Olympic Dreams and Nostalgia

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(Host) In the glow of recent Olympics coverage, commentator Caleb Daniloff found himself sifting through pieces of a childhood dream.

(Daniloff) Watching American gymnast Paul Hamm perform last week in Athens sent me digging through old boxes of photos, magazine clippings, and award certificates. For I, too, once harbored visions of Olympic glory.

When Hamm, now 21, was born, I was 13 years old and training in a rigorous Soviet gymnastics program. It was the early 1980s and I was living in Moscow, the son of an American correspondent.

I had taken up gymnastics in fifth grade, inspired by world champion Kurt Thomas. Because of the American boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, my idol never got his shot at Olympic gold. At ten years old, I suddenly knew what I wanted.

Upon arrival in Moscow in 1981, my parents cast around for a program. No American had ever trained with the Soviets. I would be the first.

And it was a serious affair, one of several feeder schools for the Soviet Olympic team. Some kids had started training at five, six years old and worked out six hours a day, six days a week.

I was placed with a group of boys two years my junior. Most were already cut and chiseled, nine-year-old arms as taut as bridge cables as they whipped off pull-ups or swung into handstands on the parallel bars. Our coaches made us walk laps on our hands and climb thick ceiling ropes, hands only. The air was thick with chalk dust, radiator steam and sweat.

I loved the blisters and calluses, even the bruises, twisted ankles, jammed fingers and sore muscles. They were all markers of the dream.

I saw other signs, too. I met and became pen pals with gymnastics star Bart Connor and was featured on the cover of National Geographic’s World Magazine, holding a pose in my uniform in Red Square.

But around age 14, my grip on gymnastics began to slip. It may have been a certain lack of progress. Or the pervasive smoking and drinking culture in Russia to which I was succumbing. Or my leanings toward music, back toward things American. The childhood me was losing out to the evolving teenage me. Life simply got in the way.

At the time, I didn’t sense I was losing anything. Only in retrospect do we ask what might have been. But for every might-have-been, there’s a wouldn’t-be. In my case, a Vermont life and a family. Sure, the what-ifs can drive a mind crazy but our unexpected landings often serve as the heart of our greatest stories.

I later ran into some of the older kids from the program at a concert. I went to the bathroom for a cigarette and there they were, lighting up. They were chatty and friendly and complained about the coaches. They had been dismissed for lack of potential. Kids I once admired, sucking down butts like they’d been smoking all their lives, veiny muscles still bulging under tight T-shirts.

For others, the embers of old dreams don’t die so easily. In 1992, Kurt Thomas, at age 35, tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. Though he placed sixteenth, he showed great pluck and passion. He was but a year older than I am now. I wonder if I can still do a back handspring.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.

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