A Nova Scotia woman has discovered that a mysterious family heirloom is actually a participation medal from the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896.

Vicky Fitzgerald, 65, was seven years old when she found the odd object.

A great aunt in the U.S. sent care packages to help her family of 13. They mostly contained clothes for the kids, Fitzgerald said Tuesday.

After her sister Yolanda once found 11 cents in a donated pocket, they started searching the new arrivals.

"I came across what I thought was just a coin and I brought it downstairs,” Fitzgerald said. 

'[My father] started to laugh. He said, "Mom and I will not know what this is before we die, but you will."'—Vicky Fitzgerald

Her parents wrote to the aunt who sent the clothing, but she knew nothing about it. “She said to give it to whoever found it, so they gave it to me,” Fitzgerald said from her home in Abrams River in Yarmouth County.

The “coin” showed a toga-wearing woman on the front, holding a staff. Her outstretched right hand offers a laurel wreath of the type bestowed upon victorious ancient Olympians.

The back shows block letters, including one word that looks something like a Greek version of the word "Olympics."

Based on those clues, Fitzgerald believed it was a coin connected to the Olympics. Local CTV News reporter Jayson Baxter recently discovered it was one of only a few participation medals created for the first modern Olympics in 1896. 

The Olympics museum says the medal shows a seated Nike holding a laurel wreath over a phoenix emerging from flames, with the Acropolis in background.

It was not awarded at those Games, so it was restamped for the 1906 Games.  

Baxter connected her with U.S. Olympic Committee archivist Teresa Hedgpeth, who verified the medal.

“I was shocked. It’s so overwhelming. They had five and there was one missing — I guess I had the missing medal,” she said.

She believes only six such medals still exist. She has no idea how it got into the pocket in the first place.

U.S. wants it donated

The heirloom clearly has a special place in her heart. Shortly before her father died 14 years ago, he stopped by and asked about the old “coin,” teasing her that she had probably lost it long ago. She took it from its special box and put it in his hand.

“He started to laugh. He said, 'Mom and I will not know what this is before we die, but you will,'” she recalled. 

Fitzgerald is glad to have finally answered her father's question, but now she faces a tougher one. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee contacted her and wants her to donate it. The committee said it would safely display it as the Vicky Fitzgerald Medal, she said, as it has nothing like it.

“I would like to donate it, but I have to discuss it with my family. I always said my children would get it, or maybe my grandchildren,” she said.