WHEN THE LOSS OF YOUR FAIRYTALE “HURTS”

February 20, 2023

You may remember Kim Zmeskal as the world champion gymnast who was heavily favored to win the all-around gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. She fell from the balance beam during her compulsory routine and her dreams of Olympic glory started to fade as her chance of making the all-around final became remote. Indeed, that is my first memory of Kim—a memory that is still deeply embedded in my heart and mind. She won no individual medals at the Olympics. But Kim demonstrated rare class and character as she achieved the highest combined score of any athlete the second night of competition—without which the American team would likely not have won the bronze medal. Against all odds, she battled back to qualify for the all-around competition. But, having given everything she had to get there, a simple error on her favorite apparatus (floor) took her out of medal contention. Sports fans who really understand how much a dedicated athlete sacrifices in pursuit of her dream knew they were watching something special as they watched Kim compete at the Olympics. Years later, I learned that Kim was competing with a stress fracture in her leg—though she has never made any excuses.

You may know Kim as the elite athlete who reached the pinnacle of her sport and became one of the greatest gymnasts of all time. (She was inducted into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2012.) Today, I am grateful to know her as a mid-single and, more importantly, a wise and dear friend. Kim has recently been there for me and Cathy during some of the most difficult moments of my life. With Kim’s permission, I share these words she penned thirty years after her fateful fall from the beam during the 1992 Olympics:

Ah, “elite compulsory beam.” What a continual life lesson. To have a daily, very detailed project I sincerely loved to work on also be the very thing that landed me on the cover of Time magazine captioned, “It Hurts.” I dreamt the Olympics would be my fairytale, Hallmark movie, ever since watching Mary Lou [Retton] win her ’84 gold. My Olympic experience has offered 30 years of intense, incessant reflection—reflection that, although uncomfortably confusing and gut-wrenching, has paved the way for my living testimony.

Still, I “fail” some “tests” along the way in search of clarity and peace. I have sobbed buckets, with the fails manifesting as pain not only personally inflicted, but unfortunately, pain that rippled on to others I love while I was searching for understanding.

This young girl bonded with a “keep striving” sport that reached her soul—MY soul—yet more importantly, created friendships that helped me see how beautiful the ATTEMPT to BALANCE on and off that beam can be as we endeavor together for good, for great, for grand goals, and for me—for God.

I often remind the young ladies I get to coach that you will go to sleep each night with yourself and your own memories. The scores, the medals—neither will matter most. The majority will fade from memory. Who we become, and how we become the person we are, will rise above all the “black and white” metrics. Looking back, I offer a smile to that young girl who took pride in creating her own art each day. Slowly, through grace given, I am finally finding a peaceful resolve within “It Hurts,” and redefining the substantial responsibility and opportunity to walk along paths beside other dreamers.

I am thankful to be among the “other dreamers” Kim is walking the path of life with. I am grateful that she values friendships, balance, peace with herself, and the power of synchronicity more than awards and other outward symbols of success. I am grateful that the pain of falling down in front of the entire world created the path to Kim’s “living testimony.” The person she has become (and is becoming) transcends both the triumphs and failures of her athletic career. I am grateful that her pain is becoming her power.

As Paul, the great apostle, wrote: [W]e glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us (Romans 5:3-5).

All of us who are (or have been) mid-singles, have gone through tribulations requiring patience and affording us experience—usually experience we didn’t want at the time. As we consecrate those experiences to our Savior, we will glory in them rather than feeling ashamed. We will feel hope and the love of God, knowing that every pain or loss we experience is building our character, creating deeper bonds of love, and paving a path to unspeakable glory. Embracing this understanding of our paths, even as some experiences hurt, requires powerful faith. The prophet Alma taught that, “Whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day” (Alma 36:3).

Many of your hearts are broken from betrayal and loss. Most of you have felt the deep disappointment that always comes when your dreams of the fairytale Latter-day Saint family are lost. Almost all of you have cried out to God, “It wasn’t meant to be this way!” or “I did everything that was expected of me, but my life came crashing down!” But, then, none of us was guaranteed the gold medal family in this life, even though we may have given a gold medal effort. There is glory in striving, in growing, and in persevering. It was only after Jesus Christ had suffered and died for the rest of us that He could proclaim, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).

Alma went through such a moment when he was reviled, rejected, spit on, and driven from the city of Ammonihah, despite his very best efforts to preach the gospel there (Alma 8:13). As he journeyed from the city, he was “weighed down with sorrow, wading through much tribulation and anguish of soul” because the people had hardened their hearts (Alma 8:14). It is easy for us to become heavy and depressed when we are focused on things that are outside of our control—like other people’s decisions.

While Alma was dealing with these heavy feelings, God sent an angel to say, “Blessed art thou, Alma; therefore, lift up thy head and rejoice” (Alma 8:15). The beginning of a change of heart is often to make a simple physical change, like lifting up our heads, squaring our shoulders, and standing erect instead of hanging our heads and slumping our shoulders. The angel assured Alma that he had, “great cause to rejoice” because he had “been faithful in keeping the commandments of God” (Alma 8:15). Our moods and emotions are greatly enhanced by focusing on things we have done or can personally do, rather than worrying about things outside our control. When Alma was instructed to go back to the city that reviled him, the scripture says he “returned speedily” (Alma 8:18).

Did Alma succeed in Ammonihah after he returned? Not really. So why was he asked to return? Because after he returned, he met a special man named Amulek who became his long-term missionary companion (Alma 8:19-22). If Alma had responded with fear instead of faith, he might have refused to return to the city and missed out on meeting his best friend. Often our greatest blessings are on the other side of fear. Faith is believing in things we cannot see. Often, we must be willing to take a step or two into the darkness and wait for the light to follow.

Like Kim Zmeskal, faith often means maintaining hope amid adversity and letting pain pave your path to a “living testimony.” As one who has suffered, you may now minister to others who suffer. Your experience will provide the trust and empathy you need to bless their lives. You will begin to see them as our Savior sees them, to love them as He loves them and, in so doing, become a little bit more like Him.

Like Kim, find other dreamers to walk the path of life with—people who will help you maintain hope that the future will restore all that you have lost and emerge even more brilliant than the past. As the great Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend and fellow traveler, John Adams, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. So good night! I will dream on[.]”

By Jeff Teichert

For our single readers whose loss of a fairytale marriage ended with the “HURT” of divorce, we invite you to attend our FREE Webinar on “Life Design After Divorce” LIVE this Thursday, February 23rd at 6:30pm MT or catch the replay. Register to gain access here: LILYwebinars.com

For our readers who would like to see Kim Zmeskal in action, this short video not only illustrates her fall but also her brilliance as a gymnast who knows how to bounce back: Kim Zmeskal - 1992 Olympic Cumpulsories - Balance Beam

Also Published in Meridian Magazine February 21, 2023

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