Gymnastics is a cruel world—just ask Alicia Sacramone
BEIJING - Gymnastics is the ultimate heart-wrencher, and nobody here has had her left and right ventricles perform reverse twists quite like Alicia Sacramone.
It was agonizing enough when Sacramone fell off the beam and later tumbled on her butt during the floor exercise at the team event - ruining whatever slim chance the Americans had to defeat China. But then on Sunday night she finished fourth in the vault, her final event at the Summer Games, behind a Chinese gymnast who landed on her knees instead of her feet.
“Everything hit me at once,” Sacramone said, fighting back tears. “I definitely had to pull myself together. The last couple of days have not been easy. It’s time I get a vacation. It was a very stressful, good learning experience. I’m excited to go home.”
Not every story ends with eight gold medals at the Olympics. On Sunday the U.S. gymnasts learned how the other 99.999 percent deal with defeat, or at least the absence of total victory. Sacramone suffered her disappointment, heaped on frustration. Alexander Artemev lost his focus on the pommel horse soon after completing the hardest part of his routine, falling off for a seventh place finish.
Then at the close of the long night, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin were dropped from first and second place, down to second and third on the floor exercise. The final gymnast, Sandra Izbasa of Romania, passed them both by sticking all her passes and landings.
Johnson and Liukin, already the all-around champ, would have more chances at gold medals on Monday. This was all there was for Sacramone, however. Her Olympics had unraveled from the very start.
Last week during qualifiers, teammate Samantha Peszek was injured during warmups on the floor exercise, and Sacramone was forced to wait several minutes and then perform first in her place. As the team captain, she was upset by Peszek’s injury. As a gymnast, she was unsettled by the unexpected schedule change. The result was a disastrous score and the beginning of a very bad Olympics.
It may not help much that the American coaches here are tough cookies. They don’t seem to feel it is their role to play nursemaid or psychologist, and have sounded very impatient with the 20-year-old Sacramone.
“I know how she’s a fighter,” Mihai Brestyan said Sunday. “I don’t know what happened this time. She took too much on herself. She forgot her own personal duties as a gymnast.”
Sacramone said she couldn’t help but worry about Peszek. “I was the team captain,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to the team.”
In any case, she wasn’t bad Sunday on the vault. But Sacramone had the misfortune of going first, when judges want to leave plenty of room at the top. And her start value, or degree of difficulty, was a low 5.8 on the second of two vaults. This just isn’t her best event, and Sacramone can’t perform the trickiest of tricks.
She was beaten by gold medalist Hong Un Jong of Korea, by Oksana Chusovitina of Germany and by Cheng Fei of China. Cheng landed terribly on her second vault and immediately began to start bawling. But her start value was 6.5, so she ended up beating Sacramone for the final medal, by .025 points.
This was no consolation to Cheng, 20, who was terribly miserable about her own failure under intense pressure to win a gold. She was still crying in the mixed zone, and told Chinese reporters they would not have her to kick around four years from now.
“It’s just the way competitions are,” she said. “I can’t keep it up until London. Women’s gymnastics is changing too much.”
Both Sacramone and Brestyan thought that Cheng should have scored lower, and lost the bronze.
“Considering she landed on her knees, I thought the deduction would be higher,” Sacramone said.
It wasn’t, and now Sacramone has only the team silver medal to remind her of these meandering Beijing Games. She’s a bright kid and will no doubt be fine. She’ll soon start classes again at Brown, where she helps to coach the gymnastics team at that Ivy League university.
Her U.S. teammates appear far more sympathetic and supportive than the coaching staff.
“She has worked so hard,” Johnson said. “Even though she didn’t get one, she deserves a gold. She’ll always be a gold medalist.”
Such a pretty thought, in such an ugly business.
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