Not every Olympian is destined to be like swimmer Michael Phelps. That is a reality that U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone will have to live with.
In these Olympics, we saw U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones stumble across the finish line in seventh after grazing the ninth hurdle while in the lead. We witnessed Chinese hero Liu Xiang fail to compete in front of his countrymen in the men’s 110-meter hurdles because of an Achilles injury. But the 20-year old Sacramone will forever endear us as the hard-luck heroine of these Games.
We immortalize Olympians who capture gold, but the Brown University junior’s shortcomings proved the vast majority are human; and watching these flawed athletes persevere is every bit as compelling as watching Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt turn a field of elite runners into junior varsity scrubs.
Sacramone was the second most-searched athlete on the NBC Olympics Web site behind Phelps. Perhaps it was because she’s quite easy on the eyes, or maybe something about her experience on that fateful night in the women’s team competition hit close to home for the rest of us.
Trailing China by 1.125 points after two rotations, Sacramone attempted to mount the balance beam, but fell awkwardly and missed an opportunity to narrow the gap with the Chinese. Clearly rattled, she fell again during a tumbling pass on the floor exercise, sealing the gold medal for China, while the Americans settled for silver.
The way she handled the moments after the “disappointment” was nothing short of classy. Sacramone was singled out in sports blogs for costing the U.S. a gold medal, but she continued to graciously take responsibility for her mistakes.
She had a chance to save face on the women’s vault competition, and demonstrated poise in nailing both attempts with only a slight hop on the landing. But as further proof that this wasn’t her Olympics, she finished fourth — just missing the podium behind two gymnasts who botched one attempt each, but were given more leeway because of their degree of difficulty.
Watching Sacramone fight back tears as NBC television cameras captured her agony had me thinking to myself: not this way. After displaying so much grace under the fire unleashed by vulturous reporters wanting to kick her when she’s down, her moment of redemption just wasn’t meant to be.
What can you say to console an athlete who’s worked her entire life for that moment, only to have the dream shattered? Wait until 2012? No. Not in a sport dominated by teens, where there is no guarantee that someone in her 20s will receive another shot.
Athletes like Sacramone, who fall short of the top podium, resonate with every ordinary man and woman among us.
Like many of us, she dreamed of that one shining moment and had no choice but to move on when it did not pan out. Like many of us, she returns for another college semester in September. Like many of us, she falls just short of being Michael Phelps.