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Szabo, My Hero
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By Charles Lo Sin Yee

One night in 1984, while watching a televised coverage of the Los Angeles Olympics at a neighbor’s house, I realized that there was such a sport as artistic gymnastics in the world, something I could not have imagined before.

The first time I saw Ekaterina Szabo of Romania performing on bars, there was some fierceness in her eyes, setting her apart from the rest. During the optional phase, she clipped an ankle on her Jaeger and fell on her double back dismount for a score of 9.30 after posting a 10.0 on her previous event, vault.

Seemingly unfazed, she posted 9.95s on balance beam and floor exercise. The uncharacteristic fall, unfortunately, was the main reason why she lost to Mary Lou Retton in the end. My heart ached for her, but she was able to redeem herself. She won vault, tied for first on beam with her teammate Simona Pauca, and she also won floor.

A nerve-testing drama happened during the floor final. Due to a power outage, Szabo had to wait a long time for her turn. When the lights returned, the scoreboard flashed Julianne McNamara’s score, a perfect 10.0. Cheers rose like a deafening thunder. A floor champion in the 1983 Budapest World Championships, Szabo had the required stocks of mental toughness that helped her rise to the occasion, nailing all her tumbling passes, and equaling McNamara’s score. With a 0.025 lead carried over from the preliminaries, Szabo obtained her fourth gold.

Every day at school after the Olympics, I imagined myself replicating every routine of Szabo, particularly that of the bars. Despite being a boy and somewhat klutzy, I tried without success to lift myself over any railings or arm rests I could lay my hands on. At the time, there was no equipment for the sport in my neighborhood. I had more than my fair share of falls from attempted handstands, and was laughed at by my much more athletic younger brother. I was stricken with jealousy at the sight of him hitting a tumbling pass. One time on a visit to Sabah, he spotted a high bar in a park and did some giant swings around it. Limited by frail, untrained arms, I grasped the bar in a dead hang, unable to perform the same feat and my face was red with shame.

To compensate for my lack of agility, I produced my own gymnastics magazine, creating news of Szabo’s winning streaks in competitions, including those of her beating Mary Lou Retton, who by then had retired. I did a few comic books, too, the main character being a hardy female gymnast, who defied the odds by emerging as an Olympic bars champion.

To this day, at the age of 48, the quirky habit is still going strong, and I can regularly be seen scribbling away in a little book some imaginary news of different sports meets. One time, possibly in the year 1999, I wrote about the rise of a black American gymnast, and her name happened to be Douglas!

For the sake of gymnastics, I have lifted some weights, trying to beef myself up. One day the efforts paid off. At a gym, I was strong enough to swing myself several times around a high bar before crashing onto the floor from a botched twisting element. Despite some injuries to my head, the temporary airborne experience is a prized memory. Szabo had never come to the depicted heights in my ‘magazine’. From 1985 to 1987, although overshadowed by Yelena Shushunova and Daniela Silivas and a few East German gymnasts, she was still able to earn some medals. She was well-respected by all, and one of the few at the time to have a longer competitive career. She may not have achieved the same stardom as Nadia Comaneci, but her grit and tenacity shone through. I always tell myself to be like her, picking myself up with courage after each fall.

In Miri, a small town in Malaysia where artistic gymnastics is almost unheard of, friends tend to tease me for watching gymnastics videos on YouTube. I take their mockery in stride and deep down, I am proud of myself for being able to appreciate the aesthetics of this sport. A love able to stand the test of time, all because of Ekaterina Szabo, one of the greats in the 1980s.

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