Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ode to a Gymnastics Queen

One moment during the Summer Olympics catapulted me back in time more than 30 years. There was a question about a gymnast’s score. The cameras cut to a judge striding purposely across the floor. She had short black hair and was wearing a crimson blazer. She looked familiar but I didn’t know why, until the commentator said, “There goes head judge Nellie Kim to confer with the other judges.”

Proverbial bolt of lightning.

My head did the double take shake most often seen on an episode of Scooby Doo.
Did that announcer just say NELLIE KIM?

As in Nellie Kim, famed Russian gymnast who won gold medals in 1976 and 1980? Who was the first woman to score a perfect 10 on Vault and floor exercise (yes, even before Nadia!). I looked again. Yep. There was no mistaking now. This is the one and the same Nellie Kim who made me want to become a gymnast in elementary school.

Why did I like her so much? Was it her grace on floor exercise? Her strength on vault? Her all around poise? Actually, the truth is much simpler.
I liked Nellie Kim because she was half-Korean, like me.

Until that point, I had never met or seen anyone like me.
I lived for nearly 4 years in Korea, being gawked at because I was half-Caucasian and had the round eyes and curly hair of my dad. Forget that my Korean was impeccable. I was still not full-Korean, and therefore, ridiculed by some kids. The most vivid memory that comes to mind is the neighbor girl (I cannot remember her name) who used to pinch me all the way home from school. I would walk in crying, red welts all over my arms. My mom would rub my arms while scolding me, telling me to fight back. I never did. I didn’t start fighting back until years later, for different reasons.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

Nellie Kim was Russian. Specifically, she was from Tajikistan. Her father was Korean. Her mother was Tatar. But that didn’t matter to me. The summer of 1976, even as I was captivated by a 14 year old Romanian girl named Nadia, I was fixated on the beautiful and graceful Nellie Kim from the Soviet Union. The girl with the Korean last name and the poise of a ballerina. She didn’t look like an underfed pixie. She had curves. And she made me believe that I could learn gymnastics too.

The year after the 76 games, I started 7th grade. One of the intramural sports offered was gymnastics. I signed up. And you know what? I did pretty darn good on the vault. I had strong legs from running track, playing football and softball. My upper body strength needed help, but all in all, I wasn’t too shabby. The other events posed somewhat of a problem. I couldn’t master a back handspring. I did the back walkover just fine, but no springing. Which meant the floor exercise was out. The balance beam? Forget about it! Every time I got on one, I immediately fell off. Something about my equilibrium. I didn’t even try the uneven bars. My budding gymnastics career ended when I sprained my wrist trying a new vault routine.

Hey, don’t feel sad for me. I don’t feel bad about my brief flirtation with gymnastics. Had it not been for Nellie, I would never have even tried it. And I think I’m way better off having tried gymnastics than wondering what it would have been like. And because of Nellie Kim, I walked a little straighter and told everyone, “She’s half-Korean, just like me!” And I learned that in the US, unlike Korea, people didn’t really care about my ethnic background, or that I wasn’t full Korean or full Caucasian. At least, the people I met didn’t care. Most of them were military brats like me.

So, Nellie Kim. I am happy to see that you are still involved with gymnastics. Still sharing your grace and beauty. Thank you for giving awkward girls like me a glimpse of a glorious dream. It was worth every issue of “International Gymnast” I stole from the school library.

Hopefully, one day, I can influence someone the way you influenced me. Not to just go into gymnastics, but to try something new. Something different. Because you never know where you’ll land.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

China's REAL Shining Star

There’s an image from Friday night’s Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics that won’t leave my head… or my heart. It’s not the amazing dancers who reenacted five thousand years of China’s history in such a colorful fashion. It’s not the breathtaking way the torch was finally lit. It’s not the parade of jubilant athletes who marched around the stadium, waving flags and smiling so brightly, they could light up the vast building with their energy.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The image that’s burned into my psyche IS that of an athlete… and a little boy who marched in at that athlete’s side. You may have seen it and been just as touched. The giant man is NBA star Yao Ming, pride of China; famous around the globe for his basketball skills. At 7’6” tall, hard to miss as he marched, dressed in a smart red jacket and white slacks that made his legs go on forever, waving his country’s flag. Then the camera pans down, way down, to the little boy jogging at Yao Ming’s side, an Olympic flag in one fist, a Chinese flag in the other. The boy looks a little overwhelmed and glances frequently up at Yao, as though for reassurance. Yao frequently glances down at the boy, as if to make sure the child is keeping up and hasn’t tripped or anything like that.

I was curious about the boy, wondering what he had done to be honored in such a way. Then the NBC announcer shed a little light on the picture. The boy’s name is Lin Hao. He’s nine years old. He was at school when that devastating earthquake struck the Sichuan province in May. Lin Hao crawled out of the rubble, then went back not once, but twice, to dig out classmates. AFTER he did that, he walked seven miles to get help. Did I mention this boy is nine years old? When asked why he did what he did, he replied simply that it was his duty, because he is a hall monitor. I am instantly smitten.

I continue to watch the Opening ceremony, hoping the cameras will cut back to little Lin Hao. I’m not disappointed. As the final dance is performed, as the torch relay reaches its breathtaking zenith, the cameras find Lin Hao again and again. By the time the Olympic flag is raised, he is ensconced comfortably in Yao Ming’s arms, which ensures an unencumbered view of the festivities. Lin seems mesmerized by the dazzling displays of light and sound. Yao seems mesmerized by Lin. The look on the athlete’s face is nothing short of tender. And I understand, because I can feel myself looking at the boy in the same way. My heart swells at the thought of all this boy has endured. I don’t even know if his family survived the quake. I sure hope they did.

As the Opening Ceremony wraps up, NBC cuts again to Yao Ming and Lin Hao and I know that whoever is calling the shots in the booth is just as smitten with this child as I am. And for one moment, I am happy to see that there’s someone else in the cold hard world of broadcast TV, whose heart can still melt at the sight of such an amazing child.

Today, I read that Lin Hao almost did not make it for the parade of athletes. Someone decided that Lin could not march with the Chinese team, because he is not an athlete! He's so much MORE than an athlete. He transcends any game. His victory-- saved lives, for goodness sake! Cooler heads finally prevailed, and Lin was ushered to Yao Ming’s side, just as the Chinese team began its march. And then little Lin marched right into the hearts of millions, maybe billions.

In an interview with an NBC reporter, Yao praised Lin’s actions, calling him a shining part of the generation that will shape China’s future. To which the little boy replied, in perfect English, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Forget about the future. I think Lin’s doing a fantastic job right here in the present.