THE OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE
My previous blog captured some bits and pieces on my life as an elite gymnast. This blog focuses on my experiences competing as part of the Australian Artistic Gymnastics Team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I dug out a few old travel journals to help jog the memory (i.e. to avoid telling stories… I like creative writing). I haven’t read my journals for many years; I had forgotten how much disconnect there is in how I remember and talk about the Olympics and what my journals tell me. My entries leading up to the start of our competitions are fairly bland – training, food/weight stuff, hating on our coaches, injuries/sore bits. Sounds all doom and gloom, but at the time that was our reality. It’s not necessarily the stuff that’s stayed at the forefront of my mind. When people ask what the Olympics was like I tell them it was amazing. Because it was, of course it was. It’s just a different experience for gymnasts. Our ages ranged from 14 – 17 years, so of course we were kept on a short leash. But at the time our countdown excitement wasn’t gearing towards the Opening Ceremony or competitions, it was focused on it all being over. We wanted to see our families (we weren’t allowed to even talk on the phone) and were looking forward to some freedom and playtime. So I think both perspectives are equally important to tell – one from a young gymnast’s reality at the time and the other from someone who can reflect on the broader experience. The following blog will be broken into these two stories. First I’ll provide a brief explanation of the Olympic selection process.
OLYMPIC SELECTION PROCESS
To qualify a team for the Olympics, countries must place in the top 12 at the World Championships the year before. We finished in 12th place at the 1995 World Championships – 0.02 points ahead of Germany. To put that in perspective, picking a wedgie in a routine gives you a bigger deduction. So thirteenth placed Germany earned the right to send two individual gymnasts, Australia qualified a team of six… a much nicer thought going into the Australian selection trials the following year.
Our official selection trials for Olympics were held in Canberra in May and June 1996. I had ankle surgery six weeks before the first trials so didn’t have the ideal prep leading in. My journal entries around this time weren’t incredibly descriptive aside from the comments such as, “I stuck everything except my vault was crappy” and “I did a really good bar routine which is pretty amazing”. The following entry was written hours before and just after the final trial:
“Right now I am sitting in my little room totally dreading the comp which starts in one hour. The next time I write in this diary it will all be over… I’m alive!! It’s now 11:35pm and I’m just about to go to bed. I am now officially in the Olympic Team. The trial today went well. I didn’t fall so I’m happy”.
We remained in Canberra for approximately 2 months for a training camp before heading to Atlanta.
THE 1996 ATLANTA OLYMPICS – JOURNAL REALITIES
We arrived at the Olympic Village on the 8th July at 2am and the first thing we had to do was weigh in. We had two weeks before the Games kicked off to acclimatise and get stuck into training. As mentioned above, my journal entries at the time had definite themes to them. The following passages have been taken verbatim from my journal leading up to and during our competitions:
9th July – “After some convincing Ju-Ping [National Coach] let us have a Powerade. For lunch we were allowed fruit so I had some honeydew melon and an apple… had dinner at about 8:45pm, which consisted of mainly fruit and vegies again. Geez I hope my weight’s good tomorrow”.
12th July – “Ju-Ping said we were eating too much bread so we weren’t allowed any at lunch…the meals seem to be getting less and less satisfying and everyone is getting grumpier and grumpier. Why can’t it just be over?”
13th July – “My training went better than expected and thank god my vault was okay. The major news for today is that Jup’s let us have an ice-cream! She’ll probably starve us for the next couple of days. Tomorrow is meant to be our day off but I’m sure we’ll do some sort of training. I just hope they let us look around a bit even if they do follow us around everywhere”.
17th July – “We had the early training session today (8:30 – 11:30am). I started on floor and my routine was absolutely shit. I just about snapped both knees off in my full twist front. There are so many more athletes coming – just about every tram is full of big hunky weightlifters or something. I have promised myself to tell Ju-Ping that I am quitting gym after Olympics. ALRIGHT!! Today we got two snakes off Ju-Ping. Boy that filled us up”.
20th July – “It’s now 8:30pm and I have just set out my clothes for the Comp tomorrow. I’m not nervous yet, I’m actually looking forward to competing. And I finally get to see mum and dad. Today we trained 8:30 – 11:30am and everything went good thank god. For the rest of the afternoon we did nothing again (except dream about after the comps). I pray I’ll be able to sleep tonight”.
21st July – “We competed on beam first and as usual I got heaps of pins and needles in my fingers. I made the routine without any major probs but I wobbled out of the front roll. My floor didn’t feel too bad and I think I got on TV so I’ll have to watch it when I get home. Our team beat Greece and Japan so in our round we came second behind Romania. Jup’s is making us train this afternoon the bloody crazy turd”.
22nd July – “I don’t want to train today for a change but it makes me feel better when I tell myself there’s only 2 more days of hell… Yes I’ve made it through another training. We had optional routines and they didn’t go too bad but I felt pretty tired. By the way, my weight today was 42.7kg!! Man I wish it was this time tomorrow. I hope I can finally speak to mum and dad but if I don’t see them I’m definitely calling them no matter what Jup’s says!!”
23rd July – “Today my weight was 42.60kg! But I’m sure it will go up over the next few days. We’re about to head off to the comp now so the next time I write in this it will all be over!! The day is now over! The comp went really well – I didn’t fall so I’m happy. I’m so glad we’re finished now and I finally get to see mum and dad”.
THE 1996 ATLANTA OLYMPICS – THE CHOSEN MEMORIES
Our gymnastics team were all Olympic virgins so the lead up was exciting, especially when we received our suitcase full of uniforms and gear. Our first day in the Olympic village I remember thinking it was like a city. There were five McDonalds (which we had already mapped out and were planning to invade post-competition), a bowling alley, cinema and games room, a bunch of massive dining rooms and of course accommodation for athletes and officials. My first OMG sightings on day one in the village were Kieran Perkins and Danny Green… so star struck.
We weren’t allowed to go to the Opening Ceremony because we competed the following day, which was probably a smart decision given the time spent waiting in the sun for all the countries to march on (not good for us precious indoor athletes). The gymnastics competitions were held in the Georgia Dome along with basketball. The arena seated 12,000 for gymnastics and the same for basketball. The atmosphere was ridiculous, even in podium training, which is the only opportunity to test the competition equipment before the big day. We had two days of team competition and this was the last Olympic cycle where gymnasts were required to do both compulsory and optional routines. So on day one, every gymnast performed the same routines and on the second day each gymnast did their own routines, with the goal being to meet a set of difficulty and composition requirements to get your start score as close to 10 as possible on each apparatus.
After qualifying in 12th spot the year before, we jumped up to 10th place at the Atlanta Olympics, which for that era in Australian Gymnastics was pretty decent. I remember getting crazy nervous before my beam routine on the second day of competition and trying to shake the pins and needles out of my fingers. When you’re about to mount something 10cms wide with 12,000 sets of eyes watching, any nerves, excitement, adrenaline or whatever you want to call it will potentially affect your timing and spit you off the beam. Being my weakest apparatus, I was happy just to stay on the damn thing. On day two of competition I also remember walking up onto the podium for my first vault and spotting my parents waving frantically at me in the crowd right before I had to present to the judges. I remember shaking my head thinking, out of that many people I had to see them. I hadn’t seen them for a long time so it was quite hard to refocus within 20 seconds.
When people find out I went to the Olympics one of the first questions I get asked is, “where did you come” or “did you win anything?” Replying with, “our team came tenth” or half jokingly “I got a participation medal” sometimes feels like it doesn’t quite cut the cheese. But at the same time it’s often not worth explaining the process to even qualify for the Olympics to someone who asks that type of question straight up. How did I do personally? I had one blunder on bars on the first day of competition where I peeled off in a release and landed on my back. The other three apparatus were relatively smooth. I got through the second day of competition with no major mistakes and ended up with the highest all-round score in the Aus team.
So what was the Olympics like after our competitions?? While we still had to train and weigh in, the leash was loosened enough for us to explore the village and do some touristy stuff with our parents. I went to the hairdresser in the Olympic Village and became a ranger, we went to the first screening of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie Eraser (with Arnie himself opening it), I saw Jerry Seinfeld with the folks (effing hilarious), and I remember a couple of the Hockeyroo girls snuck us some beers. We got free tickets to events so we went to a bunch and got our true Ocker spirit on. I have to say my absolute spectator highlight was watching Michael Johnson win the 200m sprint final. The Closing Ceremony was incredible; athletes started charging onto the centre of the stadium earlier than what they were meant to. Try to stop thousands of athletes ready to get loose. We spent most of the time dancing around, hiding from our coaches and taking photos with other athletes. Even though this was the time we’d been dreaming about for months, I do remember feeling sad when the flame was extinguished. Nine years of training for this event and it was officially over. What happens now???
I will cover my post-Olympics journey in another blog. Next month I will discuss some of my experiences around nutrition, injuries and mindset during my gymnastics career. 3 MONTHS TO GO ‘TIL RIO!!!!