Returning Olympian Thies has seen a lot during her gymnastics career

Returning Olympian Thies has seen a lot during her gymnastics career

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SALEM, Ore. – It came to be known as Ping Pong Diplomacy, an acknowledgment of the role the sport played in the normalization of relations between two Cold War adversaries in the early 1970s.

It wasn't the only sport, however, that helped thaw an icy chill that then existed between the People's Republic of China and the United States. Urbana native Nancy Thies Marshall can attest to that because she lived it, participating in a historic meeting of the countries' gymnastics teams in May 1973 at New York's Madison Square Garden.

"It had so much more importance than just a sporting event," Marshall said.

Just as Sino-U.S. relations have endured in the decades since, Marshall's involvement in a memorable gesture of cooperation remains an iconic image of newfound goodwill between two world powers.

How iconic? Pick any "ABC Wide World of Sports" anniversary show since then and you're bound to see a segment on a Chinese pianist coming to the musical rescue of a frazzled American gymnast.

"I was really desperate because you can't do a floor exercise routine without music," Marshall said.

The then-Urbana High student and 1972 Olympian found herself in that predicament as 13,857 fans waited through three failed attempts to play her music. Instead of the sounds of the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the audio cassette yielded only garbled sounds.

Quick-thinking U.S. coach Muriel Grossfeld proposed an alternate plan. Through an interpreter, the UI alumnae asked pianist Jhou Jiasheng – the Chinese team's accompanist – if he would improvise music as Marshall performed.

The rest is gymnastics – and diplomatic – history.

"Nobody remembers who won that meet, but they do remember the girl from Urbana whose music didn't work and how the Chinese came to the rescue," Marshall said. "It was just one of those symbolic, serendipitous moments that certainly could never ever been planned.

"The fact that he was willing to play for me, it just sort of captured the meaning of the purpose behind those two teams competing – which was really to develop friendship."

Stories to tell

It's a story the transplanted Illinoisan expects to tell – perhaps several times – during a return home. Starting Thursday, Marshall will speak at several public events in C-U. Look for the 1979 UI graduate to draw upon her experiences as a four-year member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team and a seven-year stint as an on-air analyst with NBC Sports.

"I feel like there were a lot of areas when I was competing and working for NBC that my career kind of blended in with what was happening historically," Marshall said.

Through gymnastics, Marshall traveled to more than a dozen countries, at times becoming an eyewitness to events and trends that her three children would later read about in history books. She visited the Soviet Union when it still was a relatively closed nation. She saw firsthand the effects of apartheid in South Africa.

"It was just eye-opening," Marshall said.

And she viewed the striking economic gains China made after emerging from years as an isolated society and engage with the rest of the world.

"Just amazing growth," said Marshall, whose first travel assignment for NBC Sports was to Beijing, a trip she made twice more in the early '80s.

Now 51 and employed as a human resources professional, Marshall's connection to China since that memorable meet in 1973 remains strong. Not only did she strike up a lasting friendship with Jhou – they began an annual exchange of Christmas cards – but she helped arrange legal assistance for the pianist and his wife to relocate to the United States. Through an intermediary, Jhou got word to Marshall during the turbulent times of Tiananmen Square protests and crackdowns that he was eager to leave his homeland.

"He had made it through the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s and was fearful of things like that happening again," she said.

Marshall's own writings have circulated in China, too. She is co-author of the book "Women Who Compete" that was published in 1988 and contains a chapter on her experiences at the historic U.S.-China meet in New York. Her sister, Susie Harrison, has lived in China for years, working as an English instructor at a university there. When Harrison distributed the book to her students, one asked for permission to translate Thies' chapter for publication in a nationally circulated Chinese magazine.

"So (that story) really has gone around the world," Marshall said.

Age-old tale

Along with the rest of the world, Marshall was intently watching as Beijing hosted the Olympics last year. In women's gymnastics, a firestorm of controversy erupted with allegations that some members of the gold medal-winning Chinese women's gymnastics team were younger than 16 and thus underage by current IOC rules.

"My first reaction is, well, nothing changes," Marshall said. "I was in (international gymnastics) for many, many years and there was always something – people trying to fudge on ages or names or whatever."

For Marshall, one particularly memorable deception occurred in the early '80s while she covered an international meet in Los Angeles for NBC Sports. Organizers contracted with Romania's gymnastics federation for Ecaterina Szabo, then the European junior champion, to compete. The meet was scheduled to air tape-delayed about two months later. In the interim, fellow TV analyst Bart Conner covered an overseas meet that included Szabo. Conner discovered that the Szabo who competed in L.A. was not the same person he later saw at the other meet. Apparently, another Romanian gymnast took Szabo's place – and assumed her identity – in the U.S. When NBC learned of the switch, it canceled airing the meet.

"It's been done by lots of people in many other instances," Marshall said of deceptive practices in women's gymnastics, "so it wouldn't surprise me at all if the (Chinese) athletes were indeed not as old as they were said to have been."

In Marshall's experience, no gymnastics topic has generated more interest over the years than the two-time U.S. champion's participation in the infamous Munich Games.

At 15, she was the youngest member of a U.S. team that placed fourth – its highest Olympic finish since 1948. But any athletic feat in the 1972 Olympics would be overshadowed by the hostage-taking and eventual murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists.

"When people ask which Olympics I was in, the next thing they'll say is, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' " Marshall said.

Marshall and her family left Munich several days before the attack, traveling to Copenhagen to visit friends before returning to the United States.

At the time, Marshall's mood was as high as the airplane that transported her.

"The Olympic Village was amazing," she said. "State-of-the-art facilities. It was just this amazing mountaintop experience."

Grim news

Word of the attack somehow reached the plane on the trip back to the States. The situation still wasn't resolved when Marshall got home and she watched it unfold on TV to its grim end. Images of German sharpshooters stationed atop the building where she had resided were especially unnerving, she said.

In retrospect, Marshall understands how the terrorists so easily gained entry to the Village. For postwar West Germany, these Games were an opportunity to present a new image to the world – and particularly to Jews – in the wake of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.

"Because the Germans were so determined to put forth this image of a welcoming, open competition – a world party – they bent over backward," Marshall said.

That approach led to lax security, which Marshall experienced firsthand. She was issued two picture IDs: one from the U.S. Olympic Committee and another for the Olympic Village. Either would gain her entry into the Village.

Marshall lent IDs to a friend – "She was probably 5 inches taller than me and had red hair" – and to her sister.

"It was so easy for them to get in," Marshall said.

Too easy, as the terrorists proved. Future Olympics – and, in a sense, the world – would never be the same.

"As I have grown older I have come to understand how that moment in history touched the world in so many more ways than competitively," Marshall said. "I think (terrorism) moved into a whole other realm that maybe up until that time it had been on the fringe. ... It became a world issue at that event."

Making the rounds

Nancy Thies Marshall will make a number of public appearances during her visit to Champaign-Urbana. A look at a portion of her itinerary:
10 a.m. — Speaking to students at Yankee Ridge Elementary School in Urbana, her alma mater.
Noon — Speaking at the Lunchtime Lecture series at OLLI at the Research Park, 2021 S. First St., C. Cost: $8.25 for a box lunch (to be paid at the door). Registration (217-244-9141) required.
7:30 p.m. —  Speaking at the Irwin Academic Services Center, 402 E. Armory Ave., C. Free and open to public.
Noon — To receive the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation at its annual awards luncheon. Tickets are $30, with proceeds going to support the foundation. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 217-384-4332.
Noon — Speaking at the Urbana Rotary Club, 100 W. Country Club Road, U.