington, Va., he had shared for a number of years with Deming. He had the back of a 24-foot U-Haul truck packed with more than 200 boxes filled with files and papers.

“I had driven up hills and down hills, around sharp curves,” O’Malie recalled of the approximately 15-mile trip. “Then I was sitting at a stop light, not going anywhere, when I heard this loud bang in the back of the truck. I knew what had happened.”

The boxes on the bottom, which contained the oldest files, going back close to 20 years, had imploded from age and the weight of the boxes on top, which also broke open when they fell to the bottom.

“When I got to the new office site, I opened the back of the truck and papers started flying everywhere,” O’Malie said. “It took me six hours to pick up and go through all that stuff by hand. Under the last piece of paper I picked up, I saw the ring.”

The next day, O’Malie took the ring back to Arlington and showed it to Deming, a competitive bicycle racer and big fan of the Olympics. Deming realized what it was and began searching for the owner after noticing the initials MTB engraved on the inside of the ring. With the help of the Internet, the U.S. Olympic Committee and officials at WVU Tech, he was able to do so.

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The story is not without coincidences.

- O’Malie’s mother, Yolanda, is originally from Mexico, and O’Malie, then 7 years old, was in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics.

- Deming’s wife, Clay, is an honors graduate of Vanderbilt University — in Nashville.

- Barrett began his pro career in Washington (the Washington Caps of the old American Basketball Association) in 1969. He and Carolyn lived in Falls Church, Va., about 10 miles from Fairfax, less than that from Arlington.

- Deming has competed in bicycle races at Snowshoe, not all that far from Richwood.

- Why did the dealership in Hampton, Va., go to the expense of bringing what Barrett said was a “beat-up” wrecked car back instead of having it junked in North Carolina? Or what if the car thief had found the ring and pawned it for some quick cash?

- Why didn’t O’Malie get rid of those older file boxes, where he believes the ring was, as had been suggested to him? And what would have become of the ring had those boxes stayed intact and been placed back in storage?

“To have this happen is really beyond belief,” Barrett, now 64, said. “When you have these circumstances, it’s absolutely astounding the ring was recovered — by some very nice people, by the way.

“I told Bruce what a wonderful time of the year this is and to share it with old friends and new friends, to share something that defies imagination that worked out like it has.”

It was an evening Barrett will never forget. Neither will O’Malie and Deming.

“It’s really, extremely emotional,” O’Malie said. “I feel it’s a culmination of a long journey, but at the same time merely the beginning. It’s been extremely moving. Mike is a first-class gentleman. I’ve been touched by the whole affair.”

“It’s been very emotional for me as well,” Deming said. “It’s been a really wonderful experience to be able to find Mike. After we talked (by phone) in October, I researched his life and career, and found out what a wonderful individual he is. Meeting him tonight confirmed that. He is every bit the champion I expected him to be. He’s a class act, a new friend, and I’m proud to know him.”

Go ahead and make those reservations for next year at the Grand Ole Opry. It already has a nice ring to it.

— E-mail: phanna@register-herald.com

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