Nastia Liukin
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Nastia Liukin recalls 2012 Olympic trials fall, concussion in ‘Finding My Shine’

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Nastia Liukin says her 2008 Olympic all-around victory was not the defining moment of her life.

Rather, what happened four years later proved more of an inspiration for the gymnast’s memoir, “Finding My Shine,” which went on sale Tuesday.

In 2012, Liukin emerged from three years off and attempted to become the first U.S. women’s gymnast in 12 years to make back-to-back Olympic teams.

The comeback ended, for all intents and purposes, on a blue mat below the uneven bars at the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif.

Liukin, now an NBC Olympic analyst, was competing on her trademark event and faceplanted on a release skill on which she also fell in her first national competition in 2002, when she was 12 years old.

She recalled that evening in this excerpt:

“Everything in 2012 hinged on two nights of competition. My bar routine was very difficult, but it was one that I had done thousands of times. I started out well and felt very, very confident. But about twenty-five seconds into the routine, I let go of the bar, flipped, twisted around, and when I came back toward the bar to grab it, I missed it and hit the ground hard, flat on my face.

In that instant, I knew my gymnastics career was over. Then a lot of things happened very quickly. After my body had absorbed the impact of the fall onto the hard mats, I pulled myself onto my knees. My dad, who had been spotting me rushed over. His first words spoke of his concern for me. “I’m okay,” I told him, rolling my neck around. I wasn’t really. My neck hurt and I later was found to have suffered a mild concussion, but I didn’t know that then.

One of the first things a gymnast learns is how to fall. While the fall looked and sounded worse than it was, we are taught to fall flat, to avoid landing on a limb and breaking it. In the very last moment I knew I was not going to catch the bar or my dreams for that matter.

I was only thinking about the fall, but I can imagine the conflicted thoughts that were running through my dad’s mind. As my coach and spotter, it was his job to catch me if I fell. But, if he touched me, even laid one finger on me when I could have actually caught the bar on my own, it was an automatic one-point deduction to my score. When scores are calculated in thousandths, a full point is a huge price to pay.

To catch me––or not? My dad only had a split second to make his decision, and up until the last instant even I thought I was going to catch the bar. I’ve watched the video of that fall many times, and if I had been in his shoes, I have to say that I would have made the same decision as he did. I am positive that even if he had caught me, I still would have fallen. Then we both would have gone down, and one or both of us could have gotten hurt.

I knew I had just thirty short seconds to get back up on the bars and finish my routine––if I chose to. Life is all about choices. I could have walked away, even walked out of the gym and all the way back to Texas, and no one would have faulted me for that choice. Well, no one but me. I knew that this was a decision I would have to live with for the rest of my life, and if I wanted to end my career on my terms I had to finish my routine. I also knew that if I completed this routine I would also have the courage to finish anything I ever started in my life. Besides, my dad had always taught me to finish what I started.

The crowd was eerily silent as I walked to re-chalk my hands. Then, when I walked back toward the bars they erupted into a deafening round of cheers. I had never heard anything like it before. The cheers were so loud that their echoes banged around inside my head and it was hard for me to think. I nodded at my dad and he boosted me back up onto the bars. And because I knew my career was over, I forgot about the competition. I forgot about the crowd, and my team. I forgot about the television cameras, photographers, and reporters. I finished that routine for my dad. He had been with me every step of the way, through all of the ups and down inside the gym and out. Whenever I faltered he’d always say, “Get up and go,” so I did. I finished that routine and I have to say, I enjoyed every second of it.

At the end, I landed on my feet. Then I saluted to the judges, and the now silent crowd burst once again into rousing cheers. I was in total shock at their reaction. And when I looked up into the crowded arena, I saw almost twenty-thousand people on their feet. I was getting a standing ovation! Even all of the other coaches were clapping for me. So many emotions were flowing through me that I didn’t know what to do. Tears formed and began to roll down my cheeks. I had just finished the absolute worst routine of my career, and these people still were supporting me. I waved to each section of the crowd and mouthed thank you. Their reaction was actually hard for me to comprehend. I loved what this wonderful group of spectators had done for me, but did not yet quite understand it. Then I saw my dad, went over to him, and hugged him for all the years of love and guidance that he had devoted to me.

I had never earned a standing ovation before. Not even when I won the all-around at the Olympics. I still find it very ironic that the first time people thought enough of my performance to stand up and clap for me was when I fell, splat, onto some very hard gymnasium mats.”

MORE GYMNASTICS: U.S. takeaways from World Championships

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”