I coulda been a contender

July 31, 1996

“I once did one of those,” I said to myself as I watched the Olympic gymnast execute an iron cross.

“Oh yeah, I know exactly how difficult that is,” I said as he spun around on the pommel horse, and “Been there, done that,” as he flipped over the vault.

Later, however, after my patriotic fervor had dissipated and clarity returned, I realized that my freshman gym class at Longmeadow High School in 1978 mirrored the miracles in Atlanta this month just as accurately as my college theater tryout resembled Anthony Hopkins’s first screen test.

The human body is not designed to maneuver on gymnastic apparatus. I suppose I ought to clarify my statement by saying my human body is not designed to maneuver on gymnastic apparatus. It certainly wasn’t 18 years ago.

When our personality-challenged gym teacher informed us we were going to spend the next few weeks on the parallel bars, rings, vault, etc., we were excited, for here was an opportunity to engage in an athletic activity that didn’t involve a rubber ball the size of a stove. No more kid stuff; this was something adults did.

So, between the obnoxious squeaks emanating from various armpits and the yelps from wedgie victims, we learned how to use the equipment. I’m pretty sure that Kurt Thomas spent more than 10 minutes learning the fundamentals of the rings, but then again, he had sponsors.

The parallel bars were my least favorite. It was nearly impossible for me to lift myself up off the mat and straighten my arms, let alone perform a somersault on those things. While swinging my legs back and forth, in preparation for a dismount following my spectacular Romanian arm-straightening routine, I was just as likely to bash my ankles into one of those bars as I was to lose control of my arms and fall on my spine.

I preferred the single ring to the double rings (and onion rings to both), as on the double rings you were generally expected to do more than just dangle, which happened to be my favorite routine, and one which I performed quite well.

On the double rings, I could form an L with my body by lifting my legs up for about three seconds before the muscle in my abdomen called it quits. While the T shape of the iron cross was unobtainable, I could make a passable Y, and a stellar X, especially while lying flat on my back after a dismount.

There were no uneven bars (school policy against decapitation), but we did have the high bar, another popular venue for dangling and swinging. I could pull myself up, flop the upper part of my torso over the bar like a dead outlaw over a horse, and flip my legs over the back of my head. It was a pretty cool routine. I called it “falling.”

It was while vaulting that I entertained my most vivid Olympic fantasies.

Pearson, who needs a 9.8 for the gold, is looking dapper in his Keds Bullets, black shorts, and Allmann Brothers T-shirt. He is certainly making a fashion statement to the audience of 3.5 billion. And that figure, we ought to point out, does include house pets.

My, but doesn’t he wear an expression of determination and concentration! Whether that applies to this vault or tomorrow’s geometry exam remains to be seen.

And there he goes! Good pacing, fine speed, and off the ramp, and he’s in good position but oh dear! The tips of his Keds have caught the edge of the pony, and Pearson is eating the floor mat! He is eating the floor mat, folks, and Pearson’s dream of Olympic gold is dashed! And in front of 3.5 billion people and pets!

I couldn’t even fantasize my way to bronze.

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