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Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff

Quarterback Tom Brady and Super Model Gisele Bundchen are. So are Tennis great Serena Williams and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian. Then there is golf icon Tiger Woods and ski champion Lindsey Vonn, as well as Olympian greats Nadia Comaneci and Bart Connor. These are Sports’ Power Couples, a duo of envious capabilities and qualities that will cause entire rooms to turn heads.

But perhaps the greatest sports power couple of all time is the love match of tennis legends, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.

Andre Agassi, the charismatic, enigmatic tennis tour de force of the 1990s and oughts is one of 8 men to have a career grand slam, having won eight grand slam titles over the course of the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. To win the biggest tournaments on three different surfaces – hard court, grass and clay – is a testament to versatility and greatness. Additionally, Agassi won gold in men’s singles tennis at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, thus making him the first and only man to earn the informal title of Career Golden Slam, until Rafael Nadal accomplished that with combined Olympic victory in 2008, and US Open victory in 2010.

Steffi Graf tops the accomplishments of her husband. The German superstar of the 1980s and 1990s is arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. Over her career, Graf has won 22 Grand Slam singles titles (tied with Serena Williams), and in one incredible year, she pulled off a purist’s dream. In 1988, Graf won the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the US Open, capping it off by winning the gold medal in women’s singles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

A Golden Slam. Until Steffi Graf, no one, man or woman, had ever done that.

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Peter Vidmar takes silver in the all arounds at the 1984 Olympics. Koji Gushiken of Japan took gold

Until 1984, the USA men’s gymnastics team had never won team gold at an Olympics. That breakthrough in Los Angeles was due to the efforts of team members Bart Conner, Timothy Daggett, Mitchell Gaylord, James Hartung, Scott Johnson and Peter Vidmar. Vidmar in particular shined, also garnering a gold in the pommel horse and a silver in the Individual all-around.

Vidmar is a popular motivational speaker and talks often about how he learned a lesson in Budapest, Hungary, about the importance of not only taking risk, but committing to taking risk. Those who do, often end up champions. But Vidmar, like many champions, learned this lesson the hard way. By falling.

It was 1983 and Vidmar was with his coach, Makoto Sakamoto, competing at the World Championships in Hungary. Vidmar was getting ready for his horizontal bar routine, a discipline of strength for Vidmar. But for some reason, he was having difficulty with his differentiating move, a risky set of maneuvers that would give him invaluable points for difficulty: As he explained in the book, Awaken the Olympian Within, “it called for me to swing around the bar, then let go, fly straight up over the bar into a half-turn, straddle my legs, come back down and catch the bar. Trust me, it’s hard.”

Concerned that he was not able to execute the moves during his warm up just prior to the finals, Vidmar allowed fear and indecision to creep in. He talked to his coach, who gave him straightforward advice on technique, but Vidmar was not feeling confident. He decided to drop the maneuver and forgo the potential 0.2 points. “Why not? I’d lose the two-tenths of a point for risk, but I could still score as high as a 9.8. That would put me on the winner’s rostrum for sure. That would mean a medal, maybe even a silver.” But he also realized just as quickly that dropping the move would mean losing the World Championship. After all, champions go for it, and someone else would.

This was the mental state of Vidmar as he stepped up to the horizontal bar and started his routine. And after his back flip with half-turn in the pike position he reached for the bar. And as Vidmar says, “the bar was not there.” He fell three meters to the floor, face down in the mat. He got back up, finished the routine, and ended up eighth of eight.

As his coach, Sakamoto tells it, Vidmar was not a happy camper.

During the medal presentation, I innocently asked,  “Pete, what happened?”  “What happened?” Peter responded, face red with abject disappointment.  “I’ll tell you what happened!” he continued angrily.  “I reached out to catch the bar, but the bar wasn’t there. That’s it!” He picked up his bag and stormed out of the arena in a fit of rage.  I had never seen Peter behave this way. 

Later at the hotel, Vidmar had cooled down. Sakamoto caught up with him and according to Vidmar, said this. “This is not the end. Everything is valuable experience, even competition. What you did tonight can be a valuable learning experience. You can benefit from this.”

Vidmar credits that moment as crystalizing an important learning moment for him in his road to becoming a champion. “I didn’t want to hear it but I knew he was right. That fall taught me something that I somehow hadn’t completely learned until that night: Never, ever take anything for granted. Especially don’t take risks for granted.”

Vidmar learned a lesson in committing to risk, to working hard to mastering the challenge so that the work and potential for failure is far outweighed by the reward. “I realized,” Vidmar says, “that I had made the decision to take the risk, but I had forgotten to really prepare myself for taking it! Knowing how important that particular skill was…that I couldn’t leave out that trick and still win the title, I should have been better prepared. I was certain to have to take the same risk at the Olympics and no matter how the skill might feel in warm-up, I had to commit now to taking it there as well.”

And the rest is history. Vidmar worked on that routine, overcoming fear and doubt, and stuck a perfect 10 in the horizontal bars en route to a silver medal in the All Arounds at the Los Angeles Games.

GYMNASTICS USA TEAM CELEBRATE
31 JUL 1984: THE UNITED STATES TEAM CELEBRATE AFTER RECEIVING THEIR GOLD MEDALS FOR THEIR VICTORY IN THE MENS TEAM GYMNASTICS COMPETITION AT THE 1984 LOS ANGELES OLYMPICS. THE USA TEAM COMPRISES PETER VIDMAR, BART CONNER, MITCHELL GAYLORD, TIMOTHY DAGGETT, JAMES HARTUNG AND SCOTT JOHNSON.
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Vera Casalavska, from the book, Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha

It was 2011, at the gymnastics World Championships in Tokyo, and a special luncheon was held at the Olympic Stadium. Abie Grossfeld, an assistant coach of the US men’s gymnastics team in 1964, was at that luncheon, and remembers when Vera Caslavska entered the room. “All stood up and gave her a standing ovation,” he wrote. “That’s the respect we all gave her.”

Caslavska was the Queen of gymnastics in the 1960s, taking the reins from legendary Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina. After Latynina won consecutive golds in the All-Arounds in Melbourne in 1956 and in Rome in 1960, Caslavska did the same in Tokyo in 1964 and then in Mexico City in 1968. In addition to a team silver medal in Rome, Caslavska (pronounced cha-SLAF-ska), won a total of 11 medals in her Olympic career, including 7 gold medals. She is the most decorated Olympian from Czechoslovakia, before or after her country broke apart.

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Takashi Ono, Vera Caslavska, Abie Grossfeld, and Yuri Titov at the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, 2011; from Abie Grossfeld

She was also immensely popular due to her beauty queen looks. As a former coach described her, she was “like someone you’d take to the high school prom. She had a big bouffant hairstyle and a very womanly body.” Right after the Olympic Games in Mexico City, she married fellow Czech Josef Odlozil in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Mexico City, an event that “was mobbed by thousands of supporters,” cementing her hold on the public imagination.

On August 30, 2016, Vera Caslavska of Prague, passed away. She was 74 years old.

In the 1960s, as gymnasts began blending athleticism and balleticism, Caslavska seemed to find the right balance. Muriel Grossfeld, a member of the US women’s gymnastics team, and she told me that in the 1960s, judges were trying to find the right standard to judge gymnasts. “Until we got the new scoring system, scoring was like a pendulum. One time the more artistic gymnast won, but maybe the next time the more athletic gymnast won. I think Caslavaska blended both very well.”

Why was she so good? As Muriel Grossfeld told me, “she worked hard. She was a perfectionist. Her work ethic was enormous. I remember her working on routine after routine on the beam. 40 times a day!” Makoto Sakamoto was also a member of the US men’s gymnastics team in the 1960s and agreed with Muriel Grossfeld’s assessment. Sakamoto was at a dual US-Czech gymnastics meet in the winter of 1964 where he saw Caslavska compete. He told me he admired the professionalism and preparation of Caslavska.

“I was sixteen and she was about 21 years old.  We both won the all-around  title, but what I remember most about her was the way she prepared for her performances.  Instead of having her coach carry the heavy vaulting board, she did it by herself. When the uneven bar snapped in half  during one of her performances, she just waited patiently until a replacement bar could be installed.  Then she performed her routine without any mistakes.”

Sakamoto also remembers when Caslavska dominated at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had been training in Tokyo and was actually in the hospital recovering from a ruptured achilles tendon when he “witnessed on black and white television one of the most moving artistic performances” he had ever experienced: Caslavska’s floor exercise routine at the Mexico City Games, performed to the “magic rhythm of the Mexican Hat Dance.” Muriel Grossfeld, who was in Mexico City agreed, telling me “that was a very smart song selection, was fun and built a lot of enthusiasm in the arena.”

She was so dominant in the 1960s that Caslavska is still the only gymnast, male or female to have won gold in every individual artistic gymnastic discipline. As 1984 Olympic gold medalist, Bart Connor, recently said about Caslavska, “She was one of the most dominant gymnasts of her time, balanced in all the events and completely comparable to someone like Simone Biles.”