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Backyard Olympics

It was the summer of 1976. The red, white and blue “Freedom Train” had just rolled through Raleigh, North Carolina, stopping on the tracks across from the State Fairgrounds. Everyone I knew, from my teachers and friends at Henry Adams Elementary school to the check out lady from the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly lined up to see George Washington’s very own copy of the United States Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase and Judy Garland’s dress from The Wizard of Oz. There were replicas of Jesse Owens 1936 gold medals and a real life rock from the moon on this rolling museum that celebrated our country’s Bicentennial.

A wave of patriotism had swept across the U.S.A. Our school pictures that year were taken in front of an American flag. The stars and stripes were proudly displayed on flags poles by front doors and off porch posts of just about every house on my block. My friends and I marched around the neighborhood dressed as “The Spirit of 76” in celebration of the 4th of July. And a little over a week later, we gathered in front of the Magnovox in my den to watch as Queen Elizabeth proclaimed the opening of Montreal Olympic Games. Sweating with Olympic fever in the un-air-conditioned house, we decided to host our own Olympics.

The backyard smelled of fresh cut grass and honeysuckle as the lightening bugs began their summer evening dance and our planning committee put the final touches on the medals and the schedule of events. We’d been working on our project for over a week and we wanted everything to be perfect. All the neighborhood kids had agreed to be in at least one competition and to serve as the audience for the rest. The games were to be staged in the Pyecha’s backyard because they had a wooden balance beam and chin-up bar in the cluster of trees behind their house, as well as an ample patch of grass between those trees and the patio to allow for the 50 yard-dash and a number of other key events.

The shiny insides of Peter Pan peanut butter jars became our gold medals, threaded with the stretchy golden ribbon from my mother’s Christmas bows and tags box. We covered Smuckers and Hellmans lids with tin foil to make the silver medals. Bronze medal recipients were to receive brown construction paper circles with BRONZE written on them in black crayon.

On the day of the big event, Tommy Kenney brought over his Socker Boppers so we could re-enact the gold medal-winning maneuvers of Sugar Ray Leonard and Leon Spinks. Back when Bruce Jenner had no connection to the Kardashians and seemed unquestionably masculine, we were in awe of his athleticism. We recreated many of the Decathlon events that earned him the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete,” throwing Mrs. Pyecha’s broomstick for the javelin, a baking potato became the shot-put, and a bright yellow melamine dish that came as a gift with purchase in a bag of Purina Dog Chow was our discus.

Beth Sanders was the tallest among the neighbor kids at the time and she beat out all the boys in the long jump, with a Hayloft Circle record 8.9 feet, measured with yardsticks from Mrs. Lucas’ sewing closet. We tried to pole vault with the broomstick javelin but it was a bust. It was too hot and muggy to run all the way around the block, so we rode our bikes instead. Patrick Kenney probably wouldn’t have won the gold if some of us hadn’t stopped at Lynn Richman’s house on Rail Fence Road for a Popsicle midway through the ride.

But the highlight of the Backyard Olympics was the gymnastics competition. Nadia Comaneci was only 14, just a few years older than most of us. She scored seven perfect tens and we were all sure that we, too, had what it took to be gold-medal winners one day. Granted, none of us had ever taken a gymnastics class and only Lynn Lucas had a decent round-off to speak of. The rest of us were limited to imperfect cartwheels and summersaults, but that didn’t stop us from attempting to duplicate the moves of Nellie Kim and Olga Korbut.

We had three events in our competition: the balance beam, the bar and the floor exercise. A couple of forward rolls were attempted on the beam, but mostly, the challenge was simply to stay on it, jumping and turning as many times as possible and adding a few arm flourishes. The bar was a 1½ inch metal pipe anchored between two splintering 2x4s about six feet off the ground. Pull-ups and chin-ups earned points in our competition, as did hanging by the knees and not touching the ground. Paul Kenney took home the gold by completing a flipping dismount and nearly sticking his landing before he toppled into a pile of pine straw.

The final event of the Backyard Olympics of `76 was the floor exercise. The girls in the neighborhood worked hard on that one. None of the boys wanted to compete so they agreed to be the judges. We had chosen our music and honed our top-secret moves in the privacy of our own living rooms in preparation for the big event. I covertly carried my parent’s album, “The Hits of `66” up to the Pyecha’s house in a pale blue pillowcase. No way was I going to give away any part of my highly competitive routine. Beth went first. Her cartwheels were pretty clean. She was eleven and her legs were long and tan and she’d done some rather tight choreography to Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” her “Endless Flight” album spinning on my brother’s Mickey Mouse turntable on the back porch. Lynn was up next showing off her high kicks peppered with a number of her signature round-offs to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.” Audra Pyecha, wearing her red, white and blue-striped swimsuit, then pulled out her “Wild Cherry” record and performed a dizzying series of forward rolls for over 3 minutes to “Play that Funky Music.” Rising from the ground, with the world still spinning and her back covered in grass, she fell over a couple times before she made it to the mesh lawn chair to await her scores. Meanwhile I carefully snuck my music onto the record player, setting the needle on “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,’” just as Mrs. Pyecha called from the kitchen window, “Anyone want some Kool-Aid?” We all rushed inside for Twinkies and strawberry punch. Sugar and more sugar. Just the energy I would need to achieve the gold medal. But when we went outside, the worst possible thing happened. My “Hits of `66” had melted on the turntable.

Not only would my parents be angry at the loss of The Association’s “Cherish,” The Monkee’s “Last Train to Clarksville” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” but I had no music to which I could perform my brilliantly choreographed dance and cartwheel combos! I was forced to borrow Lynn’s record and adapt my moves to “I’m Your Boogie Man,” and I am quite sure that is why I went home with the brown paper bronze.

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As shared at Story Salon August 17, 2016 and in the one-woman show Once Upon Another Time February 22, 2020

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