May 2021

Ode to Movement and Happy Feet

By Olga Connolly, Olympic Gold Medalist, I.S.S.A. Fitness Specialist and Exercise Therapy Coach

Life is about movement. Everything in the universe moves. Trees move and mighty mountains move. The stars in the universe and the planet we live on move. This summer, the Olympic Games of last year are moving on again. Olympians will move their bodies to “Citius, Altius, Fortius” – Faster, Higher, Stronger – the Olympic motto.

But stuff happens… In 1956, on a frisky morning at the Melbourne Olympic Games in Australia, I qualified for the afternoon finals in the women’s discus throw. It was just a couple of hours afterwards that our team physician padded a badly inflamed callus on my heel with tape. “When you get back to the stadium, soak it in cold water and change the bandage. We will clean it up after the finals.” No need for further words between Czechoslovakia’s top surgeon and me, a fourth-year medical student.

My foot soaked in a lonesome bucket in Melbourne’s Olympic Stadium’s dressing room until the call to walk onto the field. More than 100,000 spectators certainly should not see me limping, so I stood tall and walked slowly and confidently. Quickly the competition swung the spectators and the heel pain far away, leaving only one indelible memory. I lay on the manicured but fragrant grass meters away from the throwing ring where Nina Ponomaryova, the highly respected Olympic champion from the Helsinki Games was taking her last attempt of the competition. I heard a moderate applause which was followed by the Australian official’s tap on my shoulder with “You can get up now. You won the gold!”

Close to midnight, our team surgeon debrided my swollen heel and ordered me to stay off my feet for 2 days. But the spirit of Australia thought differently.  The Olympic Village recreation department organized a bus excursion to a magnificent beach whose sand dunes went for miles. Having only viewed the majesty of the Pacific Ocean from the plane, I would not miss this. Maybe I could at least dip my hands in its mighty waters. But first, while others rushed out from the bus onto the sand and surf, I limped to a sparkling sand dune, inhaled the salty surf aroma, and listened to the landings of the waves. Very soon a local man emerged seemingly from nowhere, waving a bottle of rum and shouting to me, “Go, go, take a swim!”  I pointed to my bandaged leg and tried to relay the doctor’s order.  He called back, “The ocean is the best doctor! Go! Go! Take a swim!” Then he took a new gulp and called again, “Go!” “Go!” Off came the bandage and I sprinted to the surf.

The following morning showed not a trace of injury from the surgery. Without any pain, I ran to the doctor’s office. Astonished, he said that he heard of such occurrences, but this was the first he had witnessed. He grabbed my hands and in a serious tone of voice said, “Take care of your gold medal and this healing memory for lifetime. These are gifts hard to come by.”

In this and all my future Olympic qualifying events I prayed, “God, please make my feet quick and my technique perfect.” Those 2 factors carried me through qualifications to compete in 4 more Olympics – from Melbourne in 1956 to Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, and the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Even though daily obligations of raising 4 young children relegated my sporting to mere avocation, focusing on keeping my feet healthy and quick was my super-power.

Moving to the United States in 1957 detoured me from medical studies to working as a Collegiate Intramural Athletics Manager, advocating for environmental protection and writing sports commentaries for local newspapers, along with being a wife and mother. Living in California near the foamy splashes of the Pacific Ocean continued to help me balance life and also kept us all close to its body-mind-spirit healing qualities. At 6 in the morning, shoes off, toes and foot soles awaken all the senses of the mind. Occasionally, nearby spotting a family of dolphins waltzing a few dozen yards away. Daily routines of morning head-to-toe movement, reminders of cultivating oneself similarly, toe to head, a self-care and mood-modifying necessity.

Managing all systems of our body allows for Olympic excellence in everyday life: Starting with the feet, gait, and body architecture, acknowledging postural integrity, and respecting human beings as miracles of nature’s engineering. Seeing the warmth of the finger and toe tips as a precious detail of circulatory aliveness.  In the last 20 years, I traded my medical studies for Certifications of Fitness Specialist, Personal Trainer, and Exercise as Therapy Coach. Today, during the Covid-19 gym closures, I am recommending daily walks, hand and feet exercises for warm-up, and several times a day standing tall along a wall. Start to walk not by leaning the upper body forward, but by staying tall and walking like the Queen of England, always ready with a wave acknowledging admiring crowds. Myself, I have a theory that since humans assumed a two-legged posture we began to sway with tree branches in the wind and soon developed our own rhythms and dances. So, let’s enjoy Strauss, mellow country, or the rock of the 70’s. Barefoot of course, toes to mind the connection to earth.

For nearly 12 years instructing at the University of California at Irvine I utilized the loveliness in the campus park and indoor martial arts studio for group classes. In neither did I teach to music as I believe that with individuals or small groups the greatest potential for success will happen if I teach clients to feel, listen, and observe themselves in both outer and inner detail. Without exception men and women alike reported increase in self-knowledge. Inside the studio, I allowed no shoes and nearly everyone, after the hesitancy of being barefoot, began to restore their balance, posture, and naturalness in behavior, and really enjoy it.  In the park, we used tennis-type shoes and on individual moveable mats, bare feet. Joking and laughing was our music and naturally promoted relaxation and wellbeing. Most of the private clients were faculty members or other adults in late 50’s and up, reticent in manners and prestigious in movements. Most came to our gym office at physician recommendations. All said that they looked for results. I said, “Such must come from themselves; but let’s go for it and the victory will be yours”!

Once, a young looking, elegant lady in her early 60’s sought help in prevention of falling while wearing “the only kind” of shoes she ever wore: sleek, 3-inch heel and pointed toe pumps. In our first session at the mat studio, barefoot, anxious, clutching my hand, she made a couple shuffle steps on 4 toes. The fifths were curled up under the fourth because of their inborn tininess.  So, we moved to the wall mirrors for pleasant dance movements that I use to acquaint clients with themselves – that is, viewing the beauty and versatility of their movement abilities as well as my noting their hindrances. The woman stretched and reached with visible pleasure that made me ask if she had ever practiced gymnastics. Only in school, she said; she clearly had had great P.E. teachers. “Has anyone ever looked at the little toe?” I asked. “No, it has not bothered me,” she replied. “Well, then if it doesn’t hurt, do you think you could move it a little bit?” I had her acquaint with herself further by millimeter releases of the tiny toes from captivity under the fourth ones. Forty-five minutes later she had 5 workable toes and homework for everyday to restore their strength. Several weeks later she was comfortable in high heels as well as tennis shoes, careful in gait, and getting in and out of her car without fear of falling.

There was another woman coming to the gym to ride a stationary bike. For her 99th birthday, her family gave her a year of lessons with me. A colleague said, “It will be your fault if she does not make it to a 100.” A former administrator at a midwestern university, although frail and hard of hearing, she was packed with intellectual energy. Together, therefore, we established training objective. She felt balanced on the bike but walked using one or sometime two hiking canes. Thus, beside general exercises, we established goals of her sitting down and raising on her own and using canes only in unsafe terrains. In a year she walked sprightly to her 100th birthday party at the campus pizza restaurant.

A physician referred to the gym a star professor to whom one bowed without hesitation for exercises not requiring bending or twisting. That is what the martial arts studio is for, I said, my mind sending thanks to the afterlife of Moshe Feldenkrais, the mid-century engineer, scientist, and fitness enthusiast who detailed inner and outer body architectural interconnectedness through proprioception and movement, thus increasing self-awareness and self-healing. It was well suited to a person of analytical mind and agile footwork which as weeks went by showed some leftover athleticism. One morning I suggested a warm-up jog along the indoor basketball courts and brought along a basketball. He showed obvious familiarity with it and so I asked, “Would you like to play a HORSE game?”  “Sure,” he said. “OK, you go first,” I said. The game consists of 5 shots on the basket along the free throw area. Each scored basket earns a letter and progress to the next station. A missed basket gives the ball to the next person.

Olga Fikotova Connolly threw the discus for the United States in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. She had won the gold medal for her throw at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. She would go on to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in 1964, 1968, and 1972, where she was elected to carry the US Flag during the opening ceremony.

My client scored H-O-R-S before he missed a basket! “I’m not playing!” I exclaimed, for good reason. Only then did he explain that over 40 years ago he was a star in his high school team. Afterward in study pursuits, he found no time for basketball, but that morning, to his own surprise as well as mine, his skills reappeared. How amazing it is to be a human being! Feet planted on the Earth, dreams reaching to the universe and minds storing experiences for times of need!

One of the great ballerinas of the 20thcentury, Maya Plisetskaya, was quoted once, extending her foot with appreciation, that a foot size 6.5 can deliver such versatility of actions. Beside fabulous dancers, how many people can see their ankles and feet as a masterpiece? A pyramid of 26 bones, 31 joints, and 20 muscles, ligaments, and variety of connective and vascular tissues and nerves all of which contend with nuances of gravity and instantly respond to a variety of stressors every moment of our lifetime! A nation is healthy when its people are healthy.

I tell my stories to help inspire movement and bring attention to the importance of loving our perfectly structured human body, all of it – head to toe. Let us put our nation on its feet, literally and physically.  Ode to Movement!

Olga Fikotova Connolly is a 5-time Olympian. She won the gold medal for Czechoslovakia in the discus throw at the 1956 Olympics Games in Australia. It was there that she met American hammer thrower Harold Connolly whom she eventually married. Now in her 80s, Connolly’s career focuses on holistic fitness studies and training in Nevada. 

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