Written: August 2008


One moment during the Summer Olympics catapulted me back in time more than 30 years. There was a question about a gymnast’s score. The cameras cut to a judge striding purposely across the floor. She had short black hair and was wearing a crimson blazer. She looked familiar but I didn’t know why, until the commentator said, “There goes head judge Nellie Kim to confer with the other judges.”

Proverbial bolt of lightning.

My head did the double take shake most often seen on an episode of Scooby Doo.

Did that announcer just say NELLIE KIM?

As in Nellie Kim, famed Russian gymnast who won gold medals in 1976 and 1980? Who was the first woman to score a perfect 10 on Vault and floor exercise (yes, even before Nadia!). I looked again. Yep. There was no mistaking now. This is the one and the same Nellie Kim who made me want to become a gymnast in elementary school.

Why did I like her so much? Was it her grace on floor exercise? Her strength on vault? Her all around poise? Actually, the truth is much simpler.

I liked Nellie Kim because she was half-Korean, like me.

Until that point, I had never met or seen anyone like me.

I lived for nearly 4 years in Korea, being gawked at because I was half-Caucasian and had the round eyes and curly hair of my dad. Forget that my Korean was impeccable. I was still not full-Korean, and therefore, ridiculed by some kids. The most vivid memory that comes to mind is the neighbor girl (I cannot remember her name) who used to pinch me all the way home from school. I would walk in crying, red welts all over my arms. My mom would rub my arms while scolding me, telling me to fight back. I never did. I didn’t start fighting back until years later, for different reasons.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

Nellie Kim was Russian. Specifically, she was from Tajikistan. Her father was Korean. Her mother was Tatar. But that didn’t matter to me. The summer of 1976, even as I was captivated by a 14 year old Romanian girl named Nadia, I was fixated on the beautiful and graceful Nellie Kim from the Soviet Union. The girl with the Korean last name and the poise of a ballerina. She didn’t look like an underfed pixie. She had curves. And she made me believe that I could learn gymnastics too.

The year after the 76 games, I started 7th grade. One of the intramural sports offered was gymnastics. I signed up. And you know what? I did pretty darn good on the vault. I had strong legs from running track, playing football and softball. My upper body strength needed help, but all in all, I wasn’t too shabby. The other events posed somewhat of a problem. I couldn’t master a back handspring. I did the back walkover just fine, but no springing. Which meant the floor exercise was out. The balance beam? Forget about it! Every time I got on one, I immediately fell off. Something about my equilibrium. I didn’t even try the uneven bars. My budding gymnastics career ended when I sprained my wrist trying a new vault routine.

Hey, don’t feel sad for me. I don’t feel bad about my brief flirtation with gymnastics. Had it not been for Nellie, I would never have even tried it. And I think I’m way better off having tried gymnastics than wondering what it would have been like. And because of Nellie Kim, I walked a little straighter and told everyone, “She’s half-Korean, just like me!” And I learned that in the US, unlike Korea, people didn’t really care about my ethnic background, or that I wasn’t full Korean or full Caucasian. At least, the people I met didn’t care. Most of them were military brats like me.

So, Nellie Kim. I am happy to see that you are still involved with gymnastics. Still sharing your grace and beauty. Thank you for giving awkward girls like me a glimpse of a glorious dream. It was worth every issue of “International Gymnast” I stole from the school library.

Hopefully, one day, I can influence someone the way you influenced me. Not to just go into gymnastics, but to try something new. Something different. Because you never know where you’ll land.

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