I still remember the scene in Nashville, Tenn., in June 2004. The U.S. championships had just concluded, and a few reporters were interviewing a deflated Mihai and Silvia Brestyan in the mixed zone, just outside the main arena. Parkettes coach Donna Strauss walked by, patted Mihai on the shoulder and said with an empathetic smile, "Don't worry, she's a good kid."
The Brestyans' kid was a 16-year-old Alicia Sacramone, whose 19th-place finish meant no invite to the Olympic trials. Her scores, like her personality, had been all over the place: 9.525 on vault, 7.25 on bars, 8.55 on beam (followed by a 9.425 on day two), an 8.875 on floor (with a 9.60 on day two!).
Impossibly gifted, Sacramone still had been a long shot to make the 2004 Olympic team. But by December of that year, she had uncovered a ruthless competitive instinct.
Sacramone (shown here with her gold on vault at the 2010 worlds) had earned a wild-card spot to the 2004 World Cup Final in Birmingham, England. Having just turned 17 on Dec. 3, this wild gymnast from Boston won the gold medal on vault. Standing below her on the medal podium was gymnastics royalty: Monica Rosu of Romania and Anna Pavlova of Russia, the 2004 Olympic gold and bronze medalists on vault; Russia's Yelena Zamolodchikova, the 2000 Olympic vault champion; and China's Cheng Fei, who would win the event at the next two worlds!
In 2004, I asked her if she had been intimidated while competing among such company.
"The first day I was a little freaked out," she said. "But I pulled myself together and calmed down. But yeah, it was a little intimidating."
Yesterday I spoke with Marta Karolyi, U.S. national team coordinator, who remembers that World Cup.
"That was the moment when I saw a turnaround in her ability to compete well," she said. "Her confidence level just grew."
Sacramone achieved her goal of making the 2005 world championships in Melbourne, Australia, where she won the gold on floor exercise and bronze on vault. She became a mainstay on U.S. world teams in the following years, missing only 2009 because of temporary retirement. Her medal tally kept growing.
At the Tokyo worlds in 2011, she won her 10th world medal, a record for USA Gymnastics. Ironically, Sacramone wasn't actually in Tokyo for the medal ceremony, nor did she compete. She had ruptured an Achilles' tendon on the eve of the competition and flown home to have surgery. Her name, however, remained on the official roster.
"Alicia showed all the dedication, so we all said that she deserves her name to be kept on the team," Karolyi said. "She served many years and fought for the results for USA, so everybody was in agreement."
While Sacramone's retirement announcement today is not surprising, it is at least a prerequisite to another comeback; you can't have one without the other. And though my prediction record in such cases is awful, I have to believe this one's for keeps. I saw it in her cautious eyes last year in both St. Louis (Visas) and San Jose (trials), where she nailed her vaults and balance beam routines and aced her interviews afterward.
Clinging to slim hopes of making her second Olympic team, Sacramone, 24, was all business before the selection committee, a model of professionalism in front of the media. I think part of her knew her career was coming to an end, even though her physical comeback had been remarkably complete. She had successfully rehabbed her torn Achilles' tendon in less than a year.
But while Sacramone regained the fitness that had won her the 2010 world title on vault, the rest of the senior team had zoomed past her on that event. Everybody was doing Amanars, it seemed, and uneven bars, the event from which Sacramone had long retired, was where the team would need reserves. With Sacramone's strengths no longer needed, she was not named an alternate to the 2012 Olympic team.
"We had so many good vaulters on the team that that wasn't the component that we felt that the team will need, so that was really the reason why we chose the alternates [that we did]," Karolyi said. "If anything happened to the team, we would need somebody who could jump in on bars and beam."
Given Sacramone's trouble on beam at the Beijing Olympics, it's probably better she wasn't put in that pressure situation again in London. Now she can at least retire knowing she hit her final four routines on that precarious apparatus.
"Certainly in 2008 at the Olympics, she had a little relapse of her consistency level, but she still kept her ambition and came back and proved herself in the following years," Karolyi said.
Asked how she will remember Sacramone years from now, Karolyi laughed softly: "I just loved her from the beginning. As a little girl, she was just so much fun. I will remember her as a fighter, as a person who loved the sport and as a person who always wanted to raise the level of U.S. gymnastics. Even with the little mishaps she had through her career, I will always remember her as one of our toughest gymnasts and one person who was very fun to work with."