Monday, December 3, 2012

Tuesday Prompt: Jennifer Wickham: Unfrickingbelievable


I was glued to the TV —as most Chileans were—for the summer Olympic finals of the men´s vault in the gymnastics competition.  Here in Chile futbol (soccer) dominates and many Olympic sports are still unfamiliar; so with new excitement, passionate patriots gripped corners of the Chilean flag, schools of children gathered in assemblies with painted-on mustaches, imitating their star, and this long, skinny nation (along with this gringa) prepared to cheer on Tomás Gonzalez in hopes of securing an Olympic medal from the London Games, 2012. 
I was wrapped in a towel, hair dripping, and in a hurry for a meeting. My nerves were shot. I asked Angelica, the jovial and stubborn woman who helps us in the house, to sit with me. She refused. Her husband, Gabriel, talks about futbol all day. “This is different, Angelica. Watch. Besides, there´s an American competing, and our Chilean, Tomás.” She hesitated. “And it´s gymnastics, the sport I was injured in when I was twelve years old.  It was so traumatic I wanted to quit and take up the clarinet.”  Her eyes widened and she sat down next to me.
As we watched the men prepare for their vaults, clapping and stomping billows of chalk into the air, Angelica rolled back into the sofa chair, kicking a foot up and copied their hollow claps. “Their hands are like mine when I make pies,” she squealed. I handed her my Chilean flag. “Even their feet seem to be covered in flour!”
We watched the Russian blaze down the runway. Stunning. “Lindo,” cried Angelica. Beautiful. Then Great Britain´s competitor fell backwards. Heartbreaking. Then the American, Sam, was up.  My heart was with Sam. I waved my American placemat, the biggest American flag I could find. Runrunrunrunrun, round off, back handspring, summersaults, turns, and twists and – BAM. He nailed the landing; much like Mary Lou Retton in 1984 when she needed a perfect 10 to beat the Romanian and grab the Gold. I had watched her from my Grandmother´s bed in Savannah, Georgia as I suffered from excruciating menstrual cramps. I remember being dizzy with nausea and nerves, biting the edges of the sheets as I watched this stocky, determined girl catapult into controlled twists and STICK that landing, her arms thrust in the air. Then her contagious, ecstatic smile stretched across the T.V. screen. I cheered and cried and jumped on my Grandmother´s bed in celebration.
But now in Chile my heart was waving two flags.
I shivered, barely holding my towel on, when darling and poised Tomás saluted the judges with dignified grace. At the runway, he seemed to stare down a bull. Gulp. Angélica flicked her flag as Tomás exploded straight armed towards the springboard with short, powerful strides and .…………………….……............ BAM. 
            He beamed radiant, fists in the air. I jumped up and hugged Angélica. Lindo, lindo. Sí, sí. ¡Lindo! Beautiful! ¡Lindo!  I wiped tears with both flags.  
Igor-the-Ukrainian, Isaac-the-Spaniard, Flavius-the-Romanian were all competing at their best. Then Yang Hak Seon, the light “vault god” from South Korea, launched into 58 flips with 32 twists at two-story height and touched down like a feather. I dripped. My towel dropped.
Tomás finally vaulted himself into 4th place – extraordinary – since Bronze, Silver, and Gold were unfrickingbelievable and unfrickingbeatable. Then Tomás Gonzalez said something that I loved: "This fourth place almost means more to me than taking home a medal." I kept thinking, why would he say this? I have a theory: This humble young man competed against the world´s best. He was among them. In order for him to have won a medal, some of his competitors would have had to make grave mistakes in execution because their vaults ranked higher in difficulty and were worth more to start with. This was unlikely as one commentator reported that Yang of South Korea practically lives on the vault. 

I get competitiveness. Yet, I can´t imagine someone in a healthy right mind wanting others to fumble so that they can take home a medal. Winning a medal when everyone does their best is what it´s all about. At least that´s when medals mean the most. I was sorely disappointed by the women´s vaulting finals. So many fell or took large steps or hops, or couldn´t manage to finish. Even the Gold medal winner made mistakes and admitted being disappointed. And the American girl, sixteen, pouted on the podium with the Silver. She thirsted for more. This made my heart sink; I felt embarrassed.
So, to see Tomás radiant with fourth place, imagining what he´d been through with economic disadvantages and lack of support (like so many athletes worldwide) was inspiring, to say the least. He not only fulfilled his declared childhood dream to make it to the Olympics, but he had the fortune to face the fierce level of competition in the finals next to men competing at their best. Tomás Gonzalez was Golden.
Angelica seemed to agree; after the competition, she felt like making a pie. I got dressed and cart wheeled out the door, hair still damp. I rolled down the windows and headed to work, letting my hair air dry and my heart soar.

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