I’ve been writing an essay on Superman for almost a day straight, intending to post it here as an essay draft. But then I remembered that today, this evening, we will get to see hundreds and hundreds of superheroes, representing the whole planet, competing in peace and camaraderie during the Olympic Games.
Not that I needed reminding. My wife and I love the Olympics and are very much looking forward to watching every minute of them we can. I just wasn’t planning to write anything about them. Then a friend of mine posted a video from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and I remembered that I already had written extensively about them. See, back in `96 and `97, I spent a full year keeping a lengthy, almost daily journal, not just jots about my daily activities but long, rambling accounts of everything running through my head. Most days, the writing was just ranting and the entries seem idiotic to me now. But in the aftermath of the Olympics, I couldn’t help but sit down to a full-blown essay on the subject.
I wound up writing more than 2,000 words on the `96 Olympics, but what follows is my just-after-the-fact account of one particular moment, the singular event that will always be first in my mind when I recall those Games.
The women’s gymnastics team was in the lead and in the position to take home the gold. It would be the first time in Olympic history that the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won a gold, and on home turf, no less. The Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians were whole tenths of a point away (a big difference in gymnastics). But things started going wrong. Dominique Dawes nearly put her foot out of bounds on floor, and ended up over-correcting and not only going out of bounds anyway, but sitting down in the process. Dominique Moceanu slipped on bars and beam (or one or the other, I don’t remember), and Shannon Miller, our top medalist in Barcelona and America’s favorite for the gold, wasn’t doing too hot in general. The Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians saw all this and suddenly got a confidence boost. Before we knew it, they were mere hundredths of a point away, and ready to take our gold and our historical moment in the spotlight away from us. Only one event left. Vault. Romanians: nailed it. Ukrainians: nailed it. Russians: nailed. Chinese: nailed. Dominique Moceanu: slipped. Shannon Miller: low scores. It came down to our last vaulter, Kerri Strug. No one knew much about Kerri. Shannon and Dominique Dawes had always over-shadowed her with their accomplishments. The audience somehow managed to sit on the edge of their seats in anticipation and sigh in resignation at the same time. If she didn’t nail these vaults and get an outstanding average score, we’d lost our shot at team gold. She sets up, takes a deep breath, and shoots down the runway. Springboard, vault, up, over, looking good, and the landing. She, too, slipped and fell. It was all but over. Unless she got a 9.7 on the next vault, it was over. And then we noticed through our moping and doom-saying: she was hurt. She’d twisted her ankle, sprained her ankle, or something even worse. The commentators were already saying that the last thing she needed to do was vault again, and we might as well kiss the gold good-bye. The audience was restless, distraught at losing the gold. Her teammates were torn between mild concern for their friend or tears at losing the gold. The tears won. Only Bela Karoli paid her much attention, shouting “You can do it! You can do it!” She took her mark. Murmurs spread through the stadium. Gymnasts gasped at what Keri was about to do. She tested her ankle and winced in pain. She was hurt, bad. “You can do it.” She looked at Karoli, she looked at her distraught, weeping teammates, and she saluted the judges. She was going to vault again. Cheers went up from the audience as the other girls looked up in shock. They knew better than anyone how badly she was hurt, and they knew she shouldn’t be doing this. With a bad ankle, how good could her score be anyway? May as well give up and save her ankle. The judges gave their recognition. She tested her ankle one more time, took a slight spring on her good foot, and started down the runway. About halfway down her face turned white. Still she ran on, faster and harder. When she hit the vault her whole body went pale. Still she went up, higher, straighter, perfect. Down she came. Everyone winced in their own vicarious pain before she even hit. And then she landed. On one foot. And stuck it. She hopped a turn to face the judges, saluted, and turned back to her team. And collapsed. Dragging herself across the mat, she burst into dry tears, shaking in pain. Her coaches, her teammates, paramedics, and even gymnasts from other nations rushed to her side. And the score went up. 9.737. She did it. With the sacrifice of her ankle and the rest of her ’96 Olympic competition, Kerri Strug had won her team the gold, and she had single-handedly made history.
I still get chills when I think about it. I wept openly when I first saw it.
Call me a sap, but I have to admit: I wept just rereading it.
Today, of course, we have YouTube. So what I was recording for posterity (oh, how the world will cherish my journals when I am gone! How absurd I was in that year before I met my wife — thanks, Jennifer, for grounding me so) now is freely available to anyone with access to a computer.
Still, these particular moments, this particular event, was special to me. My sister was a gymnast and had studied at some of Karoli’s camps; not long before these games, she had met and worked with some of the very Olympians competing in the games, including (if I remember right — Sara, correct me on this) Moceanu and Dawes. Watching those Games, in that sport, in the US, with these girls — it was like watching my own family, almost. Which is saying something, because for much of our childhood I gave my sister a very hard time about the expense of her gymnastics career — it took the `96 Olympics for me to understand fully what she’d been involved in, and how proud of her I actually was, and still am. So looking back over what I wrote back then (the journal entry is dated 30 July 1996, 12:19 am, toward the end of the Games and immediately after the gymnastics competitions ended), I enjoy reliving what I felt in those moments.
And I’m looking forward to the heroic efforts we will witness in the coming two weeks, and the new memories we will collectively make.