Alex Naddour could barely hold it together. It was moments after he had been named to the U.S. Olympic team for the first time and the tears were rolling fast and free. He was surrounded by a throng of journalists and all he could think about was his family, the team that got him to moment in his life. They were what had steeled him that night in St. Louis, and many, many before it on the long road to Rio.
“This was a lifetime of hard work,” Naddour, 25, said as he sniffled. “My family, my friends, those who have supported me, I tried to put it all out there and that’s what I did. I’m so happy. I wish there were more words I could say. I’m an Olympian, finally.”
In gymnastics, those are the three most powerful words, aren’t they? “I’m an Olympian.” That “finally” was something Naddour had felt for a long time, having left the University of Oklahoma after his sophomore season in 2011 and setting his sights on London in 2012. He made it there, but as an alternate, so close he could taste his dreams in front of him yet worlds apart from where he wanted to be.
Naddour is the prime example of a village coming together to support its athlete. His dad, Mike, returned to coaching to head the team that Alex put together, which included wife and confidante, Hollie Vise, a world champion on the uneven bars in 2003.
“Because of my gymnastics background, I’ve always understood what it takes to get to that level and make it that far,” Vise said. “I wanted him to reach his goals and his dreams.”
After their daughter, Lilah, was born in February of this year, Hollie slept down the hall from Alex with her so he could get full nights of rest. There were few vacations, plenty of sacrifices and nights of long back-and-forth discussions about strategy, training and what Alex needed to do to maximize his chances of making a trip to Rio.
“She has pushed me day in and day out,” Naddour said of Vise. “She probably got really annoyed because we went over things every night, but we were pushing and pushing, and it finally happened. There’s not another word other than ‘happy’ for all of it.”
Vise was doing laundry one day at home when she had an idea: Wash Alex’s uniform in Lilah’s baby detergent so he could be reminded of the community around him during competition. To her surprise, he thought it was a great idea.
“When I’m doing the laundry, sometimes her clothes are mixed in with ours and they end up smelling like baby,” Vise explained. “I didn’t think that he would really remember it or think about it.”
But he did, smelling his uniform before every event and then pointing up at his family, Lilah in Hollie’s arms after each dismount.
“I’ve been doing this for my family,” Naddour said. “I would smell it before I went and told (my family) ‘I can’t miss, it’s impossible.’ It was a team effort. A lot of behind-the-scenes things.”
“Needless to say, I will be washing his Olympic uniform in Lilah’s detergent,” Vise said, laughing.
This has been a total team effort: Mike Naddour back in the gym – USA Youth Fitness Center which he owns in Arizona – as Alex’s coach, Hollie as his voice of reason and motivator, Lilah as a newfound source of inspiration.
Alex, training away from any other elite men’s gymnast, used this base as his own source of drive. Afternoon visits in the gym from Hollie and Lilah were both a reminder and an escape: This is what matters, this is what I’m doing it all for.
“We feel like he’s gotten to this point because of our teamwork,” Vise said. “Our whole family is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to make him successful. He thinks about that when he’s doing gymnastics. He felt connected to us. There is something about having your first kid in life that gives you perspective. I felt that more in that arena (in St. Louis) than I ever have before. He was landing his dismounts and pointing up to us. It’s a journey we have all been on.”
Though Hollie and Lilah will not make the journey to Rio next month, they did greet Naddour at the airport at home the night after trials, having not gotten to see Alex since he was named to the team because of an early flight back.
Lilah hates the car, but Hollie managed to get her there to see dad – along with a few dozen other Naddour supporters – in a hero-like welcome. Back at home in the place they had so carefully plotted a “what could be,” Alex and Hollie finally had a moment to themselves to soak it all in and celebrate. He was an Olympian.
“When I finally got home with just my family, I got to tell my wife, ‘We did it,’ and it really set in,” Naddour said. “I realized how lucky I am to do the sport that I love and have this outcome. It’s unbelievable.”
But what about Rio and the baby detergent? There’s a plan for that.
“(Hollie is) definitely going to have to wash my uniform in baby detergent” before I go, he said. “There’s no way around it. It helped me here at trials and it’s going to help me there at the Olympics.”