The move was called a piked Cuervo vault—a running approach, a handspring off the vaulting horse, then a half-twist and a back flip to a landing on both feet. It was Oct. 22, 1987, at the World Gymnastics Championships in Rotterdam, Holland, and Tim Daggett knew that if he nailed the move he would be in contention for a medal. “I thought,” he says, “that it would be the best vault I had ever done in my life.”
It was not. Daggett landed stiff-legged and slightly off balance. “I’ve landed much worse than that,” he says, but never to a more devastating effect. “When I hit the ground, I heard a very loud sound,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘What was that?’ Then I looked down at my left leg and my tibia was sticking straight out of it.” He had smashed two bones, the tibia and fibula, and in the process had severed an artery. Rushed to Rotterdam’s Dijkzigt Hospital, Daggett, a member of the 1984 team that won the Olympic gold medal for the U.S. in Los Angeles, was told that he needed immediate surgery or he would lose his leg.
Nine months later, after five operations, numerous skin grafts and countless hours of traction and sedation followed by grueling physical therapy, the 26-year-old gymnast has battled back, hastening his recovery to meet a deadline that cannot be deferred. Traveling to the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City this week, Daggett knows his chances of qualifying for a trip to Seoul in September are slim. But his hopes were buoyed last month by a remarkable performance at the McDonald’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships, where he scored a 9.85 on the parallel bars (one judge gave him a 10) and a 9.90 in his best event, the pommel horse. “Once I found out I could come back, I just had to try,” he says. “When I thought I might have to give up gymnastics, I worried that giving up would then get easier to do everywhere in life, and I don’t ever want to do that.”
The fierceness of Daggett’s will has never been questioned, nor has it ever been tested as it has in the last two years. Before his catastrophic leg injury, he had already suffered three discouraging setbacks in less than a year. In October 1986, he needed to have his chronically weak ankles surgically rebuilt to relieve the pain caused by the constant pounding that gymnastics inflicts. During a workout the following winter, he ruptured a disk in his neck when he missed the high bar and fell on his head. Doctors told him he would need surgery and that his days as a gymnast were over. Instead he opted for traction and a brace. Six months later, his neck was healed. Then he came down with mononucleosis and reluctantly spent a week in bed before resuming light workouts. Then came Rotterdam. Mentally and physically, “It was like he was beaten up,” says his coach, Soviet émigré Yefim Furman. “A lot of people would have given up, but he loves the sport.”
Ankles aside, it’s a sport that Daggett is impressively built for. “They call him Raging Bull because he’s so strong and explosive,” says Furman. Adds Peter Vidmar, one of Daggett’s ’84 Olympic teammates: “He attacks the apparatus and never holds back.”
The third of seven children, born and raised in West Springfield, Mass., Tim has always been a handful. “I had the worst time keeping him in his crib,” says his mother, Connie, laughing. “He practically pole-vaulted out of it. I’d say, ‘Goodnight, Timmy,’ and the next thing I knew, he had almost beaten me to the door.” Growing up, Tim liked most sports but was instantly attracted to the individualism of gymnastics. “In a team sport, the hardest thing for me to take was when we lost,” says Daggett. “I’d be trying as hard as I could, but one kid can’t do it, and I got frustrated because I couldn’t control the team’s destiny.”
His father, John, a high school teacher and owner of a music store, pushed Tim to be not just a good gymnast but the best one around. “As a gymnast, you’re a little guy in a big man’s world,” says Tim, who’s 5’5″, 145 lbs. “I never really thought of it that way, but I think my father did. He looked at it like, ‘You appear to have less than other people, but you are going to compensate for that.’ He was very intense.” Daggett speaks of his father, who was divorced from Connie in 1983, in the past tense because he says he has not seen him in years and does not even know where he lives. “That’s one part of his life he doesn’t talk too much about,” says Vidmar, his best friend.
Daggett accepted a scholarship to UCLA in 1981 and quickly emerged as one of America’s top college gymnasts. He and fellow Bruins Vidmar and Mitch Gaylord made up half the ’84 Olympic squad. When they won, Daggett could not bask in the limelight without focusing on what it had taken to get to the winner’s stand. “I was thinking about this one week of training three months before the Games—the hardest I ever had—and I didn’t think I would make it,” he recalls. “But I didn’t quit and I was feeling proud about that.”
Now to the stress of training is added the apprehension of sustaining another serious, perhaps disabling injury. “I have to stay as far away from pain as possible because if I get real pain, that means the leg is not stable and it could be ready to break—and we can’t have that!” says Daggett with a nervous laugh. “But I’m going to be real tough,” he adds, fixing his listener intently with his large brown eyes. “It’s going to come down to the wire, and when it gets to that point, I’m going to do what it takes to win.”