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Saturday, October 8, 2011

I Triumphed at the World Championships

This is Kim Zmeskal, not me.

With the World Gymnastics Championships kicking off in Tokyo, a double take at that 2011 date made me realize that it was 20 years ago that the luckiest kid in the world made an appearance at the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis. And I guess that statement could apply to Kim Zmeskal, who won the whole thing and became the first American to do so. But really I'm talking about me, a crafty 14-year-old who convinced my parents to let me cut school so we could all fly to Indiana for a long weekend.

My campaign to attend Worlds (slightly different from the Zmeskal strategy of spending couple of years racking up fistfuls of golds in national and international competition) involved strategically placing signs and notes all over the house reminding my parents of my many fine qualities and accomplishments. "A fine student and devoted gymnast!" proclaimed President George Bush from one poster. "Of course she deserves to go to the World Championships!"

I have to say that I never thought it would actually work. When my dad finally said, "OK, call the number and see what tickets are available," my first reaction was disbelief, and then I suddenly felt the urge to turn to a camera, Ferris Bueller-style, to remark, "They bought it!"

We arrived in Indianapolis the final Friday of Worlds; the Women's All-Around competition would be held that night. When we reached downtown, I felt like a chocoholic that had just entered Willy Wonka's factory. Gymnastics banners were hung on every post lining the street. Our hotel's grand lobby had giant flags featuring the World Championships logo. From our room, I peered out the window at the Hoosier Dome, right across the street, and watched as gymnasts, coaches, and fans from around the world roamed around.

My mom would attend All-Around finals with me on Friday night, while my dad would accompany to the first day of Event Finals on Saturday. We decided to duck into a small fast food joint inside the hotel lobby for a bite to eat before the competition. After we spotted two girls approaching another customer, my mom whispered to me, "Is that somebody famous?"

I could hardly contain my excitement...Chris Waller was eating there! Gymnastics was my Hollywood--if Johnny Depp had walked in I wouldn't have been more thrilled. But I was terribly shy--I ate my whole slice of pizza before my mom told me it was now or never; Chris was about to leave. I finally plucked up enough courage to approach him, and got the first of many autographs for my collection. Giddy from this achievement, I practically skipped to the Hoosier Dome.

We had sprung for the $32 gold level seats--seems like such a bargain now!--and I was amazed to find myself sitting in the front row behind the beam. The field was amazing. The US was the best it had ever been, with Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino, and Shannon Miller all realistic contenders for medals. Every team from the Soviet Union was a dream team, and this year was no exception. Svetlana Boginskaya had long been my favorite gymnast and she showed up in the same leotard she wore when she won the 1989 World Championships. (I ALWAYS notice leotards). While much was made of the Zmeskal/Boginskaya showdown, as a gymnast, you always pull for your favorites, no matter where they come from.

1991 was a fantastic time for gymnastics. New skills were being developed, artistry was celebrated, the USA was becoming a powerhouse team with more depth than ever. Gymnasts like Oksana Chusovitina, Tatiana Lysenko, Christina Bontas, Silvia Mitova, Kerri Strug, and Lavinia Milosovici all made their mark on this Championship. The all-around and event finals competitions were broadcast in primetime; I had to have my friend record them to VHS for me so I could watch later and try to spot myself in the crowd.

But Kim Zmeskal was the star and the clear winner. Kim had a beautiful, unique style and never seemed to break form. She exuded confidence, and her method of slightly arching and opening her arms out of a powerful vault or tumbling pass was a lovely bit of stylization that set her apart. Her reverse-planche handstand with one leg bent became a signature pose, and her big-band swing floor routine featured another iconic Zmeskal move--her middle tumbling run of three whipbacks to a double back. By the time she got to her last event--floor, providentially--everyone in the arena knew that she could win the title. The roar of the crowded increased exponentially with each whipback, and by the time she landed the double back, the music was completely drowned out by the cheering. The home crowd was definitely on her side, but she would have won that competition anywhere.

Gymnastics history was made that night, and I was there. For years and years, this trip was the highlight of my life. It didn't matter that the world team members were my age, while I was still struggling through my mediocre level 7 routines. I had a passion for gymnastics and my parents understood that this competition, and not my own competition, would be the most exciting experience of my gymnastics "career."

Many parents of mid-level gymnasts spend a lot of money on a plane ticket, hotel room, and entry fees for their child to compete at a meet far from home. If parents and coaches would occasionally eliminate one meet to instead organize a trip to view an international competition, I truly believe they would witness many positive effects. My trip to the World Championships reminded me why I loved gymnastics. It reminded me why I stayed in gymnastics when a spot on the cheerleading squad might have been mine for the taking and a considerable boost to my social status. It gave my parents more understanding --high-caliber gymnastics is infinitely more impressive in person than on TV--of why I could watch the sport for hours upon hours. And I think it gave them an appreciation of gymnastics as a healthy distraction from the pressures and drama of adolescence. I was never a star gymnast, but as friends burned out and never looked back, I remained devoted to the sport. If more coaches devoted even just a little time toward developing their gymnasts' appreciation of the sport, I believe they would retain more students, both recreational and competitive.

So parents and coaches: make an effort to take your young gymnasts to the National Championships, or the American Cup, or the Olympic trials. Let them mill around and bring their cameras and buy a program to get autographed. Buy the T-shirt, spring for the good seats, if you can. (And if you can pay $200 for that rather garish leotard, you can spring for the good seats.) Fill those arena seats to let the world know that gymnastics is every bit as exciting and difficult and worthwhile as the NFL.

After the excitement of the All-Around final, Saturday was a fun day of roaming around, cornering gymnasts for autographs, and checking out new products, equipment, and gymnastics apparel at the convention center. I was in heaven. It was my Disney World and Super Bowl rolled into one. That evening we saw the first night of Event Finals, with men competing on floor, pommel horse, and rings, and women on vault and bars. The highlight of the competition was tiny North Korean Kim Gwang Suk with her outrageous bar set.

It's hard to believe that competition was twenty years ago. It remains one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I know there's a kid in Tokyo now, having the time of her life and making memories to share with her own kids twenty years from now.

And now, here's Kim in that famous moment:

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