I mentioned in a previous post about the Soviet-era documentary, how Yelena Mukhina, who was featured prominently in it (including clips that clearly showed the pressure her coach put on her), was only months away from her tragic injury. Well, in an attempt to counter that depressing story a bit, I shared this item on Anna Pavlova Online way back in January of 2014. Sang Lan’s story is similar to poor Mukhina’s, whose 1980 training accident and tragic story was rather hushed up by the Soviets, and it was many years later before I even learned of it (in 1980 I was a somewhat casual fan of the sport, and didn’t know more than what was on American TV and in the papers, and the ’80 Moscow games were mostly ignored by US media, due to the boycott over Afghanistan).
In contrast, Sang Lan’s story had very personal, visceral meaning for me. You see, I eagerly tuned in the Goodwill Games on TV that terrible night in 1998, and Sang Lan’s fall on a practice vault had occurred just a few minutes before the live broadcast started. The hushed, somber tones of the broadcast team, and the fleeting image from replay of Sang—laid out motionless on the mat, surrounded by coaches and EMTs—cast a pall over the entire event, and it affected me like a punch to the gut. I couldn’t watch gymnastics for quite a while afterward.
I returned to the sport within a year or two, but always wondered what had become of Sang. It was only years later—with the age of the Internet in full bloom, that I was able to satisfy many such curiosities easily, with a little searching from the comfort of my own home—that I followed up on Sang’s story. Fearing her fate had been much like Mukhina’s—she living in a country very similar to the Soviet Union in many ways—I was pleasantly surprised to find that she had become a popular celebrity and advocate for the disabled back home in China, even carrying the Olympic torch in advance of the Beijing Games (though a couple of lawsuits she brought over her accident and subsequent care in the US brought her some controversy).
Imagine my surprise and delight to find in late 2013 that she had married and given birth, with mother and child healthy and happy. I have to admit, when I found out about this story of Sang’s giving birth, I cried. They were happy tears. I will never forget how my heart sank into the floor and my stomach knotted on that awful night in 1998 when I heard what had just happened to Sang, mere minutes before. Her eventual marriage and childbearing reminded me to never give up hope for happy endings.
But there’s a flip side to the lessons one can take from this. What happened to Sang Lan, or to Julissa Gomez are a big part of the reason that to this day at a meet I absolutely cringe when I see coaches let their gymnasts, regardless of age or level, warm up round-off entry vaults without the safety collar around the board. I have watched, from ten feet away, 12 year-old level 9’s warm up a Yurchenko with no collar, and it not only scares the bejeezus out of me, it makes me angry. Yes, angry. There should be no compromises when it comes to athlete safety, especially below the elite level).