by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DAY 11: The Mommy factor.

BEIJING – You can’t just go to church on Sunday if you’re Chinese, not under a government whose official religion is atheism. But you still can find inspiration. I found some Sunday in, of all places, the women’s gymnastics competition.

Normally, this is where apple-cheeked Tinkerbells flip and twist, while spectators use magnifying glasses to find them. The minimum age is 16, and teams want their girls as close to that as possible.

So when I read that one of the finalists for the women’s vault was 33 – that is not a typo – I had to see for myself. After all, 33 is old for the NFL, let alone gymnastics. Heck, 33 is twice the age of most of the girls, and four times the age of the Chinese ones.

But not only was this woman, Oksana Chusovitina, 33, she was married and had a son. And when he was 3, the son got very sick. Cancer. An acute form of leukemia. By that point, Chusovitina already had competed in three Olympics. She could have quit gymnastics and devoted herself to curing him.

Except the only thing that would cure him was her gymnastics. Making a big move

Chusovitina lived in and competed for Uzbekistan, still emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economy was struggling, her training facilities were second-rate – sometimes even unsafe – and there were no hospitals capable of treating her boy, not with the advanced care he needed.

Left untreated, the disease likely would kill him.

What’s a mother to do? Chusovitina accepted an invitation to come to Germany, by coaches of a club in Cologne. She began to perform exhibitions “in Germany, in Switzerland, in England,” her coach, Shanna Polyakova, said. “It was very difficult for her, but it was the only way for her to help her son.”

She used the traveling road show to raise needed funds. Friends in the gymnastics world chipped in. With the money, her boy, Alisher, underwent cancer treatment at a Cologne hospital.

Six years later, the kid is doing well.

To say nothing of his mom.

Grateful for the help of her adopted country, Chusovitina took citizenship in Germany a few years ago. And this year, for the first time, she competed under its Olympic flag. I am no fan of nation jumping. I’ve made that pretty clear. But Chusovitina wasn’t pulling a dodge. She’d be a medal contender for any team. She just wanted to give something back for a country that had helped save her child. Night of her athletic life

So on Sunday, she marched out on the gymnastics floor alongside her competitors, which included a 17-year-old, a 19-year-old and a bunch of 20-year-olds.

In another life, she’d be the camp counselor.

Instead, wearing a number, she went sprinting down the runway, bounced off the board, pushed off the vault, and flipped and twisted remarkably before smacking back to earth. After her second landing, she raised her arms in joy.

And when it was over, she had grabbed a silver medal – missing gold by fractions – her first solo hardware in five trips to the Olympics. At age 33?

“The medal is for my son,” she said.

Chusovitina has been around so long, they named moves after her. Women her age aren’t squeezing into tights and rubbing their hands with chalk. But this is an Olympics where 41-year-old Dara Torres won a swimming silver and a 38-year-old Romanian won the women’s marathon. Maybe it’s catching.

“My son is healthy now. He is in third grade. He competes in gymnastics,” Chusovitina said, her medal around her neck. “… I want to thank all the (German) people who helped me and him.”

She left to get dressed. A few minutes later, out on the floor, a young Chinese gymnast named Cheng Fei, who landed on her knees during a vault, had another bad performance in the floor exercise. Finally, Cheng couldn’t help it. She broke into tears. Her crying face was beamed on the big screen.

And guess what? The Chinese crowd broke into applause – long applause – not for glorious victory, but to make her feel better.

This may be a land where religion is discouraged. But on Sunday, certain principles were clearly in the air. One of them was this: You watch out for your kids. The sick ones and the sad ones. That idea, particularly amongst the little people of gymnastics, is still bigger than all of us.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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