You could list many reasons why a highly skilled and dedicated athlete might miss out on achieving their ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics – injuries and better opponents being selected to represent their country perhaps being the most common reasons.
But how about a leg bite by an unseen insect on the very day of the parade of athletes during the Olympic opening ceremonies? That would likely rank around 999,999th on a list of one million reasons. Yet it did come oh-so-close to derailing the aspirations of 19-year-old West Vancouver gymnast Anita Botnen in 1984.
Anita started in gymnastics at the West Van Recreation Centre at the age of five with her elder sister Linda and younger sister Sandra and eventually caught the bug for the sport.
But it was the bug that got her during the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics exactly 28 years ago on July 28, 1984, that almost sabotaged her biggest moment in gymnastics.
Anita had made the six-member Canadian women’s Olympic gymnastics team that year after a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. She’d been a senior national team member since 1981 and prior to that was on the national junior team. She had competed in the world championships in Moscow in 1981 and in Budapest in 1983, along with the World University Games in 1983 in Edmonton (which she considers one of her two best performances) and would later compete in the 1985 World University Games in Kobe, Japan.
Her 1984 season started on the upside as she placed first in the Canadian championships in May. Then it turned downward as a back injury from overtraining sidelined her for the Olympic Trials. However, she was petitioned onto the Canadian team as an alternate – training with the team in Huntington Beach, California, as the Olympics approached – thanks to her past performances. Then she vaulted (if you’ll pardon the pun) onto the team proper when a teammate suffered an unfortunate shoulder injury (usual reason #1 or 2 for an athlete missing out on their life’s goal) just two weeks before the Olympics were to begin.
On July 19, 1984, nine days before the Olympics, she celebrated her 19th birthday with her teammates and Canadian actor Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame (who was the team attaché) singing Happy Birthday to her.
Could it get any better than this? Well it could get a lot worse.
“It’s hard to say where it happened,” she tells me on the phone the other day from Florida where she was vacationing recently, referring to that long-ago insect bite. “It’s still a bit of a mystery. My knee was hot and swollen and very big. It inflamed really quickly. I could not fully bend my knee. It sounds really unusual but nobody really understood what was happening.
“I limped into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. There was a lot of excitement in the air. It was a very exciting time. I ended up sitting in the infield and watched the opening ceremonies and the lighting of the flame – the whole bit – between the legs of those standing up. It was kind of tough. You can imagine hundreds of athletes all standing and I’m sitting on the ground with a big ice-pack on my knee and trying to see between their legs. It was fun and distressful at the same time. At the end, it was the swimmers, I believe, who carried me off the field because it was even hard to walk.
“It was an insect bite on the very front of my knee that introduced an infection in my knee. It became bursitis. It felt like a huge trauma. It was hard to bend and with gymnastics you have to have a full range of motion. So I was very worried because I couldn’t bend it all the way and I wasn’t [going to be] able to participate. What are the odds of that? It was a very unusual thing. Now, all of a sudden all these years of training were going to be up in the cloud all because of a silly insect bite.
“The coaches were questioning me as to whether I was going to be able to perform or not and I had major doubts. We didn’t even have a diagnosis. So there was this mystery. The path to the end is not always smooth I guess. There are always ups and downs in training and that’s to be expected. This was more unusual.”
The competition hadn’t even started and Anita was already in headlines back home. The Vancouver Province blared, “Botnen Badly Bitten.” The Vancouver Sun announced, “Insect bite slows gymnast Botnen.”
Fortunately the gymnastics competition didn’t begin for two days. “I was able to get through the compulsories and another two days passed before the optionals which is a very demanding set of routines. By that time it had cleared up. It all worked out in the end.”
Despite the ups and downs of 1984 being what she calls “a rocky road for a couple of months,” she remembers her performance at the Olympics as one of her best-ever.
Some 65 gymnasts competed in the compulsory and optional rounds with the 36 highest-scoring advancing to the final. Anita entered the final in 18th place, third among Canadians, and wound up 17th, scoring 9.65 in vault, 9.75 in uneven bars, 9.45 in balance beam and 9.40 in floor exercise for a total of 38.25 to go with her 37.775 preliminary score and a total score of 76.025. Mary Lou Retton of the U.S. captured a couple of 10.00s to win the title.
Anita, who went to Ridgeview Elementary and graduated from West Van Secondary in 1983, began concentrating on gymnastics under WV Rec Centre coaches Keith “Curly” Russell and his wife Judy Russell, and later with Gladys Hartley and the Flicka Gym Club and eventually Mike Vossen and choreographer Debra Brown.
After the Olympics, Anita took a scholarship to the University of Florida where she got a degree in physiotherapy and met her husband John Fisher. They now live in Brookline, Massachusetts, with their three children aged 13, 10 and five.
She hadn’t thought about that insect bite in a long time. Until I called to bug her about it. Of course that’s the kind of bugging she didn’t mind so much.
This is episode 464 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.