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Sports

August 19, 2008

Sacramone doesn't have a chokehold on wilting under pressure

Michael Muldoon

Choking is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we avoid at all costs.

With the possible exception of quitter, there isn't a more devastating label we can put on an athlete.

Cheater, druggie, selfish, clubhouse lawyer, wife-beater ... all are more forgivable offenses in the world of sports.

There is no denying choking is as much a part of sports as sweating. To me, though, there is no shame in it. The stigma is so unfair because buckling under pressure is normal. Even for a world-class athlete, extraordinary pressure frequently yields less than ordinary results.

It was painful to watch American gymnast Alicia Sacramone of Winchester, Mass., struggle throughout the Olympics. Clearly, the pressure got to her.

Who can blame her?

The pressure is extraordinary on an elite athlete ... especially in an individual sport. When I was 20, my knees would buckle in fear if I had to stand in front of the class to do an oral report. With the world watching and a nation pinning its jingoistic hopes on her, Sacramone had to perform in front of a packed gym 6,700 miles from home.

Nail the routine and you are America's darling. The thousands of hours performing under the tutelage of insufferable coaches, the endless travel hours, the constant pain, the hundreds of thousands of dollars your family spent nurturing your career all will have been worth it.

Muff it and you've only let a few people down: yourself, your family, your team and your country.

And 20 is ancient for a gymnast. That's why the 16-year-olds (or in the case of the Chinese, the 11-year-olds) tend to dominate. They are too young and naive to realize all the pressure and danger.

The pressure seems perverse in gymnastics, where the athletes are so extraordinarily young and freakishly tiny.

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