Tracee Talavera Has Flair

A Q&A with the 1984 Olympic silver medalist.

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When Tracee Talavera was just shy of 13, she earned a spot on the 1979 U.S. women’s world championship team. She didn’t compete in Fort Worth, of course, because she was too young. The age minimum in 1979 was 14. The following year, Talavera won the 1980 Olympic Trials but didn’t get to compete in Moscow because of the U.S.-led boycott of the Games.

Third time, however, was the charm for Talavera. In 1981, she finally made it to world/Olympic competition. Competing at the world championships in Moscow just one year after the boycott, Talavera won the bronze medal on the balance beam with flair. Literal flair. Just a few years after American Kurt Thomas brought flairs to men’s gymnastics, Talavera brought them to the balance beam. 

Talavera was one of three 1980 Olympic team members that hung around until 1984 for another shot at going to the Games. (The other two were Julianne McNamara and Kathy Johnson.) By 1984, she was no longer the same precocious pigtailed girl who showed off her uneven bar routines to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. She was a tall (well, at least by gymnastics standards), elegant gymnast who had become an innovator on more than one event. Though she didn’t win any individual medals in Los Angeles, she helped the U.S. women’s team win a historic team silver medal before retiring from gymnastics.

Since her retirement, Talavera has remained involved in the sport. In 2000, she served as a member of the women’s selection committee (along with Bela Karolyi and Chari Knight-Hunter). Talavera has since spoken out about how negative that process was for the athletes involved.

I sent Talavera several questions about her career in gymnastics. Below are her answers, lightly edited for clarity.

Dvora Meyers: This summer is going to be the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Olympic boycott. Has your perspective on the boycott changed over the last four decades and if so, in what ways?

Tracee Talavera: I still see the boycott as an unfortunate, politically instigated event. Although now I see a bit of humor in the boycott because we boycotted the Olympics because we did not like the fact that Russia had invaded Afghanistan and where is the USA now all these decades later? Ironic.

DM: You won Olympic Trials in 1980 but the specter of the boycott loomed over that competition. What was it like to compete in that meet under those circumstances? 

TT: Competing at Trials was interesting because being 13, I still was of the mind that our president was bluffing and that the US would end up going. Also, it was a competition so my focus on its import did not change.

DM: You competed in Moscow at the 1981 world championships. What was it like competing there barely a year after the U.S. boycotted the Games and even managing to win an individual medal, a bronze, on the balance beam?

TT: During worlds in 1981, it was certainly in my mind that this was exactly where we would have been a little more than a year prior. Of course by 1981, I was three inches taller and a different gymnast. Either way, it was nice to actually enter the world competition scene, as I had had 1979 and 1980 taken from me. Something happy and sad about that meet.

DM: Speaking of that beam final, were you the first gymnast to bring some variation on flairs to balance beam? How did you come to perform this skill on the balance beam?  

TT: Yes. I believe I was the first to compete a flair on beam. I was always game for trying new skills and our boys coach, Hideo Mizoguchi, worked long and hard with me on the mushroom and pommel horse. Besides my kip on bars, the flair was the hardest for me to master.

DM: Also, I’ve gotta ask—was your 1981 haircut inspired by Dorothy Hamill? 

TT: My 1981 haircut came after the 1980 season ended and I wanted to ensure that I would not be wearing pigtails again! With very fine, straight hair, the Hamill cut is simply what it turned into.

DM:  Between your two Olympic berths in 1980 and 1984, Bela and Martha Karolyi defected to the U.S. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about how they changed the gymnastics culture in this country. Do you agree with that? Did you notice any small or even large shifts during your own time as a gymnast? 

TT: It is undeniable that the U.S. arrival of Bela and Martha had a large impact on the US and world gymnastics. USA was hungry to win medals and by watching Bela and Martha’s work ethic, we all were able to see and experience how it was done. Not sure we realized how many gymnasts were damaged, discarded and left behind in this process of "winning.” Nevertheless, we learned how to replicate the Karolyi process, and then we eventually perfected this. If you choose to call this perfection. Certainly debatable!

DM: Speaking of the culture of gymnastics, in your recently recorded conversation with Mike Lynch, your former coach, you talked about how the food the gymnasts ate was strictly policed during pre-Olympic training in 1984. Can you talk about the “pizza incident” as you referred to it in that conversation? 

TT: In this pizza incident, my coach was well aware of the fact that during the 1984 Olympic training camp, we were being minimally fed. He observed my energy and training level going down and instead of waiting and allowing a reason for Don [Peters, who was the head coach of the 1984 team] to try to remove me from the team, he decided to get some food and nutrition into me. An extremely gutsy move on his part because eating and blatantly going against the head coach are both things that nobody would think of doing. Even if it was the right thing to do for the health of your athlete.

DM: In 2017, we spoke about your experience as a member of the 2000 women’s selection committee for a story I was working on for Deadspin. (This one.) Back when we were talking, the Larry Nassar story was a big one but wasn’t yet front page international news as it would later become during his sentencing in January 2018. Do you think the conversations about all forms of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) that the Nassar story has prompted have been useful and adequate? What still needs to happen to affect real and lasting change in the sport?

TT: I think that the idea of having a selection committee, [of] choosing a team should be abolished. Judge and score the gymnasts in a couple meets and there is your team. This selection mentality is the beginning of the idea that winning the most medals is the most important aspect in the sport and is a very dangerous road. It is a "win at all costs" environment, where, too often the gymnasts end up paying the "cost.”

DM: You were quite precocious as a gymnast, being awarded a spot on the 1979 world championship team when you were just shy of 13 years old, though you didn’t compete due to the age minimum, which was then 14. Now the age minimum is 16. Given your experience, do you think that age minimums are necessary and appropriate?  

TT: I believe there should be no age minimum. No matter the age, if the gymnast can do the routines and skills, as well or better than others, they should be allowed to compete. Gymnastics is a time sensitive sport and nobody or [no] rule should take away an athlete's "time" because that time most likely won't come again. 

DM: In your conversation with Mike Lynch, you talked about being the first American gymnast to do the full twisting laid out Yurchenko at the Olympics. These days, the Yurchenko style vault is basically de rigueur but back then it was quite revolutionary. What was like it to learn that style of vaulting?  

[Ed. note: a vault in the Yurchenko family has a roundoff-back handspring entry into the apparatus. If you’ve watched any gymnastics competition over the last 30 years, you’ve seen a lot of them.]

TT: I was 1 of 18 on our NAAG [National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics, Talavera’s gym in Eugene, Oregon] team to begin training this vault. We had never seen the vault and only had our coach's explanation of the vault to go by. After hearing about the vault, while walking back to the end of the runway to begin our first attempts, I remember telling my teammates "I will never compete this vault.” Yes, never say never! The vault was completely new for us all and had a lot of nuances with a steep learning [curve] for us all. A lot of repetition and adjustments later, I ended up being the first of our original 18 to compete a Yurchenko.

(Talavera performs the full twisting Yurchenko for her second vault in the 1984 Olympic event finals.)

DM: Your name popped up in some articles in 2016 (such as this one from Remezcla) shortly after Laurie Hernandez was named to the 2016 Olympic team and was being recognized for being one of only a handful of Latinas to make the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. A friend of mine who is from South America remembers hearing your name and seeing you compete in the 70s and 80s. That was really important to her. There’s no question here, really. I just think she would kill me if I didn’t convey to you how much you meant to her when she was younger.  

TT: I was aware of the fact that there had not been a lot of Latin females on the USA gymnastics teams. I was proud to do my heritage well by representing it upon making teams. When I was young, my family voiced their doubts and thoughts about me not having a typical gymnastics body type, especially as I matured. Let your friend know that I was happy to prove these people wrong!

DM: Can you talk about a skill you trained but didn’t compete but wished you had done in competition? 

TT: I trained and was ready to compete a piked full in [full twisting double somersault in a piked position] on floor but never got the chance. I also learned a giant reverse hecht on bars the day after our Olympic team competition, which would have been fun to compete.

DM: Finally, how many handstands did you do today? And why do you do so many handstands every day?   

TT: At a get together, including 10-15 world, Olympic and college champions, we all thought it would be fun to get a pic of us all doing a handstand together. Problem was, we all had trouble holding a handstand and all being up at the same time; [it] was not going to happen. For a gymnast, a handstand is as basic as walking! It was then that I [decided I] would not allow myself to get to where I could not hold a handstand for a picture! I do 4 sets of 10 handstand straddle down against a wall; 1 set of 10 basic handstands; 2 sets of 10 handstand splits, 1 set of 10 handstand straddle through and 1 set of 10 handstand pike down. Yes, a little bit of overkill, I know!

Next week, I’ll be bringing you guys a Q&A series with Hardy Fink, the man who proposed an open ended scoring system for gymnastics all the way back in the 1980s. Get ready for a very technical Code of Points discussion. Some of this interview will be behind the paywall so if you want to read all of it, you should definitely subscribe. Thanks again for all of the support!