When I competed in the 1992 Olympics we had a team of six members. There was me, Shannon Miller, Kim Zmeskal, Betty Okino, Dominique Dawes, and Kerri Strug. Kim, Kerri, and Betty were coached by Bela Karoyli. Dom was coached by Kelli Hill. Shannon was coached by Steve Nunno and I was coached by the great Kevin Brown.
Back in 1992 we had to compete 8 routines. The entire team had to compete compulsories on all four events and optionals on all four events. Luckily during compulsories we were allowed to have our own coaches on the floor, but for optionals USA Gymnastics had to pick one head coach and one assistant coach for our team. They picked Bela and Steve. I knew Mr. Brown wasn’t going to be picked as a head or assistant coach for the team competition because it was customary to have the number one and two gymnasts have their coaches. I was number six on the team.
I was the kind of gymnast that didn’t like change. Mr. Brown had been my coach for the past five years and during the biggest competition of my (and his) life, he had to stand behind a small wall and watch the action rather than be a part of it. Mr. Brown and I had a wonderful partnership. He knew what I needed and was able to read my mind. He knew if I was getting nervous and he knew how to calm me down without even talking to me. Mr. Brown knew when to step in to spot me and when to let me be on my own. He knew how I liked the bars chalked and how to set my equipment and mats. Mr. Brown and I were a team. But for this competition he had to put me in the hands of a stranger.
I had never trained with Steve or Bela before. Primarily because I didn’t want anyone to coach me, and I certainly didn’t want anyone else to coach me in the Olympics. But there I was with two new coaches. Mr. Brown stood behind the barricade and cheered for me. I was allowed to walk over to him and get corrections or encouraging words, but he wasn’t allowed to step foot on the actual Olympic floor. So before and after my routines I walked over to him to have him verbally coach me. We both knew that I had a job to do and although I wanted MY coach down on the floor to coach me, I wasn’t going to let anything keep me from kicking booty.
And kicking booty I did. Our team started on bars, I hit. Then we went to beam, I hit. Then we went to floor, I hit again. And the last and final even was vault. Vault was by far my best event, but I hated vault. Mr. Brown was like my security blanket on vault. Just his presence standing next to the vault gave me confidence. But for the most important competition of our lives, he wasn’t allowed to be there for me. I didn’t have a good warm up. I wouldn’t throw my vault. I think that Steve and Bela were getting worried about me, but I felt lonely and scared without Mr. Brown. When warm up was over I wasn’t allowed to walk over to Mr. Brown. I had to stay with the team. I glanced his way and he gave me a look. He pumped is fists into the air and mouthed the words “You got this”. I shook my head and agreed.
For if anyone knew what I was capable of… it was Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown and I had spent five years together. He was the one who woke up early and stayed late to train me. He was the one who conditioned me to be strong enough to be an Olympian. He was the one who spent more time with me than his own family. He was the one who stayed up late at night worrying about me. Now he was the one standing on the sidelines and waiting to see what I was going to do. It was my time to vault. I stepped up onto the podium and took my place. My heart was beating out of my chest. I hadn’t thrown my vault all day, and as I stood to the side of the runway I had to decide if I was going to throw it or not. I, of course, knew I was going to throw my vault, it was the Olympics, but Mr. Brown didn’t know what I was thinking. Either did Steve or Bela. But I KNEW.
As I stepped onto the runway, a peaceful feeling took over my body. I was ready to go. I started my run. Everything felt perfect. I felt strong and my timing was right on. My vault was perfect. It was by far the best vault I had every thrown in competition. I was in the zone. I had no fear. I walked back to get into place to perform my second vault. I was calm. I was ready. My second vault was even better than my first.
Everyone erupted in cheer; Steve yelled and cheered, Bela jumped and down, and after I presented to the judges I turned around and started to run. I ran down the podium stairs, I ran past Steve, I ran past Bela, I ran past my team, I ran all the way to the end of the arena and right into the arms of MY coach.
All the years of training, all the tears, all the anxiety and emotion, all the uncertainty, and all of the work was all worth it. Everything Mr. Brown had worked for in his life had finally been accomplished. It was all over and it all went our way. For the first time in a long time everything worked out. I hit all of my routines. I had the best competition of my life and it was in the Olympics. We both couldn’t have asked for more.
And in that final moment when I could have stopped and gave Steve, Bela, or my teammates the first hug; something inside me knew that Mr. Brown had earned the first hug. He was the one by my side, he was the one who made me an olympian, he was the one that always wanted me to do well, he was the one that never gave up on me. He was my biggest supporter and my biggest fan.
And HE was the one who deserved… the first hug.