#2 - THE HEART OF A CHAMPION
Women's Team Final, Gymnastics, Barcelona 1992
posted August 3, 2008
In sports, as in most things in life, timing is often very important. This is especially true for athletes involved in sports that the general public only pays attention to every four years when they are featured in the Olympic Games. Unlike sports such as baseball and football, there is no long season to absorb mistakes, or another season the following year in which to try again. At the Olympics, if you don't perform at your best on a single day, you might not have another chance on the world stage for four years.
In addition, different athletes in different sports can have greatly varying peak periods in their careers. Some track and field athletes, for example, compete in four or more Olympic Games. For some female gymnasts, on the other hand, there may be only a year or two where they are at their absolute peak: free from major injury and performing at their highest level. If the Olympic Games don't happen to take place during that period, their one chance for Olympic glory (in the sense of winning one or more individual gold medals) has passed them by.
Such a case was Kim Zmeskal. In 1991, Kim ruled the gymnastics world. She won her second consecutive American All-around Championship, and then became the first American, male or female, to capture the all-around title at the World Championships. She continued her streak of dominance into 1992, when she won her third consecutive American championship (a record that still stands), and the balance beam and floor exercise events at the World Apparatus Finals that year (there was no World All-around Championship contested in 1992). In between she also won numerous medals and titles at other lesser meets.
Kim Zmeskal seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of Mary Lou Retton as the Barcelona Games approached. 'Poised' is a particularly appropriate word when it comes to describing Kim, because it was perhaps her strongest attribute as a competitor. She had the huge natural talent and the skills acquired over many years as well, of course, but all gymnasts who make it to the top level have those. There were others who had Kim's level of talent and skill in 1991 and 1992, but few other gymnasts who have ever competed could match what Kim had from the neck up, and that was what made her so special.
While all gymnasts love the medals won at big meets (it's why most of them do gymnastics at that level, of course), most don't like the pressure of competing in those big meets, and even less the crucial moments that occur doing those meets. Kim Zmeskal lived for those moments. She thrived on the pressure. There was a powerful air of calm confidence about her whenever she stepped up on the podium, so much so that you just KNEW she was going to hit the routine she was about to do. You knew it, because you could tell there was no doubt about it in her own mind. Many gymnasts like to go early in an especially important rotation, so they don't have the possible extra pressure of seeing someone else's great routine first, and having to try to match or exceed it. Kim PREFERRED to go last, so she would know exactly what she was up against, because that extra pressure only served to increase her focus and make her own routine even better. Her coach, the legendary Bela Karolyi, once said that the only gymnast he ever worked with who was a more fierce competitor than his first great athlete, the equally legendary Nadia Comaneci, was Kim Zmeskal.
If it could all be summed up in one word, that word would have to be 'toughness.' Kim was as mentally and emotionally tough as any athlete who has ever competed in any sport. As an example, during the entire 1990-1992 period when Kim was winning all of those medals and titles, she had a case of chronic tendonitis in her left wrist. It caused her pain in varying degrees every time she practiced or competed, but she refused to let it stop her from not only continuing in gymnastics, but from being the best in the world. The tendonitis flared up particularly badly just before the 1991 Nationals, and many observers thought that she wouldn't be able to compete because of it. But not only did she win the all-around, she also tied for the gold medal on floor exercise and won the silver medal on balance beam. Kim Zmeskal was simply toughness personified.
The last step before Barcelona was, of course, the US Olympic Trials. Kim was naturally expected to win. However, she came in second to up and coming US gymnastics star Shannon Miller. I probably should have suspected that something was wrong even then, but winning the Trials wasn't particularly important. All that mattered was being in the top six and making the team. Perhaps her wrist was bothering her, and she took it a bit easy to avoid aggravating it any more than necessary less than 2 months before the Olympics. In any case, the only important thing was that she was on the team.
At this point in the narrative, let me interject some of my own timeline as a Kim Zmeskal fan. I first saw her perform in a USA-Romania dual meet which was broadcast on NBC in early 1991. The coverage of the meet began in rotation three, with Kim on balance beam. I was immediately impressed by that air of confidence she exuded, and more impressed by her skill on the beam. She looked as if she were doing the routine on the floor instead of a four inch wide beam. There wasn't even a hint of a balance check as she did her flips and spins four feet off the ground. So I liked her immediately, both as a gymnast and as a competitor. There was something special about her that grabbed my attention and held it.
But the best was yet to come. Even if Alzheimer's disease someday eats most of my brain away, I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I saw the floor exercise routine she was using at that time, in the final rotation of that USA-Romania meet. Her music was the Glenn Miller big band classic, 'In The Mood,' with a brief excerpt in the middle from another big band era favorite, 'Sing Sing Sing.' The music was perfect for Kim's style and energy on the floor, and the choreography perfectly expressed it. There have been many times when I have gotten emotionally caught up in something an athlete was doing, but it was always related to the importance and possible results of the event. Watching Kim Zmeskal's 'In The Mood' floor exercise routine marked the first time I ever got emotionally moved solely by what the athlete was doing. If I had seen her do it for the first time during a practice in an empty gym with absolutely nothing at stake, I would have been just as moved. It was incredibly fun to watch, and the way athlete, music and movements came together so perfectly into one whole of expression made it impossible for me to NOT get emotionally stimulated in a major way.
Her middle tumbling pass in the routine was something completely unique to Kim, and in this particular meet it was even more unique than usual. Normally this pass featured three consecutive 'whip-backs,' which is a move where the gymnast flips herself over backwards and lands on her feet with her arms extended straight out from the shoulders at all times, hands never touching the floor. It is a very difficult skill, and most gymnasts of that period or before never attempted more than one at a time. A few did two. Kim, as I said, normally performed three in a row, which no one else in the world did. On this night, however, she added a FOURTH whip-back to the sequence, before finishing the pass with a double back somersault (and, naturally, a stuck landing). It was the most eye-popping, jaw-dropping thing I'd ever seen any athlete do, and I was on my feet cheering and applauding before I knew what I was doing as I continued to watch the rest of the routine. The ending was almost as good. After one last barely believable tumbling pass, she did a little dance sequence out toward the middle of the floor, followed by a sort of arms-extended pirouette, then a forward roll that ended with her back arched and her arms crossed in the air straight over her head, her movement stopping completely at the precise moment when the music ended. I whooped and clapped some more, knowing even then that I had just seen what would always be my favorite gymnastics routine. And it still is to this day.
The US came in second to Romania in that meet, but Kim won the individual all-around title. From that day I continued to follow her career and watch her on TV whenever a meet she was in was shown. I suffered with her through Nationals, where she paid for her medals with pain as well as ability and execution. I cheered as she won the World Championship. And all the way through 1991 and 1992 I looked forward to the Barcelona Olympics, when Kim would certainly take her place as one of America's great Olympic heroes. It was obviously her great goal as a gymnast, so she would be ready in terms of training. With the fabled Zmeskal toughness added in, she would surely not be denied.
And so it was that I, along with the rest of the world, was incredibly shocked when during her first routine of the Barcelona Games, Kim fell off of the balance beam.
How could such a thing happen? That's what everyone was asking. Was it the pressure of performing at the Olympics? Nonsense, I thought. Kim Zmeskal THRIVES on that kind of pressure! But what else could it be?
Her score of 9.35, in an event on which she normally scored over 9.90, not only hurt the US team (they would have to throw out Kim's score and count a score below Kim's regular level), it put her in a terrible hole in regards to the all-around title. Only the three highest scoring members of each team can compete in the all-around, and her low score on compulsory beam had left her with lots of ground to make up.
She bounced right back with an excellent floor exercise that scored 9.925, but then her uneven bars routine was slightly sub-par for her, scoring 9.887. On vault, the last rotation, she got a 9.90, but that was an event that she was capable of doing better on (she had gotten a perfect 10 on optional vault at the US Championships). Her total for the compulsories left her in fifth place among the Americans, .274 behind Kerri Strug's third place total. It was only the 32nd best total of all the competitors.
This was obviously not where Kim had pictured herself being at this point in the competition, but there was still time to redeem herself. The damage to the team had been relatively small: they were still in second place behind the Unified Team, with Romania in third, and still had a good chance to medal. For the all-around, the scores from the first two rounds were thrown out after the participants were determined by them, so if Kim could come back with a good team optional day, she could not only help her team get on the medal stand, but also get herself right back into the gold medal hunt in the all-around. It was just the kind of high pressure situation that Kim Zmeskal normally was at her best in.
But what had gone wrong on compulsory day? It was so unlike Kim. I watched the tape of the day's competition again, just for lack of anything better to do to look for answers. And I noticed something. In addition to the standard wrap on Kim's chronically hurting wrist, there was also a wrap on her left ankle. If she had a second injury, that would explain a lot; but none of the announcers had mentioned anything about it during the broadcast. For sports journalists, the Olympics are a 16 day trip to professional heaven. They pursue every conceivable story, especially about the big name athletes. Surely someone would have asked Kim or Bela about the wrap at some point during the day. The mere fact that the ankle wrap hadn't been mentioned seemed to say something. After all, gymnasts often get little bruises and slight sprains that they train and compete with, so maybe that was all it was. I also noticed that Kerri Strug had a similarly wrapped ankle, so that seemed to add weight to a benign explanation.
Still, I watched the Olympic coverage the next day, where they naturally would talk about women's gymnastics in general and Kim in particular as a preview to the following day's team final, half-expecting to hear them say something about the wrapped ankle. But again they said nothing. They said nothing again the next day as the coverage of the team finals began. Well, that must settle it, I thought. SOMEBODY must have asked about it by now, and there is nothing there. Kim must have simply been human and had a bad day. It was over now, and team final day would be a chance for Kim to show the ultimate version of the Zmeskal toughness. Could she do it, for her team and herself?
Before the start of the first rotation, NBC floor reporter Beth Ruyak, who had visited the coaches and athletes in the practice gym prior to the competition, said that Kim had given her a message to relay. In typically direct Zmeskal fashion, the message was simply: "Tell everyone I'm ready."
Ready she was. The first rotation was uneven bars. There Kim did an excellent routine except for a slight hop on the landing, and scored a solid 9.90. Bars were her weakest event, so anything 9.90 or higher was an acceptable score. She was off to a good start. Kerri Strug also had a good bars routine, and scored only slightly below Kim at 9.862. Kim now trailed Kerri by .236.
Next came balance beam. This would be Kim's big test after the fall in compulsories, and the early sign wasn't good: she fell off the beam again during the warm-up period for the rotation. But when it counted, Kim and her amazing mental toughness triumphed. She did an excellent routine, including a stuck dismount, scoring 9.912. After getting the requisite hugs from Bela and her teammates, Kim was seen to rapidly tap her left hand on her lower chest half a dozen times. She was simulating her own heartbeat during the routine. I cracked up at this, and also realized it was a very good sign: Kim was nervous, as would be expected, but she wasn't afraid of the nervousness. To the contrary, she was joking about it. It was classic Zmeskal, and made me feel good about the remaining two rotations.
Kerri Strug had faltered a bit on beam, scoring only 9.750 after a big hop on the dismount landing. Kerri's lead over Kim was now down to .074, but floor exercise and vault were strong events for both girls, so Kim still had her work cut out for her.
Kerri had no major problems on floor, but her first two tumbling pass landings weren't quite solid, and she didn't have as much difficulty in her routine as Kim would show in hers. Her score of 9.837 was good, but Kim nearly always scored over 9.90 on floor. The door was open.
For 1992, Kim had changed her floor exercise music to an instrumental version of 'Rock around the Clock,' with the opening guitar riff from 'Johnny B. Goode' inserted in the middle. She retained some of the choreography from her 1991 routine, but much of it was changed, and the result just didn't quite have the same magic as the 'In The Mood' routine did. Athlete, music and movements just didn't join together as naturally and seamlessly. Nonetheless, it was still a very impressive routine, and she still had that amazing and unique tumbling pass in the middle. So she was still able to put up big numbers when she hit the routine well.
On this night, she did hit it well. All the landings were solid and the dance segments done nicely, and she put up a score of 9.925. By a tiny margin of only .014, Kim Zmeskal was now in third place among the Americans. If she could just match or come very close to Kerri Strug's score on vault, she would compete in the all-around after all.
Vault was Kerri Strug's best event, so anything could still happen. Kerri obviously also wanted badly to make the all-around final, and knew she would need to do her best vault to have a chance to get there. Though she was the youngest member of the American team, she responded well to the pressure of the moment, and hit an excellent first vault that scored 9.937 (at that time women still did two vaults and kept the best score of the two). Between vaults Bela Karolyi, who was also Kerri's coach, told her to do the second vault even more powerfully. She did exactly that, and her second vault went beyond excellent to great, scoring 9.950.
So the scene was set: if Kim Zmeskal scored a 9.937 or higher, she would go to the all-around final. This was the ultimate Zmeskal moment: everything on the line, all depending on Kim performing at her best. She was to do a Yurchenko vault, characterized by doing a round-off just in front of the springboard and coming off the board backwards. She ran down the runway, did the round-off, hit the springboard, soared into the air, pushed off the vaulting horse, spun and twisted, and landed without moving. It hadn't been quite perfect, but it scored a 9.937, just enough to pass Kerri and make the all-around final. But Kim still had another vault, and she wanted to leave no doubt that she belonged in the top three. She hit the second vault better, and matched Strug's score of 9.950.
Kim Zmeskal had come back from disaster and saved her Olympics. She did it by achieving the highest combined score on that day not only of the American team members, but of all the competitors from all the other nations as well. She had gotten her shot at the all-around title, and led her team to the bronze medal (the Romanians had surged into second place as some of the other Americans had made small but costly mistakes). Order had been restored: Kim Zmeskal once again ruled the gymnastics world. Now it was on to the all-around, where her rule would be cemented and her high place in Olympic history forever secured.
There was one strange note at the end of the session, however: as Kim walked to the edge of the podium, where Bela Karolyi would hug-lift her back down to the floor, she was limping slightly. She continued to limp after she had been set down. Not a big limp, but enough for both me and lead announcer John Tesh to notice. "Kim is limping a little bit." he observed. Neither Tesh nor expert commentators Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel followed up on the observation, however. Not even two days later at the all-around final, when Kim, in the first rotation, bounced out of bounds on the final tumbling pass of her floor routine, and walked off the floor limping again. With deductions for both the bounce and for going out of bounds, Kim's floor exercise score of 9.775 put her into a hole that even she couldn't climb out of, given the high level of competition. The seeming restoration of order had only been temporary. The nightmare had now resumed.
She hung in there in the second and third rotations, however, getting 9.937 on vault and 9.90 on bars. The limp wasn't evident during the vault rotation, but she had gone early on floor and last on vault, so she had had some time to rest the leg. On bars, of course, the legs only have to support weight on the dismount. By the last rotation, though, it had become clear that even if Kim scored a perfect 10.0 on balance beam, she wasn't going to win a medal. Still, one had to think she would want to end the competition strongly, that she would want to leave a good impression on all the people watching around the world. Instead, the unthinkable happened: Kim Zmeskal's concentration cracked during a balance beam routine for a second time. She missed one element completely and had a big bobble in another place. Her score of 9.80 was an act of generosity by the judges.
I was terribly disappointed - not IN Kim but FOR her - and also very confused. It was completely unlike Kim to have problems like these. The only two possible explanations seemed to be that she had succumbed to the pressure of the Olympics, or that she had an unknown injury that was hampering her performance. That brought me back to the wrapped ankle and the limp she had sometimes been seen with. But neither during the all-around nor during the event finals two days later, when Kim also had a sub-par performance, was anything mentioned on the broadcasts about the possibility of Kim having an ankle injury. That fact seemed to indicate that whatever was wrong wasn't serious enough to be causing the problems. But Kim Zmeskal was the ultimate 'gamer,' someone who thrived on pressure, so the pressure explanation didn't make sense to me either. I had no choice at that point but to remain confused.
Several weeks later, the truth finally leaked out, and Kim's performance at the team final suddenly became a whole lot more special to me: shortly before the Olympics, Kim Zmeskal had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in her left ankle. Kim herself had not released this information, and the comments about it from Kim when it did become known were limited to only two things: confirming the truth of the report, and denying that the injury had anything to do with her difficulties at the Olympics. To this day she will say no more about it. Most people, then and now, have accepted Kim's denials. I just don't buy it. A stress fracture anywhere in the leg is never a minor injury for a gymnast, and the limp was evident. Clearly the ankle was bothering her as she competed. Plus, if you really stop and think about it, how exactly did that stress fracture diagnosis happen in the first place? As I mentioned earlier, elite gymnasts deal with minor aches and pains all the time. It normally takes something pretty serious to get them to go to a doctor for X-rays - usually something bad enough that it has begun to disrupt their ability to perform. That was what happened to Dominque Moceanu in 1996, and I think it's logical to believe that the same thing happened to Kim Zmeskal just before the Olympics in 1992. And as if that were not enough, she also still had the chronic wrist pain to contend with. Trying to cope with both of those things at once would have presented serious problems even for Kim's phenomenal toughness and powers of concentration, and this provides a logical explanation for her momentary lapses at the Barcelona Olympics. The only other explanation - succumbing to the pressure - does not, given Kim's record of responding positively to pressure. So I think her problems on three of the four Olympic nights are completely understandable. She could easily have had more problems than she did. What is totally amazing to me is how she was able to do so well on team finals night, fully maintaining her concentration through all four rotations and outscoring the world. I consider it one of the greatest performances in Olympic history. Never, even when she won the World Championship, did Kim Zmeskal demonstrate more clearly that she had the heart of a champion.
Of course, this raises the question of why Kim would deny that the ankle injury had anything to do with her Barcelona problems if in fact it did. I think the answer is fairly simple. Kim Zmeskal is someone who prided herself on her toughness as a competitor. Someone like that doesn't make excuses. I think she believes that since she was able to walk and run and dance and land without collapsing, she should have been able to do those things at her normal level, even with the pain. To play the injury card would feel like whining, and someone like Kim would rather that the world saw her as a choker than to have to see herself as a whiner. I really don't believe it's any more complicated than that.
Kim Zmeskal never competed in another major international meet after Barcelona. She attempted a comeback in 1994, but it ended when she tore an ACL in her right knee, ironically as she was trying to again do the three whip-back tumbling pass she had made famous. She attempted one more comeback in 1997-99, and was doing well until she blew out an Achilles tendon in July of 1999. That ended Kim's career once and for all. However, during that last period she won both the 1997 and 1998 Rock 'N' Roll Gymnastics Championships, a competition that is solely floor routines and is scored only on artistic merit. She said after winning the 1997 title that it had been the most fun she had ever had, and indeed she had been all smiles and enthusiasm during the routines. So by the time Kim Zmeskal's career ended she had completely recaptured her love for gymnastics, and had once again become a champion. It makes me happy to know that those things happened.
In regards to the Olympics, Kim Zmeskal was most of all simply a victim of bad timing. If she hadn't had the ankle injury at the wrong time, or if she had just been born one year later, so that she would have had the year in 1992 that she actually had in 1991, she would have been Olympic all-around champion and had a place next to Mary Lou Retton as one of America's greatest Olympic gymnastics heroes. Instead, she occupies a much lower place in the minds of the general public than she deserves. Many consider her Olympic experience to be a failure. That's a terrible shame. America has never produced an athlete more worth admiring than Kim Zmeskal.
Exactly what happened with Kim in Barcelona may never be fully known. All I know is this: on the night of the women's gymnastics team final, a very brave 16 year old girl went out into the competition despite being hampered by a recent stress fracture in her ankle. She somehow pushed aside all the pain and ruled the gymnastics world one last time, outscoring all the other best gymnasts in the world, all of whom were competing on two good legs. In the process she led her team to a medal, the first ever for an American gymnastics team in a fully contested Games. That she wasn't able to continue to completely fight off the pain and stay at that level for the remaining two nights of the competition should not be held against her. Kim Zmeskal didn't win any gold medals in her only Olympic appearance, and no individual medals at all, but her victory against her own body on team finals night was far more amazing than any gold medal victory against the other competitors could ever have been. That kind of triumph alone makes someone an Olympic hero. That is how Kim should be remembered. That's what she will always be to me. For her whole career, for her phenomenal and inspiring poise and toughness, and of course for that incredible 1991 'In The Mood' floor exercise routine, Kim Zmeskal will also always be my all-time favorite athlete of either gender in any sport.