It was summer 1996. I was 12, almost 13, and between the hell of my seventh and eighth grade years. The weather was fantastic, but no one cared. Because the Olympics were in Atlanta, and the Women's Gymnastics Team was poised to win it all. We were glued to our television sets, holding our breath for every flip and gasping at every release. We were mesmerized. And then Kerry Strug happened.
It was the vault, and every move was perfect and beautiful, but as she stuck the perfect landing, we watched the tears, and saw the limp of a badly sprained ankle. We were near tears ourselves, watching the pain in that young woman's face, knowing that she couldn't get a decent score without her second run. She made it all the way to the Olympics only to lose her chance one pass too soon. Then, we watched, awestruck, as she hobbled to the starting line a second time, ran, leapt, flipped, and stuck a perfect landing for a full two seconds before hopping off, tears streaming down her face. That nearly-perfect run resulted in her broken ankle and gold medals for the Magnificent Seven US Women's Gymnastics Team.
Since that night, I haven't managed to watch the Olympics once. Until last night.
As I watched the Women's Gymnastics Team last night, I couldn't help but remember those beautiful young women, only a few years older than myself. And I watched this year's team, thinking how young they look. They're high schoolers, every one. Did they go to homecoming last year? Or did they skip it to train for the Olympics? Do they make fun of their Biology teacher the way we did? Is there a teacher they've bonded with, or are they too busy thinking through their routines? To what extent are they typical teenagers?
But those musings disappeared completely as I watched. At one point, the American team led the Russians by mere fractions of a point, and I watched as that lead was slowly eroded on the uneven bars. I held my breath for every release, gasped at every flip, and sighed with relief with every landing, whether it was perfect or not, because there were no injuries. I choked up watching a girl from the Russian team crying after a less-than-perfect turn at the uneven bars, and I had tears in my eyes another young Russian bounced off the balance beam and nearly fell over. Twice. For a few hours, I didn't care if the Americans or the Russians won. They all were working so hard, and no matter who won, it would be because they had earned it.
Finally, it was time for the Floor Exercise - my favorite event, by far. Going in, the Americans led the Russians by only a little over a point. And we all watched as one young lady from Team USA crashed to the ground on her warm-up. It truly was up in the air going in.
And then the routines began, and I stopped worrying about who would win. Because they were so incredibly beautiful as they danced and flipped, their faces beaming with joy for the first time all night. This was an event they enjoyed. And with good reason. They were good. They were so good that they made the back handsprings, spins, and lifts look easy. I watched in awe as one young lady landed on her belly, and then raised herself back to standing, without bending, as if raised by invisible strings from behind, landing elegantly on her toes. And her face glowed.
In the end, Team USA took the gold, but really? That was less exciting than the sheer, awe-inspiring beauty of three women doing what they loved, and doing it with beauty, grace, and smiles.