In August 1996, I spent the night in a random hotel in Kearney, Nebraska. I made it to Kearney from Salt Lake City (750 miles or so) in one very long day. I don't remember much about that drive, but I don't fault myself on that count. There isn't much to recall. It was flat, desolate, hot, and tiring.
I checked into the hotel in the early evening and made my way to the gym as quickly as possible. There was plenty of detritus to cleanse from my system. Done. Soaking wet, exhausted, and alone, I returned to my room.
The Olympics were on. I love the Olympics. The women's gymnastics team competition was front and center that night.
Always searching for the next Mary Lou, I thought. My mind took me back twelve years to when I watched from Kiawah Island as that red, white, and blue sprite captured the world.
The room was quiet, lonely, nervous even. I turned up the sound. The American women were poised to capture their first team gold medal, and over Russia no less. It came down to the vault, the final apparatus. Superstar pixie Dominique Moceanu -- remember her? -- heir apparent to the American gymnastics throne, vaulted and fell. And then fell again.
Everything now depended upon one little-known Kerri Strug of Tuscon. I had never heard of her, but that didn't mean anything. She was stocky, solid, and strong.
Strug careened down the mat at speeds not meant to be reached before hitting a solid platform. She launched herself into the air, twirled, twisted, contorted, and under-rotated. Her left ankle buckled. She hobbled and winced, telling signs from someone who already had endured so many years of pain to arrive on that grand stage. She winced more as she forced herself back to the start. U.S. team coach, the legendary Bela Karolyi of Nadia Comaneci and Retton fame, told her that the team needed her second vault to win the gold. No pressure. The team needs you. The United States needs you -- and a 9.493.
You don't have to do this, I thought. You just don't.
But she did. For so many reasons, only a few of which most of us can really claim to comprehend, she did. And so she careened down the mat yet again. Then into the air.
Just stay up in the air, I thought. Don't land.
But she did. She landed on both feet and then hopped onto her one good foot. She raised her arms, bowed quickly, and collapsed. And she must have known at that moment what the rest of us could only hope: I did it. Before the pain set in.
I cried. I didn't reflect. There was no time to admire, sympathize or rejoice. I just cried. I'm not certain that I even realized what had just happened. I was in awe of a moment so transcendent that any mention of sports seemed trivial, yet at the same time inextricably linked to one person's sportsmanship and courage when she had no other choice.
There was no one else in that hotel room, but I most certainly was no longer alone.
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