' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Forgive Me, I'm A Little Verklempt

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Digression: Forgive Me, I'm A Little Verklempt

Well, you knew this was coming, at least you did if you know what happened yesterday. That is, West Des Moines, Iowa's Shawn Johnson finally struck gold on the last event of the last night of the womens gymnastics competition at the Beijing Olympics. If you're keeping score at home that makes it three silvers and one gold and while a silver medal is nothing to pluck off a bridge you could sense just a smidgen of disappointment that she had yet to stand atop the podium and, thus, I was a little sad for her. But as the final result came in last night to make Shawn the champion of the balance beam I realized something - it could not have happened any other way.

In the past week and a half my mom and I have been exchanging emails while keeping track of Shawn's feats of style and strength. I found myself attempting to explain why I've been following her progress so passionately and rooting for her so hard. I've lived in Chicago now for three years and I love it here, but it seems the longer I'm away from home the quicker I am to defend it and speak praises to its name. My mom was born and raised in the city where I currently reside and is also quick to defend it and claim it as being the greatest place in the world. It doesn't matter that she hasn't lived here for quite some time because it's still who she is. Nothing changes that, and nothing changes that Iowa is still who I am.

It's why it was so wonderful to see an Olympic athlete who was not only from Iowa but embodied the values possessed by so many Iowans. Conviction. Devotion. She had a dream. She made it come true, but not at the cost of sacrificing grace and courtesy. There were some rocky times during the last week and a half - the age controversy with her Chinese competitors, the unfortunate, tragic errors of a teammate, questionable judging at times, and another teammate who maybe was just a little bit better at this competition. But she never whined, never complained, never assigned blame. She gave credit to her fellow athletes and said how much she loved her teammates and how proud she was of them.

At the end of the floor exercise individual event, which she had led the whole way only to slip to second place to the very last gymnast, you could sense the tiniest bit of sorrow wanting to creep in, and still she wouldn't let it. As she left the floor that day the U.S. cameraman tracking with her offered a high five and even though you sensed she had no desire to play along, she honored his request with a smile. She didn't even take it out on this yahoo when she was having a bad day.

This quality was found last night, too, in the other Olympian from Des Moines (who I've admittedly neglected on my all-Shawn-all-the-time blog), 110 meter hurdler LoLo Jones. She had the lead with a mere two hurdles to go in the final, the Gold Medal in her sight. But her foot smacked against the second to last hurdle, she stumbled and in a split-second had fallen from first to seventh. Olympics over. She cried out, fell to her knees, staring up at the sky in disbelief. Yet, she still was cordial enough to submit to an interview with the NBC reporter. She was clearly heartbroken, but she didn't bemoan her fate, she didn't make excuses, and when the reporter thanked her for her time she replied, eloquently, "No problem". No problem. That's what she said, even though it was obviously a problem, even though she had just experienced what was most likely the worst moment of her life.

She put up a brave front, and it's because that is what Iowans do. It's why last September when I was laying in a hospital bed with my appendix literally rupturing in my stomach I couldn't bring myself to complain to the nurses filtering in and out of my room. "I'm surprised you're not in more pain," said the doctor, her eyebrows curiously raised. What am I gonna' do, I wanted to say, sit here screaming? What's that going to accomplish? Nope, I just gotta' suck it up and get on with it. And despite her setbacks, despite her desire to win a gold and the gods seemingly conspiring against her, Shawn forever maintained a brave front. She was always smiling. Always. No matter the situation that delightful grin never vanished.

Until last night on the podium when the Gold Medal was placed around her neck and our country's anthem played just for her, and then the smile slipped away. It did so not because Shawn Johnson was faking. No, Iowans put up brave fronts because we don't let people peek behind the curtain. The things behind the curtain, you see, are just for us. Our deepest emotions, our worst fears, our ultimate hopes, our most joyful moments, our most deplorable decisions, our most impractical dreams, "the things we think and do not say" (as Jerry Maguire once wrote). It's not that we aren't emotional, we are. In fact, I think in some ways we're more emotional than most people, it's just that we don't believe other people want to be bothered with it. You don't want to hear me blather about my lot in life, we think, so we'll smile and raise the curtain.

As the years go by every once and awhile my dad will offer some piece of himself from years ago that I never knew about and every time it absolutely floors me. My God, I think, I really am just like him. Why didn't he ever tell me this? And it's because those things stay behind the curtain and are only revealed when and where we see fit. Sometimes, however, you get a glimpse behind the curtain when the person leasts expect it, when they unknowingly relinquish control. And last night everyone had got a glimpse behind Shawn Johnson's curtain.

Standing on the podium her lips clenched and twisted, one side way up, one side way down, and she focused on the flag lifting into the heavens across from her. Her famous smile was gone, and with it went the brave front. My most moving memory of the Olympics has always been the last qualification long jump of Carl Lewis (who I sort of idolized during my track-running days) at the '96 Games in Atlanta when he had to achieve a certain distance just to qualify for the final. As he leapt thousands of flash bulbs lit up the stadium, enveloping him, with every single person thinking the same thing - this might be Carl Lewis's last jump. (It wasn't. He qualified in the top spot and pulled off the impossible the next night by winning his fourth straight Gold Medal.) As he glided through the air that evening you could feel his entire career, his entire life, even if you were in your basement on 220 3rd Street in Waukee, reverberating through the whole stadium, and last night you could quite literally see Shawn's entire life flash before her eyes. It was pure, unguarded emotion, and it was even more moving to me.

Last week a co-worker was recounting the exploits of the gymnasts in the break room and I, of course, had to chime in that I hailed from the city as Shawn Johnson and she said, "Man, I'd be so proud to be from the same place as Shawn Johnson." She has no idea.

But, on a more serious note, I recall on my cross-country move to Phoenix that a stretch of I-35 passing through Oklahoma City was named Shannon Miller Parkway in honor of the U.S. gymnast who won several medals in the '92 and '96 Olympics. So, city of Des Moines, how about re-naming the portion of I-80 that passes through West Des Moines Shawn Johnson Parkway? It's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?

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