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SHATTERED : For Tim Daggett, His Broken Leg Is Only the Latest Setback to Be Overcome

November 27, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

ABC Radio's Vic Holchak was sitting in the mezzanine level, about 25 rows from the floor in Rotterdam's Ahoy Sports Palace, when he heard a loud popping sound. Then he saw American gymnast Tim Daggett crumple to the mat, his face twisted with pain.

"I turned to the reporter from International Gymnastics (magazine), and she had her hand over her mouth," Holchak said. "I said, 'Oh God, did we just hear a bone snap?' She just closed her eyes."

Mary Lou Retton, who was in the Netherlands for NBC, said she could hear the sound of bones breaking from the network's booth, also in the mezzanine level on the other side of the arena from where Daggett fell.

"I just ached all over," she said.

Daggett would have been all too glad to trade his ache for hers. On the opening day of the World Championships five weeks ago, in the team competition, he attempted a piked Cuervo vault, handspringing into the air with a half-twist, then backflipping. But he strayed off course and landed crooked.

Daggett knew immediately that his left leg was broken and, characteristic of a world-class athlete, already had begun to wonder during a frantic ambulance ride to the nearest hospital how long it would take him to recover this time. Only eight months before, he ruptured a disk in his neck during a workout on the horizontal bar and was advised by several doctors to quit the sport.

He had heard that before. Even before the neck injury, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and sometimes even people who had just met him told him that he should retire.

"What more can you do, Tim?" they would ask. "You've already won an Olympic gold medal. You're 25. Get on with your life."

Yet, he was determined not to let an injury force him out of the sport. It was not for timidity that his former UCLA teammates nicknamed him Raging Bull. He returned to competition in June at the national championships, finishing third in the all-around, first on the pommel horse and third on the horizontal bar. In August, at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, he won three more medals--golds in the team competition and on the pommel horse and a bronze in the all-around.

Now, in the emergency room at Rotterdam's Dijkzigt Hospital, the doctors, who fortunately spoke English, told him that the tibia and the fibula in his left leg were broken. But that, they said, was the least of his problems. Their concern was a severed artery in the leg.

When they told him that an operation was necessary, Daggett, still not grasping the severity of the injury, said he would rather wait until he returned home to Los Angeles. They said the surgery had to be done immediately or he would lose the leg.

"It's not fair," Daggett thought. "Why me?"

Connie Daggett told her son that his tumbling would lead to ruptured disks and broken legs, although, in all fairness to him, it should be pointed out that most of her warnings came before he was a teen-ager. She did not know what she feared most, him climbing the tall trees behind their house in West Springfield, Mass., or him raking the leaves from the trees into a pile and leaping into them from the top of the garage. Him? He seemed to fear nothing.

He found his place one afternoon when he was 11, his mother having taken him to the gym at the Parks and Recreation Dept. to pick up a younger daughter who was enrolled in a gymnastics class.

"The first thing I saw as soon as I walked in the door, was a guy on the high bar," Daggett said one afternoon recently at his Palms apartment. "He was doing giant swings. He let go, and he did this thing where he was flying through the air, did a backflip and landed right on his feet.

"I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'This looks like unbelievable fun.' I usually got yelled at for doing things that were fun. This was something I wouldn't get yelled at for. The next week, I signed up, and I've been doing it ever since."

Daggett sighed, acknowledging that backflips are not something he will do again in the immediate future.

He came to UCLA as a scholarship athlete in 1981 and emerged as one of the nation's best gymnasts with his first international competition in 1982. At the NCAA championships in 1984, he finished second in the all-around and won the pommel horse, the rings and the parallel bars as UCLA won its first national championship. But it was at the Summer Olympics that he had his greatest competitive moment, scoring a perfect 10 on the horizontal bar to clinch the first gold medal ever for the United States in team competition. Four days later, he won a bronze medal on the pommel horse.

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