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Publisher’s Letter: Stuck the landing

Ashley Sexton Gordon. Photo by Jeannie Frey Rhodes.

On February 17, McKenna Kelley finished her final pass with a round-off, back handspring, double tuck to secure the LSU gymnastics team a win against Missouri, as well as their season high score, thanks to Kelley’s 9.95 on her floor routine. She nailed it. And the crowd went wild. Her mother, Mary Lou Retton Kelley, was in the crowd, going wild, cheering her on. I love me some Mary Lou Retton. Seriously, I love her.

I love you, Mary Lou Retton!

In 1984, I was 11 years old, and I (like the rest of the country) cheered on a young Retton as she won a gold medal in the individual all-around competition at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles (the first American woman to claim this title). She scored a perfect 10 on the floor exercise and the vault. She was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. She became the first spokeswoman for Wheaties. She became an icon.

And Mary Lou Retton gave every young girl a wholesome hero to look up to and a belief that with tenacity and perseverance and dedication, every young girl could accomplish anything.

What a crock of crocodile poop.

Seriously. I wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. But having started gymnastics about 10 years too late, it wasn’t going to happen no matter the dedication. Plus, I didn’t have access to Béla Károlyi, the Romanian-American coach who earlier helped Nadia Comăneci secure the first perfect score in gymnastics. Everyone knew that to be the best in gymnastics one must move to Houston and get Béla Károlyi to coach you. My parents weren’t moving. Which worked out, because Károlyi didn’t call for me. I wasn’t going to be going for the gold.

Instead, my dad, in an act of pity, pulled scraps of discarded carpet padding outside to the patio and made me an ad-hoc gymnastics mat to practice on. I spent hours in the fading light of day attempting a back handspring. After many months of failed attempts which should have caused neck injuries and/or concussions, I finally stuck the landing. I perfected my end pose.

Since last season, the LSU gymnastics team has been passing around a gold crown to each team member after she sticks the landing—a perfect landing without any steps, stumbles or errors. The whole team screams, and jumps and cheers and—much like a coronation ceremony—crowns the gymnast after she finishes. The 42-foot-wide HD scoreboard hovering over the crowd at the PMAC blasts the words “Stuck the Landing.”

I, too, can stick a landing.

Recently, I had two middle schoolers in my car at the gas station. I was returning to the vehicle with a 44-ounce fountain drink in a Styrofoam cup in one hand and my wallet in the other. A voice in my head (clearly, the voice of God. Should have listened.) said to walk around the right side of the car. I ignored this voice and headed toward the wide gate of destruction to the left. When I got to the gas pump, still inserted in my vehicle, I stepped over the hose. Or I tried to step over the hose. My left foot made it to the other side OK, but my right foot snagged. A blood-curdling scream left my lips as I went down. Hard. Crushed the drink with my right arm, landed on my left knee and face planted. When the middle schoolers—a bit slow, I might add, on the draw—finally found me outside the vehicle, I was drenched in soda, sitting on the fuel-stained concrete with a bleeding foot next to discarded, chewed gum and a cigarette butt. My daughter later relayed that when she saw a flash of my black hair go down through the Suburban window, she thought it was a bird flying.

I pulled myself together, bleeding foot and soaked jeans, and I drove them to the mall to be dropped off.

“You mom so hard,” my friend said, after I recounted the details of this experience. She was laughing uncontrollably (crying, actually) at my story while she was driving—so much so that her teenage daughter offered to take over the wheel, twice. Thoughts of the gas station surveillance video made her laugh even harder.

So where’s the ‘Mom So Hard’ award? Where are the cheers? The fist pumps? The Wheaties box? I made memories that the young and impressionable can talk about for years to come. I made it to the mall. Who needs Béla Károlyi? I stuck the landing. Crown, please.