Some stories are best kept hidden

August 6th – Sports, sports, is your whole life just sports column

Walt Harrington, author of numerous books and former journalist for the Washington Post Magazine, described a scene for a story he once did on a fundamentalist Christian family in Mobile, Alabama: 

Mrs. Webster, a sweet woman, walked me through the house, full of tacky teddy bears and knickknacks. “Boy, these people have bad taste,” I thought. Then she made comments like, “This really ugly teddy bear was a gift from the thirteen-year-old girl who moved in with us after her mother kicked her out when she was two months pregnant. She stayed with us, and we took care of her through the pregnancy. And this silly little knickknack is from the the eighty-four-year-old woman who my husband takes to the pool twice a week. He carries her out of her wheelchair and into the swimming pool so she can have some exercise.” …the meaning of the objects had nothing to do with the Websters’ taste. Their meaning was these are good people.”

Details do hold meaning, but sometimes not the sort we expect. Tom Wolfe defined status details as the items around people that define their social circumstance. Such details make the subject’s interior world clearer to us. Yet the meaning of such details isn’t always inherent in the objects themselves but is in their importance to our subjects.

Telling True Stories, page 128-129

His point: You can’t take things at face value. What you see is not always what you get. There is a story behind every object, every image, and every person.

The Olympics provide a platform for athletes to show us a lot. We see brightly colored hairstyles, tattoos, and fashion statements. We see flashy media shorts, extravagant promos, and short interview features. Prominent athletes and their messages are highlighted in multiple visual mediums. It becomes all too easy for onlookers to make judgments about a particular athlete’s choice of wearing a huge watch (“they are doing that only for endorsements.”), necklace (“they must be a Christian…I wonder if they’re a real Christian…”), or black gloves (“They must really understand racial issues.”). I sometimes wonder the stories behind individual tattoos. I’m sure they range from ‘memorial to a lost loved one’ to ‘that wild Friday night in college.’ 

As compelling as modern day backstage passes to athletes’ lives are, Instagram, Twitter, and Lewis Johnson can’t tell us everything. We see the glitter, the perfect bodies, the fancy uniforms, and the smiles. We read the tweet and analyze the #hashtags. We watch a 3-minute interview, a 5-minute NBC special, or a sideline report, and we think we can fill in the gaps. We think we have them all figured out. I know I’m guilty of forgetting a very important truth: they are as complex as I am. They carry a burden as heavy as mine. Human nature lends to the belief that we are not only the main character in our own story, but the main character in the story. It is not true, and it is humbling to realize the minutiae of our existence in the grand scheme of things… but I have encouragement. Two things can be true at once. The world can and will chug along when you return to dust, AND, you and your story can be incredibly unique and special, even if it is never broadcast to the rest of the world.

When it comes to people and their complex stories, there is a lot more than meets the eye. Even skilled biographers know their craft is inadequate to fully capture every layer of a life. Amazingly, many lives are not captured at all, and sometimes, that’s ok. We writers may cringe at such negligence, such lack of recognition. Alas, the world keeps turning, even when a Homer misses the opportunity to share their potential Odysseus with the world. The story of Olympic champion Maria Gorokhovskaya is a poignant example of this. 

Gorokhovskaya won seven medals at a single Olympics. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss it….it was in 1952. Presently, you may have caught the side anecdote regarding the Soviet gymnast’s exploits at the Helsinki games as Australian swimmer Emma McKeon approached the vaunted number in Tokyo this July-August. Up until McKeon, the only female to win seven medals at a single games was Gorokhovskaya. Today, with only six medals up for grabs in women’s gymnastics, her feat is etched in eternity. It is her life outside of gymnastics, however, that should be immortalized in our Olympic annals. 

Just 20 years old, Maria came to Leningrad from a Jewish family in Crimea to further her education. Her father was murdered in the Holocaust – a fate she likely would have faced had she not relocated. She arrived in Leningrad at the beginning of the 872-day siege (remember how we rolled our eyes when “six days to slow the spread” turned into six months…and then 15 months? Try 36 months….with no food…on a frozen tundra). The German occupation and choking out of resources led to the starving to death of 800,000 (or more) Russian citizens. At the worst of it, occupants were eating pigeons, rats, pets, and even other humans for food. Gorokhovskaya worked as a nurse in a military hospital during the day and put out rooftop fires caused by German incendiary bombs at night. On the verge of death from “exhaustion” (which could mean many things, ranging from being overworked to starvation), she was eventually evacuated to Kazakstan. 

All the while, her status as a Jew was hidden. Imagine the importance of that up to this point in her life. She avoided the Holocaust, simultaneously serving a Soviet people whose leaders would later be revealed as rabidly anti-Semitic. But it gets more amazing…  

Much of the details surrounding Gorokhovskaya’s life are unknown. Few records exist and fewer witness remain alive. I scoured the internet for a biography on the athlete, something her story certainly deserves, and came up empty. What is known is that after the war, she either started or returned to artistic gymnastics. At the age of 26, she won her first medal, and at 27, her first gold at the USSR Championships. 

In 1948, the Soviet Union did not participate in the Olympics; it would take until 1952 for the state to realize the political benefit of the Olympics, when they competed for the first time. So it was, at age 30, a dinosaur in gymnastic years, that Maria had her historic moment. She competed in another World Championships in 1954, and spent her retirement years as a coach and judge. 

Holocaust evader, Seige of Leningrad survivor and hero. 7x Olympic medalist. Crazy enough? Wait…

The Soviet Union became aware of Maria’s Jewish heritage for the first time in the 1990’s, when Maria finally moved to Israel to live out her remaining years. For the previous 40 years, she had been featured in Soviet propaganda, highlights, and newsreels, and had been awarded the highest honor in Soviet sports: the Order of Red Banner and the Honorary Master of Sport. 

Imagine sitting at the 1952 Olympics, watching Maria Gorokhovskaya. Would you have had any clue of the complexity which filled her life? 

The name ‘Maria Gorokhovskaya,’ for this sportswriter, almost remained an anecdote in a modern day article about an Australian swimmer chasing greatness. My innate desire for ‘the story’ pulled me in a different direction as I casually, and all too easily, reduced her whole life to whatever encapsulation a 3-second google search would yield. … “What is that girl’s story?”

I guess in our world of sports, some stories are best kept hidden.

And sometimes, the best stories are begging to be shared. #John3:16

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