The summer of the Olympics, I was 11 years old and about to enter 6th grade and begin Middle School. I was on the sometimes-awkward and almost-always confusing cusp between childhood and my teenage years. My interests included cheerleading, dancing, pageants and gymnastics, which is why my favorite Olympic sport unquestionably was and likely always will be women's gymnastics.
Leading up to the games that year, we watched the women's gymnastics trials as the team was decided. I got to "know" the team by watching them in the trials. And then - the Games were finally here! My mom had literally planned for months in advance the coordinating red, white and blue outfits my family of four would wear while in Atlanta (hey, when in Rome...). From home, we watched in anticipation as the opening ceremonies began the Games that Atlanta and the US had been waiting for. We were glued to the TV, watching as American athletes humped hurdles and swam the breaststroke and played basketball. Then we watched in horror as a bomb exploded that killed 2 people and injured a hundred others. Would we still go to Atlanta? You betcha. My parents had planned for this for too long to let some sicko ruin our family fun.
So we hit the road two days after the bombing, pumped full of Team USA pride and the American spirit, woo hoo!! I guess we were SO full of American spirit that there was no room in the car for our suitcases, because mine and my brother's were left in Florida on the kitchen floor. Oops. All the planning of patriotic outfits my mom had done - "for Christmas cards!" as she would exclaim - was for nothing. So we made a little stop in at an outlet mall en route, where we went school-shopping a few weeks early (and everything we bought was red, white and blue. Let's just say I was looking very patriotic when I made my middle school debut).
Our time in Atlanta was amazing. Everywhere you looked were people from different countries, or signs with writing in 10 different languages, or the Olympic Rings, or bottles of Coke (Atlanta took its hometown drink very seriously). But I can't tell you what it meant to attend the one event that I had been looking forward to for months: the Gymnastics Exhibition. At this point, we were near the end of the Games, and Team USA had already won it's first Team Gold in Women's Gymnastics (more on that below). The Magnificent Seven were almost like friends to me: I had watched them through both the trials and the Games and I knew their routines by heart. I adored those girls and their confidence, amazing abilities, and sparkly 90's-esque scrunchies and leotards. I wanted to be just like them. Although they weren't much older than me, I looked up to them and, let's face it, basically idolized them. To see them perform their medal-winning vault, floor, beam and bar routines was this girl's dream come true.
Now back to the night they won: I was in my living room, and my whole family was in front of the TV watching live - no tape delay then! - as our girls competed for the Team Gold. It had never been done before by an American women's team, and we were good. We knew we were good. But could we really beat the Russians and Romanians who had dominated the sport for decades?
I will never forget watching as Dominique Moceanu fell on her vault and our hopes of gold seemingly went up in a puff smoke. My dad even got so animated about it that he threw something at the TV (wowzers). Enter Kerri Strug, with a hurt ankle no less. I will admit that Kerri wasn't my favorite and I was not feeling too optimistic with the team and country's (and my) hopes and dreams placed on her small shoulders. But she did it. She stuck the landing. We won Gold.
It was an amazing thing to witness, a moment I felt patriotic and proud and excited and happy, for no other reason than my country won a gold medal and those girls who I felt I had come to know were being rewarded for all those years of training and practice and injuries and time away from their families. What a moment to be an American 11-year-old girl watching with all the hope and admiration that an American 11-year-old girl can have. The Magnificent Seven were my heroes. To this day, there is a poster of the team hanging on my closet wall at my mom's house. I think I'll always keep it there to remind me of the inspiration and pride I felt watching the 1996 Olympic Games.
Last night, some of those same emotions flooded over me and I felt like I was that girl again, wishing and urging our girls on to victory. I was home alone since Alex was traveling, and it's probably a good thing since I got embarrassingly emotional over the whole ordeal. This time, Team USA is 5 women strong - hence the nickname "the Fab Five" - and they seem so young to me now. I see the pressure on their teenage faces and I can understand and appreciate the sacrifices they have made to train and compete for our country. Last night, their dreams were hanging there, ready to be realized, but a step out of bounds or a slip off the beam could have changed all of that - not only for themselves, but for their teammates. Fortunately and wonderfully, the girls gave it their best and came away with the second Team USA women's gymnastics team Gold in history. And as a 27-year-old woman, it felt surprisingly similar as watching those 1996 Games. I guess some things never change.
I hope that one day, I can watch with my little girl or boy and tell them what it was like watching history in 1996. I hope they will share my passion for cheering on our country during the Games every four years (or every two if you count the Winter Olympics!), and will recognize how cool it is that the whole world can set aside differences and gather to compete in an array of events. The premise of the Olympics is remarkable, and really quite bazaar when you think about it, but one thing is for sure: this girl will always have that Olympic spirit, regardless of age. And in another 16 years when I am 43 (holy. moly.), I can bet you that I'll be cheering for those little gymnasts as hard as ever.
|The Magnificent Seven, Team USA's original golden girls|
|Team USA's 2012 Women's Gymnastics Gold Medal Team: the Fab Five|