MONTREAL, Canada—In Rio, Samir Ait Said, a leading gymnast for France became famous for something an elite athlete never wants to become known for—suffering a horrific injury on live TV.
During the preliminaries of the men’s competition at the Olympics, Said, then 26, ran down the vault runway, jumped on the spring board, did a half turn onto the vaulting table before launching up into a double pike off. Said fell on landing and when he rolled over to his back, the problem was immediately apparent—his left leg was dangling below the knee.
Samir told me that he had landed off-balance, with most of the force being borne by his left leg. Though the gymnasts land on mats, competition landings are often called “hard landings” by athletes. The mats are not nearly as soft as they appear, especially when you are dropping out of the air after flipping up and backwards. Said didn’t talk about landing on the mats at all, and used the word “floor” instead, although this could be chalked up to the fact that he was gamely trying to speak to me in English instead of French through a translator. (At times, Regis Walker, one of the French gymnastics federation press representatives, jumped in to help with translation and clarification.)
Here’s the score Said gave for that vault: “The floor: 1, my bone: 0,” he said. He suffered a compound fracture on the attempt, with breaks in both the tibia and fibula.
Walker, Said, and I were sitting at a table in the hotel bar in Montreal, the host city for this year’s world artistic gymnastics championships, as he recounted the vault in Rio. It was something he had surely done at least a hundred times before our conversation; shortly before our interview, Said had been talking to French TV. When we spoke on Friday afternoon, the day before the men’s ring finals, it had been a year and change since that infamous injury, and Said was back in competitive gymnastics. Said had qualified to the medal round on this event in fourth place. He also qualified to the rings final in Rio before his horrific accident. After the injury, he was forced to give up his spot in the final.
The accident in Rio wasn’t his first time dealing with Olympic disappointment. Back in 2012, Said injured his knee just two months before the Games while competing on the vault at the 2012 European Championships. “It’s impossible. Not two times,” Said recalled thinking when he realized he was going to miss out on his chance to win an Olympic medal yet again.
Despite that second lightning strike of bad luck, Said claimed that he never questioned that he’d return to the sport after his compound fracture healed. He underwent surgery in Rio and was walking with assistance within a couple of days. It was never a question of “if” but “when.”
“[I was] focused to go back to the gym,” Said told me.
“You never had a doubt?” I asked.
“No doubt,” he answered immediately.
Said and his coaching team decided to opt for a slower return to form. After all, the next world championships were more than a year after the Olympics, certainly enough time to prepare one event for competition. While a year may not seem like a whole lot of time for an athlete to return to elite-level competition, Said noted that he could’ve been ready by April if that had been the plan, and if he hadn’t been preparing for his physical therapy exams instead. Though he was doing rehab throughout his academic studies, he said he only resumed serious, full-time gymnastics training in July, just three months before the world championships. He only prepared one event, the rings, for this competition.
Said certainly looks the part of a rings specialist: his biceps bulged, straining the elastic of the short-sleeved France shirt he wore for our conversation. You can often, if not always, guess a male gymnast’s best event simply by looking at him. Longer, leaner types tend to excel at the swinging events in men’s gymnastics whereas the more hulked out guys tend to be exceptional on upper body apparatuses like the rings. For instance, up-and-coming American star Yul Moldauer is quite lean, and won his bronze medal on floor exercise with twisting passes, the physics and mechanics of which favor his slim physique. (He’s also quite good on parallel bars though high bar is surprisingly weak.) Moldauer, on the other hand, is not strong on the rings. Not like Said.
Before Rio, Said had won several international medals on the apparatus, including the European title in 2013 and the European Championships silver medal in 2015. While he was not a lock for the podium, he was still a contender for a medal in a field lousy with buff strongmen.
Said told me that he plans to vault and do floor competitively again, but he won’t be going for the crazy vaults that you see medal aspirants do on that event. “Not double front-half. That’s finished. And Tsukahara double pike—it’s finished too.” The second vault he mentioned was the one that ended with his gruesome injury in Rio.
“I’ll do vault only for my team because they need me. Floor, the same,” Said continued. He will do enough on those pieces to be valuable contributor to the French team effort and point total but not so much difficulty that he’ll risk another catastrophic injury. His individual medal hopes will rest on rings and rings alone. “I’m not crazy,” he insisted.
Said hopes to compete at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo, where he wants to challenge for the gold medal on the rings. He doesn’t plan to stop competing when his career is over, either. “After my career, I [will] go to MMA,” he told me. The person he most wanted to meet while in Canada was MMA legend Georges St. Pierre, he told me. Said looked visibly disappointed when I admitted that I didn’t know who he was talking about.
Said has not waited for his gymnastics career to be over to start preparing for his second act in the octagon. Said already trains a couple of times a week in MMA in addition to his gymnastics workouts.
I asked his coach, Rodolphe Bouché, what he thought of his pupil’s hobby. Many gymnastics coaches discourage their athletes from engaging in dangerous activities, like skiing, while they are in training. Gymnasts already put their ACLs at risk in the gym and their coaches don’t want them doing that on the ski slopes, too.
But Bouché said he didn’t disapprove of Said’s extracurricular activities. “For his cardio development, it’s very good because he must lose some kilos,” Bouché said. Said laughed but also gave his coach a little bit of side eye. Bouché added that he liked MMA because it was a full-body activity. “Not only legs, not only arms, but whole body.”
Said doesn’t regard MMA as dangerous, or at least not as dangerous as the sport that injured his legs. “I [was] never injured in boxing. Sometimes my knees, yeah, okay, but not like this,” he said, motioning to his surgically repaired left leg.
Of course, the risk from sports like boxing are cumulative—the more blows you take, the greater the likelihood of a head injury down the line. But yes, Said is correct that his tibia is probably safer in boxing than in gymnastics.
Bouché described the MMA that his athlete practiced as “sweet MMA,” meaning that Said didn’t do any kicks; only floor fighting. Said showed me a video of himself grappling on the floor back in France. I don’t know enough about MMA to tell you much about whether Said was skilled or not, but I can confirm that he was grappling. “No kicking,” Said said. And then he winked.
It was hard to argue that gymnastics isn’t dangerous at the 2017 world championships; the notable number of injuries that took place during training or competition at the 2017 world championships made for a compelling counterargument. Several pre-meet favorites went down, including Kohei Uchimura, who is regarded as the greatest male gymnast of all time. I watched two women rupture their Achilles, one guy suffer what appeared to be an ACL tear on floor exercise, and another get carried out on a stretcher. There were other injuries, and a whole bevy of weird falls on top of that. Many blamed the lack of training time on the competition apparatuses and the blinding stadium lighting for the seeming spike in falls and injuries.
Given all that was happening on the competition floor in Montreal, it was nerve wracking to watch someone with Said’s injury track record mount the rings for his routine, even if the apparatus doesn’t have the reputation of being the most injurious. (Though there was this one time where spectators watched Blaine Wilson’s bicep collapse while on rings on live TV.)
Said hit his routine very well in the finals. He even stuck his dismount, which is the only part of the exercise that put pressure on his surgically repaired left leg. (He does seem to be favoring his right leg upon landing.) As he pulled his heels together and saluted the judges, Said looked both thrilled and relieved.
This redemptive performance, however, didn’t result in a medal. The French gymnast placed fourth, just as a he had during qualifications, just a hair away from the bronze. He’ll keep fighting.