Tokyo: Samir Ait said he wears a soft gray blanket with a stuffed elephant in the corner that belongs to his young daughter and wears a gold necklace in memory of his late father.
These are the memories the French gymnast carries with him in Tokyo, rather than the memory of the gruesome injury at the Rio Olympics that horrified anyone who saw or heard it.
“When I got here, I had some memories of the river. But then I realized that I have to move on,” she said on Saturday, after qualifying for the Still Rings final. “I gave everything I had, thinking of my family, especially my father. I will give everything I have to have a gold medal. at least one medal.”
Lost in the growing number of covid cases among athletes, the ever-increasing cost of the games, and the question of whether they should be happening are the reasons the Olympics have endured for 125 years: athletes and their stories.
It’s mostly their otherworldly athletic triumphs, the gold medals they win and the records they set. but sometimes it’s their simple humanity, the disappointments they endure and the tragedies they must overcome.
at rio, ait said’s left leg snapped landing on the vault during qualifying, and the loud crack echoed throughout the arena. As she rolled, grabbing her leg just below the knee, her foot and the lower half of her shin were hanging in the opposite direction from the rest of her leg.
It wasn’t the first time his Olympic dreams had been interrupted by injury. he missed the london games after sustaining three fractures to his right tibia at the european championships. but this was a particularly gruesome injury, ending the careers of other athletes.
Even as he lay in a Brazilian hospital, his leg immobilized, ait said he promised he would return to Tokyo.
Agonizing as ait said’s injury was, it paled in comparison to the death of his father in 2019, who had always been his greatest champion. when ait said that he qualified for tokyo by winning the bronze medal on fixed rings at the 2019 world championships, he raised his medal to the sky to recognize his father and promised that he would win another one in tokyo for him. p>
ait said’s performance in the fixed rings on Saturday was smooth, showing off both his strength and precision. she moved slowly from one position to another, the wires barely moving. she did not wobble or tremble when she held her positions like many gymnasts do.
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When he landed his takedown, he flashed a wide smile.
“I am very happy and very excited too. it was very, very difficult the last five years,” she said. “I had a problem with my leg, the injury. I am also thinking of my father, who died two years ago. he should have been here with me.”
But as bittersweet as this moment is, it’s also a powerful reminder of how resilient the human spirit is.
a few days ago, ait said he received a phone call from the president of the france olympic committee. he had been chosen to be the team’s flag-bearer, she told him.
“I said what? me? what? why?” ait said he said, laughing. “are you sure that’s not the wrong number?”
Flagbearers are chosen for a variety of reasons, but often because their fellow athletes see them as embodying Olympic ideals. determination. perseverance. strength. all said is all those things.
ait said he waved the flag with pride as he led the French team into the Olympic stadium on Friday night. When the entire team was inside him, he handed the flag to his flag-bearing partner and walked forward a few steps before turning and doing a backflip.
shouted the other French athletes as they waved little flags and jumped up and down.
“I am very proud because I am the first gymnast in the history (of France)” to be the flag bearer, ait said said.
And he’s also proud of how far he’s come. he is more than someone in a video that was viewed millions of times, more than just that french gymnast who broke her leg in the olympics.
He is resilient, driven not to erase the memories of that horrific injury, but to make new ones for his daughter and in honor of her father.
“I wanted to show the world that life is not that easy. you really have to fight to reach your goals,” ait said. “You still have to fight even if you have small problems. you still have to go and work for it.”
Bad news has overshadowed tokyo gaming and sadly it’s likely to continue to do so. but look closely and you’ll find stories of hope and inspiration.
stories that make the olympic games the wonderful event they are.
Follow usa today sports columnist nancy armor on twitter @nrarmour