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Five years after gruesome Olympic injury, French flag bearer set for triumph at Tokyo Opening Ceremony

·Columnist
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TOKYO — In the final moments of preparation before Samir Ait Said was to vault at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the French gymnast said he tried to soak in the atmosphere and recognize what an accomplishment it was just being there.

After all, just four years prior, at the 2012 European Championships, he fractured his right tibia in three places after landing awkwardly on a vault. The injury kept him from competing at that summer’s Olympics, which he’d attend as a spectator.

Undeterred, Ait Said embarked on a long and painful recovery process to beat the odds and qualify for the 2016 Games.

He deserved to bask in the moment.

“I was proud,” Ait Said told Olympics.com. “I looked up at the Olympic rings. ‘Hey man, this is it. You’re at the Olympics. You worked all your life for this moment.’ It’s so beautiful. so powerful.”

[How to watch Tokyo Opening ceremony in prime time]

He then charged down the runway, sprung off the vault, flipped two times in the air … only to snap his left leg in two places upon landing. The brutal compound fracture was audible throughout the gymnastics hall and left fans gasping and crying.

It was one of the most gruesome injuries in Olympics history.

“I look up and see the audience looking at me, with their hands over their mouths,” Ait Said said. “And then I look down and my leg looks like rubber. And I thought, ‘No, that’s not true.’”

Except it was. Ait Said’s Olympic dream was now officially a nightmare. Pain. Surgery. Rehab.

Samir Ait Said will serve as one of France's flag bearers at Friday's Opening Ceremony five years after suffering a gruesome injury while competing in Rio. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)
Samir Ait Said will serve as one of France's flag bearers at Friday's Opening Ceremony five years after suffering a gruesome injury while competing in Rio. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

There was even the humiliation of being immortalized for his worst moment, as video of the accident ricocheted around social media. It wasn’t what he expected would make him go viral. Adding insult to injury, the crew that hauled him away on a stretcher that day accidentally dropped him before loading him into the ambulance.

Only Ait Said refused to give in. He’d wanted to be an Olympian his whole life. Injury delayed it once, then shortened it once he’d finally made it.

Where nearly everyone around him thought he’d finally leave the sport after two brutal injuries, Ait Said saw it differently.

“The moment I started walking again, the training for 2020 Tokyo had started,” Ait Said said. “I love the challenge. Even more when someone says it’s not possible.”

Well, if you want the nearly impossible, here it is. The 31-year-old from the South of France isn’t just back, having medaled in rings at the 2019 World Championships.

He will walk on his two once-broken legs into the Opening Ceremony here Friday as one of France’s flag bearers.

It is, perhaps, the ultimate honor for a man who isn’t just obsessed with the Olympics, but exhibits human perseverance in its highest form.

“The more I heard I was finished, the more it motivated me,” he told the French newspaper Le Figaro.

He heard it plenty. Why even attempt this? Just making the Olympics was a challenge, since the French failed to send a full team. He had to do it all alone. He never stopped pushing.

“Keep fighting. Keep fighting. Keep fighting,” Ait Said said.

Now he gets center stage for his country as a global spotlight is put on him.

Rather than shrink and hide from the violent end to his last Olympics, rather than be embarrassed about the injury or all the YouTube views of it, he will walk boldly in front of everyone and show just how tough he is.

Besides, at this point, after being counted out twice, what’s he got to lose?

"Injury always comes at some point in a career," Ait Said said to Le Figaro. "Well, maybe not as violent [an injury] as mine. I have zero pressure. What would that be for me? I have already experienced the Olympics where I missed a medal because of a serious injury.

“What's the worst that can happen to me?"

Don’t answer that question, but also know that Ait Said isn’t in Tokyo just to be in Tokyo.

Back from the depths of one of the worst moments at the Rio Games, Ait Said will provide one of the best at Tokyo's just by walking and waving that flag. Buoyed as he may be by his bronze at Worlds, he isn’t stopping there.

“No matter what happens, I want that Olympic gold,” he said. “And I’m going to get it.”

Are you going to tell him he won’t?

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