usa team gymnast removing a shoe

Credit: margaretglin on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)– It was July 23, 1996, at the Olympics in Atlanta. Team USA was in second place going into the final day of competition. No U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team had ever won team gold. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we marched out to begin the day’s events. I said a few prayers, hoping that some divine power would look out for me, keep my leg strong, keep my leg pain tolerable, keep me calm and give me the strength to deal with the pressure of perfection on this day.

Vaulting would ultimately determine our medal color. Our team was strong and overall very consistent on vault, so I figured it was good that we were ending on a high note. For me, it had always been the least nerve-wracking of all the events. Although I had mostly avoided vaulting and hitting landings immediately prior to the Olympics due to the stress fracture in my leg, I knew I could still do this vault with no problem.

One by one my teammates hit their vaults beautifully. The crowd roared with each, knowing it brought Team USA closer to gold.

Finally, I was up. I saluted the judges at 79 1/2 feet and, like I’d done countless times in practice and prior competitions, I ran with force and attacked the vault. I had done this particular vault so many times, I could practically do it in my sleep–a Yurchenko one-and-a-half twist (180-degree twist) in a layout position. Flump! I was stunned to find myself on the mat on my rear end. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Embarrassed, I stood up as quickly as I could and saluted the judges.

I was completely confused and I guess my coaches were, too, because they had not a single word of technical advice for me. My personal coach on the floor, Marta, didn’t say anything to me at all. She and Team USA head coach, Mary Lee Tracy, looked stunned and just stared blankly at me.

In Shock

I looked around. I needed someone to tell me what they thought I did wrong. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake and I couldn’t place what had happened myself. I was in shock. I had done this thousands of times and always landed on my feet. What was happening? I had only a few short seconds to think while I was walking back to the end of the runway for my second attempt.

I tried to be strong and not let any emotion show on my face even though I was going crazy trying to figure out what to do differently on my second vault. I still couldn’t wrap my head around what I’d done wrong. I had done three of the most perfect routines of my life on the other events, and I certainly didn’t want to finish the day this way, especially on an event that I usually nailed over and over again with no problem.

As I got to the end of the runway, I looked over at my coach Bela behind the security wall. I was desperate for any tip or advice. Strangely, I remember feeling absolutely nothing when I looked at him. He could’ve been any other person in that crowd of 33,000. I felt no connection with Bela at that time.

I had a second shot to make things right. I think everyone, including myself, thought, Well, that can’t happen twice. I was somewhat numb. It felt like a slow-motion horror movie. I was terrified of failure and for my fall to define my Olympic experience.

I was so disappointed in myself to have made that mistake, but I tried to put it behind me and focus on this next vault. Olympic rules stated that the highest score of the two vaults went toward the team total, so I had to keep it together. I had one more chance.

Continued Devastation

Standing on the runway, the judges were looking straight at me. The green “go” signal on the Longines scoreboard lit up and it was time. I saluted and started down the runway. I went for the same style vault as my first and pushed as aggressively as my little frame allowed. This vault felt even stronger and higher than the first, but sadly, it ended the same. I made the same mistake and, again–flump–landed on my rear end. I bounced up quickly.

I was stunned and devastated. The crowd felt it, too. They seemed as shocked as I was. I felt like I’d let people down: my team, my family, the fans and myself. I couldn’t believe that I worked so hard for this Olympic dream moment and in a flash of a few seconds the competition day ended like this for me. As I jogged off the podium, coach Mary Lee Tracy patted me on my back but didn’t say a word. What could she say? I know she felt badly for me, but she had to move on, setting up the board for Kerri, our team’s final competitor. I kept walking and Marta stepped into my path.

“Two times? Too bad,” Marta said, making sure I knew just how badly I’d messed up.

And that was that. Marta and Bela barely said anything else to me that day or for the rest of the night. They acted as if they didn’t know me, as if I were invisible. I took it hard. It was naive of me, but I thought somewhere deep down, Bela and Marta cared for me at least enough to give me some scintilla of support after I’d fallen in front of millions.

The support was going to have to come from elsewhere.


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