A party of 12 walked into the lobby of the Temple Theater around 4:30 Monday afternoon, and within a minute it was posing for a group photo. There would be many more.
As camera shutters clicked, Peter Vidmar noticed he was surrounded by 11 women.
“Are any other male athletes here?” Vidmar asked.
No. Vidmar was alone, but not really. The gold-medal winning USA gymnast from the 1984 Olympics had traveled to Tacoma to participate in an auction-dinner benefit for Puyallup resident Jacoby Miles, recovering from the Nov. 16 injury that has left her paralyzed from the mid-chest down.
A lifelong gymnast who had attained level-9 status, the Ballou Junior High student landed on her neck while executing what’s considered a routine dismount off the uneven bars.
Then again, “routine” is an inaccurate word for an athletic discipline fraught with peril.
Doctors are optimistic Jacoby will be able to regain use of her hands, and nobody is discounting the miraculous possibility of a more comprehensive recovery.
In the meantime, her family – she’s the oldest of six siblings – will be challenged with medical costs too substantial to fathom.
The Monday night auction dinner that brought 12 present and past USA Olympians to the Temple Theatre was a start. Between memorabilia items and a meet-and-greet autograph session with the celebrities, organizers hoped to raise $125,000.
In addition to their eagerness to support a young athlete whose life took a horrifying detour in the time it takes to snap a finger, the athletes shared something else in common.
“Any time you’re involved in an elite sport, you’re putting just about everything on the line,” said Bremerton’s Bree Schaaf, who finished fifth, with teammate Emily Azevado, in the two-women bobsled at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C. “If you love what you’re doing, it’s part of the risk.”
A few hours before the opening ceremonies at Vancouver, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a practice run on the same track Schaaf would use for the bobsled event. The tragedy didn’t deter her from going forward at a dangerous speed.
“Everybody’s worried about the speed of the track,” she told a reporter at Whistler almost three years ago. “But we’re here to go fast.”
Legendary gymnast Kerri Strug knows all about injuries. She famously enabled the USA to win a 1996 gold medal in the women’s team competition by competing on a severely sprained ankle.
More frightening was a 1994 dismount during the uneven bars in Palm Springs, Calif., that found her taking a chest-first fall on the mat.
Strug was carried out of the arena on a stretcher, with her neck in a brace, but eventually recovered to the point she authored one of the most stirring stories in Summer Olympics history.
“There is danger in everything,” Strug said Monday between photo opportunities. “You can be severely injured in gymnastics, and you can be severely injured crossing the street.”
Strug was 16 when she appeared to be severely injured in Palm Springs, and 18 when she took a deep breath and wowed the world with Atlanta. The gold-medal recipient is now 35 – an age that qualifies her to run for president – and owns a master’s degree in sociology from Stanford.
Strug required no coaxing to leave her Tucson home for the Jacoby Miles charity auction.
“She’s a little girl with a lot of drive,” Strug said. “Obviously, she’s got a lot of community support and lot of family support. A true belief in a positive attitude and a positive outlook means a lot.”
The athletes on hand Monday represented two generations of Olympians, from three-time medalist Vidmar – a member of the USA gymnastic contingent that finished first in the men’s team competition at Los Angeles, in 1984 – to Seattle’s Queen Underwood, who last summer became the first American woman to appear in a ring after women’s boxing was recognized as Olympic sport in London.
“I’ll do anything I can to support this cause,” Underwood said. “I’m happy to be there.”
By the way, Underwood, who lost her free-swinging lightweight bout on points to Britain’s Natasha Jonas, a hometown favorite, has not abandoned her dream of winning an Olympic medal.
She’s considering the idea of boxing at the Summer Games, but at 28, the window is closing for her opportunities on the women’s pro circuit.
“Early next year,” she said, “I’ll make a decision.”
Health reasons prevented two prominent athletes from attending the benefit dinner. One was Olga Korbut, the Soviet gymnast who won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympics and put “an expressive face,” as The New York Times once noted, “on the grim visage of Communism.”
Korbut, who makes her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. – she relocated from Belarus to the U.S in 1991 – is fighting another kind of cold war.
“She had to reschedule,” said Julie Kissick Malloy, spokesperson for the “Team Jacoby” charity campaign. “Olga will be up here in a few weeks.”
The other athlete remains in the hospital. A photo of Jacoby Miles can be seen on the goteamjacoby.com website.