Betty Okino (full name: Elizabeth Anne Okino) was born in Africa to a Romanian mother and a Ugandan father. She decided to become a gymnast after seeing Mary Lou Retton‘s performance in the 1984 Olympics.
A successful dancer prior to coming to the sport of gymnastics (Betty and her brother competed as a pair and won many tap dancing competitions), Betty progressed quickly, beginning at the age of nine and turning elite at age 13.
Betty then decided to take the next step toward her Olympic dream. She moved to Houston by herself, to train with the legendary coach Bela Karolyi. At first, Karolyi refused to accept Betty into the ‘Karolyi Six-Pack’, and she had to train with a lower group. But a couple of weeks later, when Betty beat two of his girls in a competition, Karolyi had no other choice but to take her on.
Shortly thereafter, Betty’s grandmother came to live with her, and provided unrelenting support — even learning how to drive at the age of 70 to transport Betty to and from the gym.
Betty wasn’t your typical American gymnast. Fluent in Romanian, she would often tell the other girls what Bela and Marta were saying about them behind their backs. (The Karolyi’s eventually learned that Betty could speak Romanian, and were forced to speak Hungarian, instead.)
Betty was also tall and graceful, and towered over the other gymnasts (see above photo). At first it was thought that her height would be a disadvantage, but instead Betty became one the most elegant and skillful gymnasts of all time, creating a move that bears her name: ‘The Okino’, a triple pirouette on the beam.
But being tall and slender also led to injuries from the brutal pounding her body took in training and competition. In 1991, Betty had a stress fracture in her right elbow and doctors told her she needed to rest. “But that really wasn’t an option,” Betty explained. “It was like, either you are paralyzed and you can’t move, or you train.” A couple of months later a tendon ripped away from the bone below her knee. Doctors reattached it with screws. Just three months later, she won the silver on the bars at the World Championships.
In 1992, Betty suffered stress fractures to both the L3 and L4 vertebrae two months before the Olympic Trials. The doctors ordered her to stop working out, because one wrong move could break her back.
But two weeks later, Okino began working out again, against doctor’s orders. She missed the Olympic Trials, but her strong international track record helped earn her a spot on the team, anyway. Despite the injuries, Betty made an incredibly brave showing at the Olympic Games, and became the first African American to win the Olympic Bronze Medal in Gymnastics.
Betty in Femme Fatales Magazine.
Betty finally retired from competitive gymnastics at the ripe old age of 17 to pursue her other dream, acting.
Gymnastics gave Betty tenacity, perseverance and inner strength launching her into the Hollywood spotlight. Today she is lighting up the small screen and again winning the hearts of new fans, in such hit shows as The Districtstarring opposite Craig T. Nelson, along with starring roles on The Andy Dick Show, Sabrina, That’s Life, Norm, Off Center,Popular, and a number of episodes of ABC’s Push. She was also the host of the Disney Channel’s Z-Games, and was a star of MTV’s Undressed. She has also appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, and American Gladiators.
Betty’s most recent project is a lead in the feature film Inhuman (AKA: Creature Unknown), directed by Michael Burnett. Betty plays the role of Coral, a feisty, beautiful African American girl.
Elizabeth Anne Okino continues to demonstrate the same competitive spirit and talent that put her in the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and displays it every so often for us in her column. (Today she is unable to write without pain because her elbow never healed properly, so cherish these columns, gymnastics fans.)