Saturday, February 6, 2016

Black History Month: Betty Okino

When Betty Okino's coaches asked her if she understood Romanian, Betty answered, "Of course."

Big mistake.

From then on, her coaches started speaking in Hungarian, so Betty couldn't tell the other girls what they were saying.

Okino's coaches were Marta and Bela Karolyi, famous for training Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, both of whom were Olympic all-around champions in women's gymnastics.

Elizabeth Anna "Betty" Okino, the daughter of a Ugandan father and Romanian mother, was born in Kampala, Uganda, on June 4, 1975. She came to the United States when she was three and, at first, was a competitive dancer. She began gymnastics at the age of nine, which is late in gymnastics circles. Her dance training served her well, though, and four years later, she was competing at the junior elite level.

In 1991, she won the American Cup competition, and she also won two medals at the World Championship--a bronze medal on the balance beam and a silver medal with her teammates. Undoubtedly, this contributed to her being selected to the Olympic gymnastics team in 1992. Okino and gymnast Dominque Dawes were the first African-American girls to be on an Olympic gymnastics team.

Six weeks before the Olympics, Okino fractured her back. She describes this as "quite literally the battle of good vs. evil". Would she give up, or would she hold on to her dream?

She chose the latter. In Barcelona, Spain, site of the 1992 Olympics, she won a bronze team medal, competed in the finals of the balance beam, and placed 12th in the all-around. Okino has described herself as being "tired and drained" by the time she got there. Despite her exhaustion, though, she was grateful for representing the United States at the Olympics.

The Code of Points, the handbook that is used by gymnastics judges, contains two skills--a triple pirouette on the balance beam and a dismount from the uneven bars--named the "Okino", after Betty. It is a type of fame achieved by very few gymnasts.

Okino retired from gymnastics after the Olympics and acted in several TV series. Today, she is married to Jacob Daniel DeVere, and together, they have pursued their interests in art, film and music. She can be found at One Drop Within the Wave, her website. 

In 2012, twenty years after Betty Okino's performance in Barcelona, the world watched as Gabrielle Douglas became the first African-American to win the all-around Olympic gold medal in women's gymnastics. Betty Okino deserves part of the credit for opening the door for her.

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