athletes, celebrities, mental health, psychology, tragedies, YouTube

Partial repost: Christy Henrich and Karen Carpenter, and discovering Dr. Todd Grande…

Recently, I watched a video done about Karen Carpenter by YouTube shrink, Dr. Todd Grande. Dr. Grande does videos about mental health topics in a trademark “flat” kind of way. When I first encountered him on YouTube, I didn’t like his videos that much because his delivery was so dry. But I kept coming back, because he chose interesting topics. After awhile, I realized that I enjoy his videos and even his “flat” style… especially when he throws shade in kind of a bland way. In the video he made about Karen Carpenter, Dr. Grande remarked that in terms of her musical talent, Karen was “like a Ferrari stuck on a go cart track”. He implied that she was much more talented than her brother, Richard, is. I got a kick out of that observation.

Karen Carpenter… Dr. Grande implies that her wings were clipped by her brother… Frankly, I think her mother was more of a wing clipper.

Personally, I disagree with Dr. Grande that Karen’s talent was that much more impressive than Richard’s is. They had strengths in different areas. Richard is a fantastic pianist, and he’s a great arranger. He knew what songs went best with Karen’s vocals. Karen was a magnificent singer and drummer. Together, they worked well. Both of them worked apart with somewhat less success. I do think that Karen and Richard had a very controlling mother, and personally, I think if anyone should be blamed for what happened to Karen Carpenter, it could be her mom that deserves the most shade. Agnes Carpenter was overbearing and overreaching… and she didn’t want her children to be independent adults. Moreover, she obviously favored Richard, which probably took a toll on Karen’s self esteem. Maybe that had to do with her development of anorexia nervosa. I don’t know.

Anyway… I enjoyed watching Dr. Grande’s video about Karen Carpenter and realized he’d done a bunch of similar videos about other celebrities. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on Christy Henrich, a brilliant 80s era gymnast who famously perished from anorexia nervosa in 1994. So I left him a comment. Maybe he’ll read and heed it. I really think it would be interesting to hear Dr. Todd Grande’s deadpan views about Christy’s public struggle with anorexia. She had a tremendous work ethic, which extended to her illness. At one point, Christy’s weight fell to 47 pounds. It’s not that I admire her for being that emaciated. It’s more of a comment on her sheer will power and relentless pursuit of her goals, self-destructive as they were. I’m sure a mental health expert would have a lot to say about her.

A video a YouTuber made about Christy Henrich.

In the meantime, below is a repost of an article I wrote in February 2014 about Christy Henrich for my original blog. It was inspired because Bill and I went on a “hop” to Spain and Portugal in January of that year. On the way back to Texas, we landed in Missouri and drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. I thought of her as I realized how much Missouri reminds me of Virginia. As usual, the repost appears “as/is”.

Remembering Christy Henrich

Back in the late 1980s, I had a brief but intense obsession with watching gymnastics.  I would catch meets on ESPN or Home Team Sports.  In those days, ESPN only had one channel and I believe HTS is now defunct.  I remember seeing very old footage of Shannon Miller when she was just 12 years old.  I remember watching Brandy Johnson and Phoebe Mills.  I could never so much as turn a cartwheel myself, but I really enjoyed watching the tiny girls compete.  I admired them for being so tough and strong.  I was into horses myself, though.

I also remember Christy Henrich, who was less than a month younger than me.  When I first saw her, she reminded me a bit of a soccer player.  Short and muscular without an ounce of fat on her, she didn’t have the long, graceful limbs of the Russian or Romanian gymnasts.  But she was very strong and had an amazing work ethic.  Her coach, Al Fong, even called her E.T. for extra tough. Sometimes, that extra tough work ethic worked against her, as you can see in the video below.

This may have even been the first meet I ever saw Christy in… This performance was not very good. The commentators say she “looks tired” and “doesn’t look right”. They also mention that she was warming up way before everyone else was.

Not being privy to anything going on in gymnastics that wasn’t aired on TV, I didn’t know about Christy Henrich’s eventual slide into anorexia nervosa and bulimia.  Back in those days, I had a bit of an obsession about eating disorders, too.  I knew a lot about them and even flirted with them.  If I had known about Christy, I might have even admired her for her anorexia.  That’s how dumb I was at 16.

Christy Henrich at 17

I remember watching the very intense 1988 Summer Olympics gymnastics trials.  I was kind of rooting for Kristie Phillips, an adorable strawberry blonde who had seemed poised for gymnastics stardom.  A growth spurt and weight gain had sidelined her in 1987 and she was back to try to win a spot on the team.  She placed 8th and was named a second alternate.  She would not be going to Seoul unless someone got hurt.  Christy Henrich missed the team altogether by .0118 of a point.  There was no hope for her at all, unless she set her sights on 1992 in Barcelona.

About Kristie Phillips, who also suffered from an eating disorder.
Kristie Phillips was on Oprah, along with Christy’s mom and boyfriend. Here, she talks about her suicidal ideation after she missed the Olympic team.

In 1990, a judge supposedly told Christy Henrich after a meet in Budapest, Hungary that in order to be a serious contender for the Olympics, she would need to lose weight.  At 4’11” and 93 pounds, Christy didn’t have much weight to lose.  But she took the judge’s words to heart and went on a serious diet, quickly shedding five pounds.  She was praised for the weight loss at first, but then she slid headlong into a battle that would eventually cost her her life.

Christy Henrich in 1990

By January 1991, she had lost so much weight that her coach, Al Fong, kicked her out of the gym.  A week after he kicked her out, she came in to tell him she was quitting the sport.  Though she had a loving family and a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, the eating disorders had taken hold of her.  On July 26, 1994, she died of multiple organ failure.  She had just turned 22 years old and she weighed less than 60 pounds.  At one point, her weight was just 47 pounds.

A clip from a 1995 episode of Oprah in which Christy’s mother and boyfriend talk about her struggles with eating disorders.  

I remember reading Joan Ryan’s book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.  In fact, I read an excerpt of it in the Washington Post just days before I left the country for Armenia to serve in the Peace Corps.  When I got home in 1997, I bought the book and read it.  It was about female gymnasts and figure skaters.  In 2000, Ryan updated the book, including discussion about Dominique Moceanu’s desire to be emancipated from her parents because her father was spending her money. 

I don’t know what made me think of Christy today.  It’s not her birthday or the anniversary of her death, though in July of this year, she will have been dead for 20 years.  That amazes me.  It seems like yesterday, we were 22 years old.  The older you get, the faster time flies.

Last month, as Bill and I worked our way back to Texas from our trip abroad, we drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri.  We stayed a night in Kansas City, which is where Christy died.  For some reason, I even thought about Christy’s mother as we passed through.  It was frigid during our brief time there and, looking around, it didn’t look like the kind of place that would excite me.  On the other hand, I did notice how nice and folksy everyone seemed to be.  It seems like the kind of place you could get to know your neighbors.

Christy Henrich in 1987.

I’m sure that the last twenty years have been tough for all who knew and loved Christy Henrich.  What happened to her was just gruesome.  I still like watching gymnastics today, but remember Christy’s story reminds me that the sport has a bit of a dark side.  To read more about Christy Henrich, I recommend the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.  

An eye opening read.

Edited to add: in 2014, I still had no idea how dark gymnastics can be… that was before we knew about John Geddert and Larry Nassar.

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book reviews

Repost: Shannon Miller’s It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote on July 27, 2016. It appears here as/is.

Hi everybody.  I know I could be writing about politics or that poor French priest who was murdered near Normandy yesterday, but I think enough people are writing about those topics.  Besides, it’s high time for another book review.  I used to crank them out weekly and now it takes me a lot longer to plow through my reading.  Today’s review is about America’s most decorated female gymnast and ovarian cancer survivor, Shannon Miller, and her book It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life.  

With help from ghost writer, Danny Peary, Miller published her book in the spring of 2015.  Although I kind of quit watching gymnastics years ago, Shannon Miller comes from an era when I did used to tune in.  I remember seeing her when she was just 11 years old, competing in a meet that was aired on the now defunct cable channel, Home Team Sports.  Even back then, she was very impressive.  Years later, when she and her teammates won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, I remembered her performance as a child and marveled at how far she’d come.

Shannon Miller at age 11.

Today, Shannon Miller has a degree in law and is the mother of a son and a daughter.  Her daughter, Sterling Diane, was born against the odds after Miller had her left ovary and fallopian tube removed and endured nine weeks of chemotherapy.  Miller has her own foundation, Shannon Miller Lifestyle, which is devoted to encouraging health and fitness for women. 

Miller reminds readers that her potentially deadly cancer was discovered when she was feeling just fine.  It was a routine visit to her gynecologist that uncovered a cancer that often kills women because by the time it’s discovered, it’s too far advanced to treat effectively.  I agree with her on an intellectual level that people should pay attention to their health.  However, as a healthcare consumer, I think it’s very difficult for many folks to be attentive to their health.  For one thing, it’s takes time and money that many people don’t have.  For another thing, seeing doctors is potentially very demoralizing.  Most of us would rather be doing something else.

Shannon Miller’s gold medal winning balance beam routine at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

In her book, Miller doesn’t focus too much on cancer or even married life.  It’s Not About Perfect is about eighty percent about Miller’s gymnastics career.  I’m okay with that, because I was interested in reading about gymnastics.  Let’s face it.  Shannon Miller is where she is, for the most part, because she is such a talented athlete.  It makes sense that such a large portion of her life story would be devoted to life in the gym.  I appreciated her comments about the historic 1996 Summer Games, too.  I was in Armenia at the time and didn’t get to watch them live.  Readers who would rather read about Miller’s struggle with cancer may be disappointed that there’s not more included about that battle.  In a way, the book’s title is a bit misleading.

I thought Miller’s book was mostly well written.  She comes across as a pleasant person, albeit more religious than I expected.  She mentions her faith more than a few times in her story.  I have nothing against people who have faith in God.  Some people may feel like this book is a bit whitewashed in that Miller mostly keeps her comments about her coaches and gymnastics very positive.  She writes about working out with serious injuries, enduring surgeries, competing when she was tired or sick, and glosses over the politics involved with assembling an Olympic team.  But I got the sense she didn’t want to alienate anyone and, perhaps, was not quite as candid as she could have been. 

Interestingly enough, I read in a review on Amazon.com that Shannon Miller was raised Christian Scientist, which means that early in her career, she didn’t necessarily go to doctors.  But she and her mother, Claudia, are both cancer survivors and were saved by the powers of modern medicine.  It would have been a great asset to Miller’s book had she written more about that aspect of her faith.  Apparently, in Shannon Miller: My Child, My Hero, her mother’s book, the Christian Science part of her upbringing is discussed.  Now, even though that book was published in 1999, I’m thinking I might have to read it.  Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows how much I like to learn about fringe religions.  Edited to add: I read a large excerpt of Claudia Miller’s book on Google and it looks like a lot of the information is pretty much the same as what’s in Miller’s most recent book.

Miller also is mum about her first marriage to ophthalmologist, Chris Phillips.  That marriage did not last long and Shannon mostly says it’s because they didn’t know each other very well.  Of course, perhaps it was best that she not write too much about that marriage since her ex husband basically accused her of infidelity.  From what I gathered, the split was nasty and it was probably best not to rehash the relationship in the book.  I remember photos of them in People magazine when the wedding happened and other readers probably do, too.  

I thought it was pretty cool that Shannon included photos, including one of her smiling radiantly while holding her son, Rocco, and sporting a totally bald head.  Her trademark frizzy hair has since grown back after it fell out during chemotherapy.  It looks like it’s no longer frizzy.  Shannon’s looking sleek and professional these days.

Anyway… It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life is probably not a bad read for most gymnastics fans.  It’s not really juicy or scandalous, but it’s not terrible.  Those who want to read more about Shannon’s personal life or struggle with ovarian cancer may be left wanting.  I think I’d give it three and a half stars.

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book reviews

Repost: Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast…

Here’s another reposted book review, this time about women’s gymnastics. It was originally posted August 22, 2016, and appears here as/is.

I was only four years old in 1976, when Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci became the first female gymnast to earn perfect 10s on her Olympic routines.  I grew up loving horses, not gymnastics.  I have absolutely no talent for gymnastics.  I’m not very coordinated and could never so much as turn a cartwheel.  I didn’t start watching the sport until 1988, when I was 16 years old and started noticing American athletes like Phoebe Mills and Kristie Phillips, both of whom are my age.

Nevertheless, I heard a lot about Nadia Comaneci when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.  I grew up during a time when a number of European countries were Communist and closed off from the rest of the world.  I was always fascinated by what was behind the Iron Curtain.  I even lived in the former Soviet Union for a couple of years right after it fell apart.  As I started to become interested in watching gymnastics, I also became interested in Romania, which has been a source of so many great gymnasts since Nadia’s day.  Thanks to YouTube, I have been able to watch Nadia as a gymnast in her prime.  Even today, forty years after her victory in Montreal, I still think she is one of the most beautiful athletes I’ve ever seen.

Bear in mind that the floor she’s tumbling on is not nearly as springy as today’s floors.

Maybe it was the Rio Olympics that made me finally decide to read Nadia’s 2003 book, Letters to a Young Gymnast.  I’ve had it downloaded for awhile, though.  I finished it last night and I have to say, Nadia’s story is really fascinating.  The book is written as if she’s corresponding with a young person who has written her letters.  She refers to her unknown correspondent as “Friend” and makes it sound like they have been corresponding for awhile.  She writes about what it was like to train with Bela and Marta Karolyi when they were young coaches in Romania.  She explains things that a lot of young people of today would not understand because they are not growing up in a time when so much of Europe was cut off from the Western world.

For me, reading about Nadia’s experiences living in Romania under Ceausescu are fascinating.  I have done quite a lot of reading about Romania in the 1980s.  I’ve even seen some Romanian films; there are some surprisingly interesting movies coming from Romania, a country I haven’t yet visited but have always found intriguing.  Like a lot of Americans, I had seen the dramatized 1984 movie about Nadia’s life called Nadia.  Based on Nadia’s book, the movie did get a lot of the basic stories right, though some of what was presented as factual in the movie was not quite correct.  Nadia tells her story from her perspective, which for me, was very illuminating.

Nadia post defection.

I liked that Nadia addresses the way the Karolyis have been criticized by Americans for being too strict and abusive toward their athletes.  Nadia explains that she never saw the Karolyis as abusive.  She lived in a country where people had little food because their dictatorial leader was exporting everything that was produced in Romania.  Because she was an athlete, Nadia and her teammates ate very well.  They were taken care of much better than most of their countrymen.  It wasn’t until she was a young woman in her 20s that Nadia began to experience what life was like for ordinary Romanians.  In fact, in her case, it was somewhat worse because her coaches defected.  For several years after the Karolyis left Romania, Nadia was under constant scrutiny by the Securitate (Romanian secret police during Ceausescu’s era).

When it became clear that Nadia’s gymnastics career was “over”, she was treated more like everyone else.  When she turned twenty-five, a large chunk of her meager pay was withheld by the government because she was childless.  Imagine that.  She was being paid about $100 a month and a lot of that money she never saw, all because she had not produced any babies for the state.  Nadia writes that during Ceausescu’s era, women were ordered to have children.  Fetuses were considered state property.  Most women under age forty-five were escorted to doctors every three months to see if they were pregnant.  Nadia writes that she never had to go, but other women did.  More babies were born, but there wasn’t enough food for them and their mothers were not getting proper care during their pregnancies.  Nadia even references an excellent book about Romania during the Ceausescu regime, Red Horizons by Ion Pacepa.  I read that book myself several years ago and would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about what life under Nicolai and Elena Ceausescu was like.

I remember back in 1990, I read an article in Life Magazine about Nadia’s daring defection from Romania.  She and a group of other Romanians decided to flee the country in late November 1989.  I was then a senior in high school.  No one in that group had any idea that there would be a revolution within just a few weeks and the terrible Ceausescu regime would dramatically fall apart.  Nadia writes that she was going crazy in Romania, working a boring desk job with barely enough money to eat and heat her home.  She wanted something more and knew she was unlikely to get it in 80s era Romania.  So she decided to leave.

I distinctly remember reading the article in Life, which was entitled something along the lines of “Fall From Grace”.  It basically portrayed Nadia as a cold hearted slut.  The author wrote about how Nadia was dressed, with too much makeup and short skirts.  I remember the writer’s insinuation that Nadia was bulimic.  She wrote about how Nadia ate from her companion’s plate and then disappeared into the bathroom, coming back smelling “sickly sweet”.  Here’s a link to an old article from People magazine that depicts her in much the same negative way.  And it seems that Nadia’s story has also been “told” by actress Katie Holmes, who may have some things in common with the gymnast.

Nadia explains that during that time immediately after she defected, she barely knew any English and had dressed the way people in Europe were dressing at the time.  She was ignorant about the local mores and did and said things to make her look unappealing to the American public.  I think part of her problem was the fact that she had little experience dealing with Westerners and didn’t know much English.  Part of the problem comes from the fact that she is apparently very introverted and doesn’t show emotion to others.  She initially came across as cold and unfeeling, which doesn’t appeal to a lot of Americans (even though she notes that Americans are generally a lot less physically affectionate than Romanians are).  I think that many Americans didn’t know what to make of Nadia back in 1990… and poor Nadia was dealing with some pretty significant culture shock.  Aside from that, her country was in chaos.  She’d risked her life escaping Romania, not knowing that had she waited a few weeks, she probably could have left with less drama.  But then, maybe if she’d done that, her story would have ended differently.

Nadia Comaneci has been married to fellow gymnast and Olympian Bart Conner for over twenty years.  I always thought they made an interesting couple.  Bart Conner is very friendly and extroverted.  He’s been a gymnastics commentator and always comes across as super people oriented.  Nadia, on the other hand, seems much more reserved and mysterious.  I enjoyed reading Nadia’s perspectives on how her relationship with Bart Conner bloomed into marriage.  They now live in Norman, Oklahoma and run a gymnastics school.  They have a son.  Nadia is a naturalized American, but she has kept her Romanian citizenship.  She loves Romania and, apparently, Romania loves her right back.

Anyway… I did very much enjoy Letters to a Young Gymnast.  Perhaps this book is even more interesting to those of us who remember when Communism was a reality in many more countries than it is today.  I would definitely recommend this book, not just to young readers, but to middle aged people like me.

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book reviews

Reviewing Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, by Kerri Strug

Bill is off on another business trip and will be gone until Friday. He got me up really early yesterday. He didn’t mean to, but his alarm went off, and once it went off, I was mostly awake. So I decided to read Kerri Strug’s 1997 era book, Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. I don’t know why I am so fascinated with women’s gymnastics, especially since I can’t so much as turn a cartwheel myself. I never could, even when I was much younger, thinner, and more limber than I am today.

Actually, I can’t say I’m that fascinated. I really only have an interest in the gymnasts who are close to my age, and some of the ones who testified against Larry Nassar, the perverted physician who was imprisoned for tormenting hundreds or many even thousands of athletes. Kerri Strug was, indeed, one of his patients, and she does mention him in her book. But her mention of him is more in passing… as this book was published about 20 years before Nassar finally got nailed.

I think I bought Kerri’s book on a whim, too. I had decided to read Bela Karolyi’s book, which hasn’t yet gotten to me. It’s only available in a print edition. I noticed Kerri’s book, which is also only available in print. I decided to chuck a used copy of it in my virtual cart. It got to me pretty quickly. Anyway, on with the review.

Who is Kerri Strug?

Kerri Strug was born and raised in Tuscon, Arizona, where her father, Burt Strug, was a cardio-thoracic surgeon and her mother was a housewife. At the beginning of her book, Kerri writes that her father overcame very long odds to become an esteemed surgeon. His father was also a surgeon, but was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in New York City, where Kerri’s great grandfather worked in the garment district. Burt Strug joked that all of the men in the family made their livings sewing things.

Kerri Strug is five years younger than I am, but she has an older sister named Lisa, and a brother named Kevin, both of whom were also gymnasts. Kerri has a natural ability for the sport and would watch her sister, who was several years older than she was, at her high level classes. Then she’d come home and try some of the skills herself. She also watched the cheesy film, Nadia, over and over again, annoying her friends who weren’t into gymnastics. I’ve seen that movie, too.

Kerri Strug is now a retired Olympic class women’s gymnast. She competed in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively. But, as she is the youngest child in her family of origin, I got the sense that her parents were initially reluctant to let her do what her big sister was doing. According to Strug, many people in the gymnastics world approached her parents in a bid to get her into the higher echelons of the sport, but living away from home. It wasn’t until Kerri was about 13 years old that she finally got her wish, and was sent to Houston, Texas to train with Bela Karolyi, the flamboyant Romanian-American coach who brought the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to greatness.

Back 1990, when I was finishing high school and starting college, young Kerri was moving in with her very first of several host families. She was quiet, shy, and soft spoken, but she was a very hard worker with a lot of talent and grit, as the whole world saw firsthand at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Kerri Strug famously sprained her ankle during her first attempt at the vault during the vault competition. She was the last gymnast to perform, and two gymnasts before her had also fallen. With just one more chance to score high enough to clinch the gold medal for the “Magnificent Seven”, Kerri shook off the extreme pain she was in, having heard her ankle pop after falling on her first vault. She heard Bela shouting from the sidelines, bore down, and took off running…

And the rest is gymnastics glory history… This was the moment 18 year old Kerri Strug finally stopped being the bridesmaid and became a bride.

Up until that star defining moment in Atlanta, Kerri Strug was known as a very solid and dependable gymnast, who was always being outshone by someone else. She was in the shadows of Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller especially, but I think she also got less attention than some of the flashier women on the ’92 and ’96 women’s gymnastics teams. In 1992, the Olympic teams included exotic Betty Okino, who was mesmerizing on the balance beam, and Dominque Dawes, who was an incredible all around performer, but especially shone on the floor exercise. Dawes had a remarkable career and competed in THREE Olympics! When I think of how much physical, mental, and emotional trauma these young women go through to be gymnasts, I’m amazed anyone ever does more than one Olympic stint in women’s gymnastics. Kerri laments that she was often dependable in her competitions, but she always wound up just missing the cutoff for all around competitions in major meets, or she’d wind up being the alternate. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in 1992 or 1996, when it was time to name the Olympic teams.

A rather fuzzy Strug memory from the ’92 Games.

Kerri mentions that after the 1992 Olympics, she thought maybe she’d like to retire from the sport and be a “normal” teenager. Bela and Marta Karolyi had said they were going to retire from coaching, and it appeared that they were staying true to their word. Kerri’s dad had come up with a plan for making major decisions– to give them 24 hours before acting. After the ’92 Games, Strug’s family took a vacation in Europe, then Kerri went back to Arizona… and decided she wasn’t finished with her career as an athlete. But unlike a lot of her friends, Strug meant to stay a gymnast– she wouldn’t go on to be a cheerleader or a diver, like some of the other gymnasts she knew had after they quit elite gymnastics. But who was going to coach her, if the Karolyis were quitting?

One of the most interesting passages in Kerri Strug’s book is about how she “coach hopped” after her first Games. After consulting with Bela Karolyi on who should be his successor as her coach, Kerri started off at Kevin and Rita Brown’s gym near Orlando, Florida. The Browns had also coached Brandy Johnson, who was an ’88 Olympian, as well as Wendy Bruce, who was one of Strug’s teammates on the ’92 team. But that arrangement didn’t work out, because Kevin and Rita Brown were having marital difficulties and Kevin Brown stopped coming to the gym.

So then, Kerri moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to work with Steve Nunno. Nunno was once a coach at Karolyi’s gym before starting his own. He was Shannon Miller’s coach, and Miller was, at that time, the most decorated American women’s gymnast in history. But Nunno’s gym was also not a good fit for Strug. She tore a stomach muscle working with him and also vaguely alludes to flirting with an eating disorder. Her parents– dad in particular– were not going to allow Kerri to neglect her health in the name of pursuing Olympic gold.

Strug worked with a couple more coaches before the Karolyis decided they weren’t done with coaching gymnastics, after all. Apparently, Karolyi was the right coach for Kerri Strug, even though so many people have decried his methods, calling him abusive and manipulative. She went back to Houston and prepared for the Atlanta Games, much to the consternation of at least one coach who was apparently pissed off that he wasn’t going to get a chance to prove himself with an Olympian.

My thoughts on Kerri’s book

As I was reading Strug’s story of her life as an elite gymnast, it occurred to me how very long ago the 1990s were. When the 1996 Games were going on, I was living in Yerevan, Armenia. I think I saw Strug’s historic vault replayed on AFN (Armed Forces Network) more than a couple of times. It was huge news, and in the wake of Kerri’s triumph, there was quite a media sensation. This book, no doubt, was a result of the huge interest in her story.

Overall, I found Landing On My Feet to be a well-written book. Strug had help from ghost writer, John Lopez, who managed to make the story sound as if it came straight from Kerri Strug. She includes a couple of generous photo sections, which have pictures of other famous gymnasts of yore. Strug is fairly humble, and I noticed that her manuscript is meticulous about the finer points of grammar. For instance, more than once, she writes something along the lines of, “… was five years older than I”. I realize that’s technically correct, but it comes across as kind of awkward, particularly when it happens more than once in the span of a page or two.

Another thing I noticed is that the tone of Strug’s book is mostly very positive. Women’s gymnastics, as a sport, has gotten a lot of negative press lately, thanks to the abuses uncovered by people like John Geddert and Larry Nassar. Even in Strug’s day, people were talking about how abusive Bela and Martha Karolyi could be in their methods. But back in the 1990s, there wasn’t such a huge spotlight on the hidden horrors of women’s gymnastics.

The young women who participated were seen as powerful waifs– uniformly pretty in their leotards and ponytails, with toned, muscular, and tiny bodies that seemingly defied physics and gravity. Nobody was thinking about what Larry Nassar was doing in the name of “treatment” to scores of women. Strug does mention Nassar, but there’s no dirt on him at all. In fact, she keeps her comments about the sport very upbeat, save for a few passages about getting hurt. But even those passages are kind of minimized– except for when she describes the pain she felt after her second historic vault at the ’96 Olympics.

So… I wouldn’t call this book gritty or totally realistic, per se. But it is well-written, a fast, easy read, and Strug comes off as a wonderful person. And I think that was what she and her ghost writer, along with the publisher, were going for when they wrote this book. It may not be too interesting for today’s gymnasts, although it was an interesting walk down memory lane for me, a half-hearted gymnastics fan of a certain age. It’s been awhile since I last managed to devour a book in one day.

Where is Kerri Strug now?

Kerri Strug got married in 2010 to Robert Fischer, a lawyer and devout Republican… or, at least he was in the days before Trump. I don’t know how they feel about Republicans now. The two have a son named Tyler William Fischer, who was born in 2012. Unlike a lot of her teammates, Kerri initially opted not to become a professional gymnast and, instead, kept her amateur status so that she could compete as a college gymnast. I read in another article that Strug eventually did go pro, so she wasn’t a college gymnast, but worked behind the scenes as a team manager. Although she enrolled at UCLA, Kerri Strug eventually graduated from Stanford University, where she also earned a master’s degree in sociology. At one time, just after college, she was an elementary school teacher in San Jose, California. She now works full-time, splitting her time between Washington, DC and Arizona, although I’m not sure if she’s still doing now what she was doing last year, when Trump was still president. At that time, she was working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

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book reviews

Repost: My review of Off Balance by Dominique Moceanu…

And finally, a repost of my review of Olympic gold medalist gymnast Dominique Moceanu’s book, Off Balance, which I read and reviewed in June 2012. This review is posted as/is, so Dominique is no longer 30.

I will never forget the summer Olympics of 1996.  They were held in Atlanta, Georgia, a city I would eventually briefly call home.  Though Atlanta is now not so far from home, back in 1996, it was halfway around the world from where I was.  At that time, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia.  The United States Embassy had graciously allowed Peace Corps Volunteers to use its services, which included a laundry, movie theater, and restaurant.  The restaurant got the Armed Forces Network (AFN), which aired American television shows and, of course, the Olympic Games! 

The 1996 Games were very special, especially for the women’s gymnastics team, which won team gold and consisted of seven amazing young ladies.  One young lady on the 1996 women’s gymnastics team at the Olympics was Dominique Moceanu, author of the brand new memoir, Off Balance: A Memoir.  This book, which comes on the market just in time for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, was also written by Paul and Teri Williams.  

Dominique Moceanu’s electrifying floor routine in Atlanta, Georgia.

Who is Dominique Moceanu?

Dominique Moceanu had already made a lot of headlines before the Games.  At 14, she was the youngest and tiniest member of the women’s gymnastics team.  Born to immigrant Romanian parents, in many ways Moceanu bore a striking resemblance to another famous Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comaneci.  Besides looking a lot like Nadia, Moceanu had the same famous coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, and the same athletic power, grace, and charisma.  And just like Nadia at 14 years old, 14 year old Dominique Moceanu won gold for her country at the Olympics.  She will always be the youngest American gymnast to win gold, since the eligibiity rules changed after 1996 and now female gymnasts must be at least 15 years old to compete.

Dominique Moceanu was born about a year after her parents’ wedding in 1980 and she was very impressive from the start.  At six months old, her parents had her hang by her hands from a clothesline.  Even as a baby, her grip was amazing and somehow her parents knew they had a gymnast on their hands.

Being an amazing gymnast has its price, however.  Moceanu explains that since her parents were old school Romanians, she suffered a bit trying to adjust to American culture.  Her parents were very poor and came from a country where family honor is a very important concept.  Consequently, Moceanu worked very hard as she grew up and had little control or say over her own life.  Her late father, Dmitru Moceanu, was very ambitious for his daughter and, along with the Karolyis, forced her to train endlessly.  He was very controlling and not above using violence to get what he wanted. 

At age ten, Moceanu began working with the Bela and Marta Karolyi, whose training methods were effective, but brutal.  I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Dominque as she described a childhood spent in a gym full of old equipment and ever changing coaches.  The truth was, the Karolyis didn’t actually do most of the coaching themselves.  They hired and fired different people at the drop of a hat.  

Behind Dominique’s powerful tumbling and confident smile, there was a young lady who was truly suffering for her sport.  Bela and Marta Karolyi, though famous and charismatic on camera, were exceedingly demanding and critical coaches who forced Dominique to starve herself as she put her growing body through punishing and grueling practices.  When Dominique became famous and started earning money, her father squandered it on a huge gym, forcing Moceanu to go to court to become emancipated from her parents at age 17. 

In 2007, Moceanu learned that her parents had kept a secret from her and her younger sister, Christina.  They had given up another daughter for adoption.  Dominique learned of her long lost sister, Jennifer Bricker, when Bricker sent her a letter, pictures, and adoption documents.  Besides the fact that Dominique did not know that she had a sister, she also didn’t know that her sister was born without legs and that was the main reason her parents had given her up.  Moceanu found out about her sister as she was about to give birth to her first child and was trying to prepare for final exams in college.

Now just 30 years old, Moceanu is a married mother of two, an Olympic champion, a college graduate, and getting to know the sister her parents gave away.  To top it all off, her father, with whom she’d always had a complicated relationship, died a few years ago of a rare eye cancer. 

My thoughts

Yes, Dominique Moceanu has seen, done, and lived a lot in her thirty years.  Ordinarily, I would say she was too young to write her life story, but there’s plenty to read about in Off Balance.  This book is written as if Dominque were sitting nearby, having a chat with a friend.  In a casual, conversational style, Moceanu, with help from her ghost writers, retells her life story.  Curiously enough, she doesn’t start at the beginning.  The book begins with Moceanu’s discovery that she had a long lost sister… one born without legs, no less!  From there, Dominique explains how her parents met and wed in an arranged marriage and left Romania for the United States, determined to make a better life and eventually became a world class and world famous gymnastics family.

I didn’t really care too much for the initial jumping around this book did, but I’m kind of old school when it comes to reading life stories.  I like to start at the beginning.  But I also understand that a lot of people will be buying this book because of the recent buzz surrounding Moceanu’s legless sister.  Indeed, I didn’t even know Off Balance existed until I saw a news clip about Dominque and Jennifer Bricker finally meeting each other.  I would have read the book anyway, since I love memoirs about famous gymnasts, but I have to admit this astonishing development in Moceanu’s family life is very compelling.     

I was very touched by how accepting Moceanu and her younger sister, Christina, were toward Jennifer Bricker.  Indeed, they all seem to get along as if they had spent their whole lives together.  And Bricker is truly amazing in her own right; she seems to have inherited the amazing athletic genes that helped make Dominque Moceanu a champion.  Despite not having legs, Jennifer Bricker is able to be a gymnast herself and now works as an aerialist.

Aside from all of her family dramas, Moceanu also writes about the politics and corruption she encountered in the elite gymnastics community.  And she includes the story of how she met and fell in love with her husband, podiatrist and gymnast Dr. Michael Canales.

Moceanu includes plenty of color photos.  I read this book on an iPad, so the photos were easy to see.  The book was also a very quick and satisfying read.  I finished it in less than 24 hours.

Overall

Dominique Moceanu may only be 30, but she’s done a lot of living.  I enjoyed reading Off Balance and would recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys memoirs, particularly about sports figures.

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