By Anna Rose Johnson

From precocious junior to valiant veteran to successful coach, Kim Zmeskal has done it all in this sport. Today, in honor of her birthday, we’re revisiting the pivotal moments of Zmeskal’s celebrated career!

photo by Grace Chiu

Always an active child, Zmeskal enrolled in gymnastics classes at the age of six and began training under the tutelage of Bela Karolyi just one year later. Inspired by the work ethic and success of her teammate Mary Lou Retton (the first American woman to win the Olympic all-around), Zmeskal grew determined to reach the highest level of the sport.

Dedicated and eager to prove herself, Zmeskal competed in her first-ever U.S. Championships in 1988, finishing eighth and snagging a spot on the junior national team. She also watched as her older teammates at Karolyi’s went on to qualify to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where they placed fourth in the team final. Just twelve years old during those Games, Zmeskal would have to wait another four years for her opportunity to bring glory to the United States at the Olympics.

Here’s a video of her feisty “Carmen” floor routine at the 1988 Alamo City Championships:

The 1989 U.S. Championships marked the acceleration of Zmeskal’s career in the lead-up to Barcelona 1992. Still competing as a junior, she soon became known nationwide as one of the top gymnasts to watch, with explosive tumbling reminiscent of Mary Lou Retton. “It’s very exciting to follow in the footsteps of Phoebe [Mills], Kristie [Phillips], and Mary Lou,” said Kim after the meet.[1]

Zmeskal’s first major senior competition was the 1990 McDonald’s American Cup in Farifax, Virginia, where she won the gold medal ahead of Russia’s Natalia Kalinina and Japan’s Mari Kosuge. Scoring a 39.599 in the all-around, Zmeskal triumphed over Kalinina by a mere 0.149. “It was the best meet of my life,” Zmeskal told reporters afterward. “I’m excited…this is my most important year.”[2]

Zmeskal continued to impress audiences throughout 1990, winning the U.S. Championships all-around title and competing at the prestigious Goodwill Games in Seattle. By 1991, Zmeskal was considered to be the main “rival” of the Soviet Union’s Svetlana Boguinskaia, a two-time Olympic champion in 1988. Journalists were quick to seize on the idea of this rivalry, contrasting Zmeskal’s power with Boguinskaia’s elegant lines.

At the highly-anticipated 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis, Zmeskal and Boguinskaia’s rivalry came to a thrilling climax as they both sought to claim the all-around gold. In the end, Zmeskal prevailed by 0.112, and her bouncy, flawlessly-executed “Rock Around the Clock” floor routine has since become one of the definitive classic U.S. gymnastics performances.

“It’s like a dream,” Zmeskal said. “I was almost scared to walk up there [for the medal ceremony] because I wasn’t sure if I heard it right.”[3]

The 1992 Olympic year was a challenging one for Zmeskal. The U.S. team’s arduous selection process for the Barcelona Olympics was difficult for the athletes, and Zmeskal began to suffer a stress fracture in her leg right before the Games. Mistakes on floor exercise led to her 10th-place finish in the all-around, but she helped the U.S. to win the team bronze—a feat that the U.S. had not been able to accomplish at the previous Olympics.

“Of course, I was disappointed with how it ended up, but I’m still able to go on with my life and am grateful for all the other success I had,” remarked Kim.[4]

Unfortunately, injuries hampered both of Zmeskal’s comebacks—one attempted in 1994 and derailed by a torn ACL, and the other in 1998 and ended by a torn Achilles tendon. But both of Zmeskal’s comebacks expressed her love of gymnastics and her investment in the sport.

Today, Zmeskal and her husband, Chris Burdette, own and coach at a successful gym called Texas Dreams, and together they’ve coached countless athletes to the elite and NCAA level. With their guidance and coaching, Ragan Smith has qualified to two straight World Championships teams, and they have several gymnasts looking ahead toward Tokyo 2020—including Annie Beard, who has the same infectiously fun floor routines as her coach!

 

 

 

[1] International Gymnast, October 1989, pg. 14

[2] “A new Karolyi star born, 14-year-old Kim Zmeskal,” The Baltimore Sun, March 5, 1990, pg. 6B

[3] “Zmeskal Strikes Gold for U.S.,” The Atlanta Constitution, September 14, 1991, pg. 39

[4] International Gymnast, April 1994, pg. 10

 

Anna Rose Johnson writes about women’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics. She loves Whippets, brownies, and full-twisting double layouts. Her writing portfolio can be viewed at: https://annarosejohnson.contently.com