With the Greatest of Ease


It is July 1984. The men’s gymnastics all-around competition of the Los Angeles Olympics is in its final round. Li Ning, the Chinese gymnast, has just completed a near-perfect routine on the horizontal bar with a score of 9.85 out of 10. That means the next—and final—competitor, a young American from Los Angeles, must score even higher to win the gold medal.

Peter Vidmar quietly rubs chalk on his hands, takes a deep breath, and walks onto the mat. He thinks of the World Cup meet in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where Li Ning beat him in the horizontal bar and the all-around. Then he thinks of the first time he, Peter, ever received a perfect score of 10. The event was the horizontal bar. And at the meet, in Saarbrücken, West Germany, he won four gold medals.

Another deep breath. There’s not time now to think of the past. Nothing to think of but the routine. Concentrate! He signals his readiness to the officials.

Back uprise, free hip circle, California hop, front Stalder, into a giant swing. The fluid, nonstop circling revolves around the wooden bar. Hecht half turn, straddle regrasp, immediate flyaway with half turn regress, kip change, another giant swing to build momentum. Drop to a dislocate, hit an immediate giant, now the straddle front flip and recatch. There’s electricity in the audience! Kip change, giant, pirouette, another giant. Don’t slip on the Stalder! Two more giants now, nice and big and easy. A smooth arch into a half-in, half-out layout. Come on, Peter! Stick the landing!

His feet plant deep in the cushioning mat and momentum almost topples him forward. But he stands firm, then stretches his arms out wide. A smile as big as the world stretches across his face. And the crowd—the crowd goes crazy! “Vidmar! Vidmar! Vidmar!” the fans are shouting. The score is posted: 9.9! Vidmar wins the gold medal for the USA!

For most young Latter-day Saints the fantasy would end right there. It would be time to wake from the dream and go mow the lawn or shovel the walk. But the story just told is not far from reality.

Peter Vidmar, a young Mormon, did compete in Yugoslavia, and he did score a 10 in Germany. He has already been on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team (the one that didn’t go to Moscow). And he looks like a prime candidate for a gold medal at the 1984 games planned for his home town. As a student at the University of California at Los Angeles, Peter has already won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) all-around crown. In amateur competition, he’s captured two U.S. national titles and has won a number of international competitions. The medals, plaques, and trophies lining the walls of his room make it look like a storehouse for the crown jewels.

Still, Peter knows that in gymnastics, nothing comes without effort. It’s a long time until 1984 and no one’s a shoo-in. He’d laugh if he read the paragraphs above. Then he’d say something like, “Well, I sure hope it turns out that way,” and go back to practice.

For all his renown, Peter is actually quite a normal fellow. Sitting with him in priesthood meeting on a sunny September morning, it’s easy to lean over and whisper a question about the lesson. If you’re from out of town and don’t want to bother the teacher, Peter’s more than willing to ask the question for you.

Peter performed in the ward roadshow. He goes home teaching. He talks things over with his dad, a former bishop. He reads letters from his sister Dodie, who’s on a mission in Lima, Peru. He struggles to find time to do homework and read the scriptures, too. Though he lives with roommates near the UCLA campus, he loves to drive ten miles to visit his family and eat some home-cooked food. He plays with his pet cockatiel, Squid.

And he goes to the gym. Every day but Sunday. Three different gyms. And a weight-lifting room. He practices, day after day after day, up to six hours every day. Morning and evening. Routine after routine. The callouses in the palms of his hands are as thick and hard as tile on a bathroom floor. He knows that to soar through the air with the greatest of ease means daily battles with pain, blisters, and sweat. And yet he loves his sport.

“The reason I’m in gymnastics is because I enjoy it,” Peter said. “There are times, of course, when you’re training for a big meet and you’re nervous. You’re working hard and you’re tired and you have to do those extra routines. Then it’s not necessarily so much fun. But when I think back on it, about all I’ve learned to do, and just working out and doing new things, it’s basically a lot of fun.”

Peter also appreciates what gymnastics competition has done for his family and the opportunities it has opened up for him to speak to young members of the Church.

“My family has become even closer because of gymnastics,” he said. “I’m the youngest of six, and we’re all grown and away from home. Every time I have a big meet coming up, we’re in contact. When it’s over, phones start ringing and we talk about how I did. After the trials in 1980, my sister at BYU put a big sign in her window: ‘My little brother made the Olympic team!’”

Because his father already crisscrosses the country on business for heavy industry, Peter’s parents are often able to attend his meets.

“It’s a nice feeling to have them there,” Peter said. “I know there are some gymnasts whose parents have never even seen them compete, so I have to be thankful that my parents are so supportive. They’ve never forced me, but they’ve always encouraged me. If I stopped competing right now, they’d still love me and support my decision.”

Peter’s achievements taste particularly sweet to his father, John, who contracted polio soon after he was married. Peter noted that, “all my life, I’ve never heard dad complain. I’ve seen him smile and I’m sure he whispers to himself, ‘I wish I could run again so I could join you guys.’ But he’s never felt sorry for himself. I think that’s why he’s been so successful in life.”

In addition to responsibilities as an assistant ward clerk, Peter often speaks at firesides and to seminary students.

“After spending so much time on myself, it’s gratifying to be able to give something back,” Peter said. “I hope I can be a good example and get people to rededicate their lives to the gospel. That’s more important than the gymnastics. I’ve learned a lot about what you can accomplish by striving for a goal. But when I speak to them I’m trying to teach myself, because I certainly have a lot left to learn in terms of the gospel.

“I don’t want to leave the impression that one goal is all-important in life,” he continued. “It would be so easy for me to think that gymnastics is all-important when it’s not. It’s important to balance your life. My performing in gymnastics is really living up to just one commandment, the commandment to develop our talents to the best of our ability. There are hundreds more commandments that the Lord has given us. It takes a lot of work to do well in just one area. Think of the dedication required to live every aspect of the gospel.”

The most exciting moment in Peter’s life came, not on the horizontal bar or the pommel horse, but when he was able to share the gospel with a friend from the UCLA women’s gymnastic team, Donna Harris.

They met as freshmen at team activities. “After we’d known each other about a year I talked to her about the Church,” Peter said. “She started coming to the UCLA student ward, and the warmth and family feeling impressed her.” She took the missionary discussions, gained a testimony of the truth, and “last November, two days before I left for the world championships, I baptized her. That was my biggest thrill. It made me think how often we take the Church for granted until we see how it can help someone and totally improve their life.”

Naturally, Peter faces a challenge in finding time for school, athletics, and Church work too. “It’s hard to study when you’re gone one-third of the time. And it’s hard to accept a calling when you’re already too busy. But my Church activity has helped me learn to be more organized. I’ve learned to budget time, set schedules, and stick to them.” His mother smiled and said the thing he hasn’t learned to do yet is clean up his room. But it was easy to see she meant it as good-natured ribbing.

Sister Vidmar, like any mother, is full of praise for her son. “He’s always had a stabilizing, soothing effect on other people,” she said. “He’s always respected us as parents. He never expected us to do everything for him. He analyzes things well and speaks clearly. He never criticizes his opponents. Instead he watches them and praises their successes.”

Sister Vidmar has filled six scrapbooks with newspaper clippings from all over the world. She has tried to learn a whole new vocabulary of gymnastic terms and to develop an appreciation for scoring and strategy.

“She’s understanding a lot more,” Peter said. “She follows the routines and knows when someone makes a mistake or does something well.”

It’s not an understanding that comes easily to anyone. Gymnastics is a subtle sport, with complicated scoring standards and an ever-changing array of athletic maneuvers.

“There are six events,” Peter explained, “normally performed in this order: floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal bar. In some meets, an individual winner is chosen in each event. Often you find good five-event men, who are weak in just one area. It’s like living the gospel—you have to work on your weakest spots and still maintain your strengths.

“Each gymnast competes in both compulsories and optionals. Compulsories have already been determined by the international gymnastics federation (FIG). They make up an exact routine which must be followed without variation. Each routine is composed of individual maneuvers called ‘tricks.’ In the optionals, routines must follow some guidelines, but the gymnast is free to incorporate his own tricks.

“If a gymnast performs a perfect routine, he will score a 9.4. Then additional points can be added for risk (. 2), originality (. 2), and virtuosity (. 2), to bring the total to 10.0. Points are deducted for slipping, hesitating, or falling. Falling, for example, usually takes at least .5 away from someone’s score.”

A good performance involves both power and technique. “In floor exercise, for example, you have to work on your takeoff angle, how far your body’s going to be above the floor, how much power you have going into the floor, whether or not you can rebound off the floor or whether your legs absorb some of that power. Sometimes it will take months or years to figure out what you should have done. But when you get it, and you do the trick right, it’s a wonderful feeling.

“The sport’s evolving at a very fast pace. You have to look at trends and try to think of things before someone else does. You’ll go to an international competition and see the Russians do a crazy trick. So you go back to the gym and learn it in a week and think, wow, if I’d known they were going to do that I could have learned it too. The whole point is to be ahead and not play catch up. The countries that win are the countries setting the pace.”

To keep up, Peter has added two releases in a row to his horizontal bar routine. “I let go of the bar; then as I catch it again, I release it again and do another flip.” Another new trend on the horizontal bar is to swing with only one arm. “Soon you’ll be seeing one arm releases and recatches,” he said.

Peter’s favorite event, though, is the pommel horse. “Over the past two years the UCLA team has really gotten good at it because we play at it,” he said. “We have contests with each other and try to do as many tricks as we can without falling off. Sometimes we play a game called ‘add-on,’ where one person will do a trick, and the next person will do that trick plus another one and so on. We don’t do that a lot, though, because when you’re training for competition you can’t take time for that.”

September 1982, Friday, 12:45 in the afternoon. The sun pours in a single beam through a window high up on the wall of the old gymnasium at UCLA. Team members stretch and loosen up in preparation for practice. It’s almost like watching a ballet. Soon random motion joins random motion until the room is a flurry of rhythm: somersaulting, spinning, whirling, bursts of energy from muscles cocked like coiled springs, poetic tumbling runs punctuated with pauses to drink in air.

A short Japanese man wanders everywhere, offering advice, spotting for tumblers, cheerfully shouting encouragement. He is assistant coach Makoto Sakamoto, himself a former U.S. Olympic gymnast and seven-time U.S. national champion. The team members call him “Mako.”

Mako remembers ten years ago when Peter tried out for his youth gymnastic club. He’s trained and taught him ever since. In 1982, when Peter was named gymnast of the year by the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, Mako was named coach of the year.

“I can honestly say Peter has kept his desire and enthusiasm from the start,” the coach said. “That’s why he’s the number one gymnast in our country. He’s very coachable and listens well. He’s trying now to develop that sharpness of concentration he needs to become a world champion. Barring injuries, he should have a good chance to win a medal at the 1984 Olympics.”

Art Shurlock, UCLA’s head gymnastics coach, agreed. On television at the NCAA championships, he said, “I definitely think Peter could be the best gymnast in the world, and he’s in the top ten right now.”

Tim Daggett, a junior teammate from Springfield, Massachusetts, and Peter’s current roommate, said, “What makes Peter so good is that he’s a great competitor. He is never intimidated by any of his opponents. He uses the effects of competition like adrenalin—to his benefit.”

Rich Tower, a sophomore from Seattle, Washington, said Peter is “one of the most gracious people I’ve ever known. When he offers advice, he’ll just point out something in a casual, friendly manner. He’s had good experience; he’s competed all over the world. You’d think he’d be stuck-up or aloof. But he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”

Peter started Friday morning with a brisk one-mile run. Then he lifted weights. Then he typed a paper for one of his two summer classes before coming to practice. Now it’s 4:30, and he’s still in the gym. Team workouts are over, but Peter and Rich don’t even bother to shower. They’re headed into town to a gymnastic club, one that has a pit filled with foam rubber. That way, they can practice flips without risk of injury.

It’s about 8:00 P.M. when Peter finally arrives at his parents’ home to eat dinner and finish his interview with the New Era. Soon his father is showing videotapes of previous meets and telling stories about staying with families of gymnasts from other universities. He remembers that when U.S. President Jimmy Carter greeted the national Olympic team in 1980, he was surprised that gymnasts were so short. “I thought you’d be at least six feet one,” the president said. Peter is five feet, five inches tall and weighs 130 pounds.

Brother Vidmar talks about team closeness, about how team members all wept and prayed together when Mark Caso, who was then Peter’s roommate, broke his neck in an accident. Now Mark is back on the UCLA team and has also earned a position on the U.S. national team. When Peter speaks to the youth of the Church, he often uses Mark’s comeback as an example of overcoming adversity.

Brother and Sister Vidmar love to tell about Peter’s 1982 NCAA all-around victory at Nebraska University. They’re proud, not just because of the victory, but because even though Pete outpointed the hometown favorite, the audience still gave him a standing ovation.

Peter is tired, but he smiles as he recalls how, when we was eight years old, he went with his dad to a gymnastics meet for the first time. He traces the rising worldwide interest in gymnastics, sparked by Olga Korbett, Nadia Comaneci, Kurt Thomas, Wayne Young, Bart Conner, and others.

With a little prodding, he even recites once again his own list of accomplishments: record holder for highest point total at U.S. National Championship and U.S. Collegiate competition; three-time Pacific Athletic Conference champion; 15-time All-American; 5-time member, U.S. national team; 1979—member, bronze-medal-winning U.S. Championship team; 1980—Champion of the U.S.; U.S. Olympic team; 1981—13th place all-around, world championships, Moscow, USSR; all-around winner, Champions All meet, London, England; U.S. World University Games team, Bucharest, Romania; U.S. team vs. China in Hawaii; U.S. teams to Germany, Holland, England, Japan, USSR, Hungary, Yugoslavia; U.S. World Championships Trials runner-up; NCAA parallel bar champion; USGF Single Elimination Championships runner-up; 1982—American Cup all-around runner-up; NCAA all-around, high bar, and pommel horse champion; World Cup third place, horizontal bar; and other meets yet to come in Japan; Reno, Nevada; and who knows where, not to mention another college season and another shot at the NCAA finals.

Listening to the list of recognitions, it’s hard not to imagine Peter Vidmar as a hard-nosed international competitor. Visiting him for a few days has been like trying to sprint alongside a whirlwind. But stop and listen to him talk and joke with his parents. Watch him point with pride to a letter of commendation from his stake presidency, or beam when he reads a national magazine article that attributes his happiness, at least in part, to being LDS. Feel the love and respect between him and his parents, sense the binding ties with his brothers and sisters. Then you know that in addition to whatever other honors he may attain, Peter Vidmar is a gold medal winner where it counts—at home, at church, and with his friends.

[photos] Photos by John Snyder

[photo] Copyright © 1982 U.S.G.F. photo by Dave Black