Local Former Olympians Talk About The Stress Of Competing On The World Stage

Friday, July 30th 2021, 8:00 am
By: Colby Thelen

NORMAN, Okla. -

Olympic gymnast Sunisa Lee took home America's 5th straight gold medal in the women's individual all-around on Thursday. 

The win comes after the heavy favorite to make the podium in the competition, Simone Biles, withdrew to focus on mental health.  

The sport is a combination of athleticism, skill and grace. Olympic champion, Bart Conner, said the chances of making it to the Olympic level is less than one in a million, and those who do have to be prepared for an intense journey. 

“We know all what competition and pressure is about, but the Olympics is exponentially more difficult,” said Conner. 

If anyone knows that pressure, it’s Bart Conner. He competed in the 1976 games in Montreal and in the 1984 games in Los Angeles. 

Winning 2 gold medals, he brought that combination to the level of excellence. His wife Nadia was the first to show the world perfection. 

A perfect 10 had never been done until Nadia Comaneci. In Montreal, 45 years ago she changed the game. Even if she didn't realize it at 14 years old. 

“It was so fast,” Comaneci recalled. “I had no idea what I did in Montreal was history until I got back home and when I got off the plane there were 10,000 people.” 

Conner was at those games and he remembers the moment well. 

“Oh yeah, the whole world was captivated by her,” he gushed. For Conner, that feeling hasn’t changed. The couple married in 1996 and now operate a gym in Norman. 

Much like Nadia, Conner said there is another who helped elevate the sport, Simone Biles. 

“Simone is doing difficult skills that have never been attempted before,” he explained. 

Biles became the talk of Tokyo after pulling out of team finals and individual competition to focus on mental health. 

Conner said she's likely struggling with a phenomenon that all gymnasts know, one often referred to as the "twisties." 

“You lose orientation in the air and you can't tell which way is up and which way is down,” said Conner. 

He added it’s a feeling that’s hard to explain, and harder to forget. It was an issue he experienced himself. 

“My palms get sweaty just thinking about it now, and that was 37 years ago. It's scary.” 

When you’re flipping 12 to 15 feet off the ground, it can be downright dangerous. 

The remedy, Conner said, is slowly building back confidence in the gym, in the foam pit. That is where he was able to overcome the issue, but he added it’s different when you’re on the world stage. 

“The trigger is pressure,” he said. “Think of the tremendous pressure she is under. She’s been the face of the Olympics for the last 5 years.” 

There is also the added pressure of following up an astounding Olympic performance. 

“The second Olympic games for me was more difficult,” said Comaneci. “Because I was an adult and I understood what I was carrying on my back. I understood what people expected of me.” 

The couple agrees whatever Biles does next, she already left her mark on the sport, much like those who came before her.