33 and fabulous

The most astonishing event of the women's individual gymnastics event finals was turned in by a 33-year-old mom.


Jennifer Sey
August 18, 2008 8:00PM (UTC)

The most shocking moment of the women's gymnastics individual event finals was not when Romanian Sandra Izbasa beat favorite and reigning world champion Shawn Johnson out of a gold medal on floor exercise. Though Johnson's routine had a higher start value, Izbasa's was executed more flawlessly, gleaning her the top spot.

The most shocking moment was not when Johnson, who seems impossibly good natured and robustly charming, was once again grateful for silver.

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"The scores, the placements, they don't matter to me anymore. I'm having the greatest time of my life. I just want to go out there and have fun and just show the world I can be the best I can, no matter what," she said.

Ara Abrahamian, the Swedish wrestler stripped of his bronze medal for throwing it down in anger over a disputed penalty call in his semifinal match, could learn a thing or two about sportsmanship from this 16-year-old Iowan.

And, though surprising, Anna Pavlova's receiving a zero on her second vault because she failed to wait for the green light was not the most dumbfounding moment of the women's event finals.

The most outrageous happening, by a long shot, was when Oksana Chusovitina won the silver medal on vault at 33 years of age. It was Chusovitina's fifth Olympics, and first for Germany. She formerly competed for Russia as a native Uzbek, but moved to Germany so that she could secure medical treatment for her son after he was diagnosed with leukemia.

Much has deservedly been made of Dara Torres' outstanding performance at age 41. If 41 is old for a swimmer, 33 is ancient for a gymnast. Chusovitina competed in her first Olympics at 17 years of age in 1992, winning a team gold. This was the year that Shawn Johnson was born.

Thirty-three is mature for any Olympic athlete. Sports are generally the purview of the young and unbroken. But gymnastics is a particularly cruel endeavor, ejecting many mortals as well as champions from its chalky training venues before high school graduation tolls. A recent study published in Pediatrics Magazine indicated that 425,000 children sustained injuries from gymnastics that were severe enough to send them to emergency rooms between 1990 and 2005. And, according to the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, this number likely understates total gymnastics injuries, since it only includes those severe enough to require an E.R. visit.

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The brutality of the sport was acknowledged when Liukin and Johnson were asked by Bob Costas after their medal-winning performances in the all-around if they planned to stay in the sport until the London 2012 Games. They responded by saying, "If our bodies hold up."

I haven't heard any teenage swimmers wondering whether or not their bodies will last until the next Olympics. Dara Torres was 17 when she competed in her first games and won gold and she was considered to be something of a prodigy. It was expected that she would go on to compete in another Olympics.

Former World Champion Chellsie Memmel had a disappointing competition in Beijing. She could hold out for London if she felt the need for redemption. But at 20 years of age, having competed on a broken ankle in these games, she's all but stated that this was it for her. Mary Lou Retton retired less than two years after she won Olympic gold in Los Angeles at age 16. Not yet 20, she was packing it up for the old-age home with a single winning Olympics under her belt.

It is an amazing feat to compete in the games. To compete in five is unfathomable. To do so at 33, in a sport that can be said to eat its young, is downright superhuman. Chusovitina's feat is nothing short of heroic. She is a mother who has won her first Olympic individual medal while nearing her mid-30s. She is a grown woman in a girl's sport, and she has proved that age is indeed just a number.

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Jennifer Sey

Jennifer Sey is the author of "Chalked Up," her memoir about the ups and downs in internationally competitive gymnastics. She was the 1986 U.S. National Champion and a seven-time national team member.

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