Monica Goermann appreciates the sense of loss elite Canadian athletes are feeling these days after the Tokyo Olympics were erased from the 2020 calendar.
The difference is those competitors will get a second chance, something the former world-class gymnast never received.
Goermann was primed and ready for the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Still just a teen, the Winnipegger had already stolen the spotlight with a pair of podium finishes at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in 1978 and a five-medal harvest at the Pan Am Games in Puerto Rico a year later.
But something happened on the road to Russia.
While her entire athletic career had been geared toward competing at the Olympics, the grandest of all sports stages, the opportunity was dashed by international politics. The United States boycotted the Summer Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 1979; and, after a few months of hesitation, Canada officially joined the boycott April 22, 1980.
Nearly 40 years later, Goermann admits she tried to ignore the daily headlines and focus entirely on her training regiment at a gymnastics centre founded by her German-born parents, Wolfgang and Elfriede. Yet, as the spring thaw settled on the Manitoba capital, the writing on the wall became painfully clear to the then-Grade 10 student at Dakota Collegiate.
"That’s definitely one of those memories that’s clear as a bell, even to this day, so many years later," Goermann told the Free Press recently. "I remember sitting in school and my best friend, Carmen Gruber, tried to tell me, ‘You’re not going to the Olympics. The government’s not going to let you go.’ I argued with her and said, ‘No, they wouldn’t do that.’ Sure enough she was right because the announcement came the next day."
The official word came from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, just weeks after the iconic politician’s fourth election victory. At the time, Canada’s external affairs minister, Mark MacGuigan, told the House of Commons: "This government believes that the international situation brought about by Soviet aggression in Afghanistan makes it wholly inappropriate to hold the Olympics in Moscow."
Some of the nation’s best, such as pentathlete Diane Jones Konihowski of Edmonton, were vocally opposed to Canada’s decision and threatened to compete under the Olympic flag, however, none did.
Goermann said that option wasn’t even a consideration in her house.
"At first it was just so unbelievable. It didn’t feel real. It felt like the rug got pulled out from underneath me, you know? Then, after a while you let it settle in. All these kind of big decisions, you know that it’s part of a bigger picture, it’s for the greater good. So, you learn to work with that," she said.
"In our family, we’ve always believed in taking whatever happens and making the best of it, and learning to move forward with more fire and more strength. That was the approach we took after the news came through that we couldn’t go to the Olympics. That’s just the way it was. We supported the decision."
Fast-forward to the present and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to postpone the Summer Olympics for a year. The Tokyo Games will take place July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021. It’s the first time in Olympic history the Games have been postponed, as the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for the Japanese capital to host this summer. The Paralympics have also been postponed until next year.
The IOC confirmed all athletes who previously qualified will retain their spot at next year’s competition.
"When I heard the announcement that the Games will go on next year, I was very much relieved for the athletes," Goermann said. "That’s so much better to hear and gives them a chance to keep working toward something, rather than being told the opportunity is gone and you’re not going. It was really a positive decision all around and gives them more time to be ready."
Goermann, 55, now married and mom to a 20-year-old daughter, Montreal artistic gymnast and circus performer Maia Thomlinson, was a household name in Winnipeg during the 1970s, vaulting onto the national squad when she was only 12 and competing around the world with teammates such as Elfi Schlegel, Karen Kelsall and Sherry Hawco.
Powerful tumbling and charismatic showmanship during routines were her trademarks as she captured gold and silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1978 at the age of 14. A year later, she blitzed the competition in front of a hometown crowd at the Canadian nationals, picking up three gold medals.
In July of 1979, Goermann enjoyed the most successful international competition of her career, winning three gold medals, including the all-around title, a silver on floor exercise and a bronze on the balance beam in San Juan. Glory at the Pan Am Games should have been a precursor for continued success and possible trips to the medal podium in Moscow.
"It was devastating for Monica and for our family. It was a big disappointment, you know. The Olympics is the tops," said her father, 82. "Right away, I took her down to Florida for a week holiday. We walked the beach. She needed some time to think. She was very young then, of course."
Monica remained on the national team for another two years, however, a back injury forced her to retire.
"It plagued me for quite a number of years, even though I was always determined to come back and make it onto the Olympic team in 1984 (in Los Angeles). But it came to a point where it was enough and I couldn’t keep going any more," she said. "I had to step away, but I kept a hand in it after that when I turned to coaching and choreography for gymnasts. From there, life just took me in different directions."
Monica went on to coach Guatemala’s national gymnastics team and eventually returned to Winnipeg to open Monica’s Danz Gym in 1993. She’s also the director of Momentum Aerial and Acrobatic Troupe, orchestrating the circus performance Blink: Stories of Earth and Home, with her daughter late last year.
In the decades since the boycott, Monica refused to let an unrealized dream define her career.
"Even looking back on the whole situation now, the anger and the frustration came and went. Then it was channelled into moving forward and training hard and getting ready for the next big event," she said. "Looking back, there’s truly no regrets. It made me who I am today and set me on a path for what was to come."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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