When I was little I didn’t play sports. I didn’t play a musical instrument, unless you count my brief sojourn with the cello. I don’t, since I never mastered Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I was a kid. I didn’t have a hobby. I climbed trees and rode my bike around and probably annoyed the neighbors, like kids do. I wore shorts under all of my dresses so I could play on the monkey bars and I spent my summers swimming in the high school pool around the corner. I was blissfully without direction, without desire.
At my mother’s behest I joined the Indian Maidens, which was a lot like the Girl Scouts with a—surprise—Indian (or Native American) motif and more of a mother & daughter theme to it. Really it was just a bunch of girls that got together and made bead necklaces while their mothers gossiped and some poor sap had to make snacks for everyone.
Two of the sisters in the Indian Maiden “tribe” that I was in took gymnastics. Somehow I ended up in their class at a recreation center with them. They had both taken gymnastics for a little while and were quite bendy and flippy. I was competitive, so naturally I wanted to be bendy and flippy like them. I went to class and I learned to burst into a front handspring and stretch into the splits. I was in third grade. When you’re in third grade the thought of defying gravity seems quite plausible.
Before the end of the year the two sisters that took gymnastics with me moved and I was left alone in the class. While I didn’t have them to spur me on, I had found that I enjoyed gymnastics. I loved sprinting forward into a roundoff, and carrying my momentum into a back handspring. I loved the brief moment of weightlessness while flying from the low bar to the high bar, and that feeling of accomplishment when my hands sought and found the high bar. I loved the chalk on my hands. I loved each blister and callus.
I found a spark in myself from that class. And I took it with me everywhere. At school I practiced on the unforgiving metal bars much to the dismay of the onlooking recess ladies. At home I tumbled in the front yard and only twisted my ankle in a sprinkler hole once. I taught myself to do roundoff backflips by accident one day. I did aerials off of the library wall onto the sidewalk without a worry. I was at home in my skin. It helped most likely that I was young. You don’t think so much about hurting yourself. I think I understood the possibility, but I also had a sense of my own capabilities. Maybe it was just that the benefit outweighed the risk in my young mind.
I approached gymnastics hungrily. I went to class. I practiced outside of class. I learned a lot. And after a while the class at the recreation center no longer presented a challenge. They couldn’t teach me anything new. I wanted more.
After three years I ended up in Pasadena at Flairs gymnastics. This transition was like night and day for me. My previous class was held in a basketball gymnasium with folding bleachers. All the equipment had to be put away at the end of the day. Flairs was located in the basement of a church. The stairs descended to a gymnast’s sanctuary. There were rows and rows of beams and two sets of bars, a long runway leading to the vault, a giant area for floor exercise, a wall lined with mirrors and my favorite—a trampoline. I can’t forget the trophies or the graceful pictures along the walls. Because obviously I wanted to either be a picture on the wall or to win a trophy. I was competitive and needed validation after all. It was something else to strive for.
Flairs was a new arena for me. I was no longer the girl who knew everything. They taught me knew things like proper back flips and arcing into the splits in the midst of a back walkover. Flairs had a gymnastics team, a rather famous one. Shortly after I arrived they started picking girls for the team. I wanted on that team. I pushed myself. I let myself be pushed by the coaches and I was the last person they chose.
The team was expensive and an enormous commitment. They practiced four days a week for three hours a day. My family couldn’t afford that, so they finagled it and I ended up practicing three days a week for three hours a day. Not a day went by that I wasn’t sore and tired. Occasionally I would meet for a private lesson, and the coach drilled me so hard that I couldn’t continue. I remember telling him that I was too tired, but he always made me do one more, just one more. I was practicing roundoff back handspring back flips and I remember doing the roundoff and crashing down onto my head. I didn’t hurt myself, but I did not have that one more to give.
Mary Lou Retton was never my favorite. I idolized Nadia Comăneci and watched the tv documentary about her reverently. Vault didn’t inspire me. There wasn’t much to it unless you were advanced. You either hopped on it, hopped over it, did a roundoff off of it, or did a front handspring. We worked often on front handsprings over the vault. I charged up to the springboard, threw myself onto it, shot my hands out and flew over it. It felt fine to me. But my coach began grilling me about the vault. He kept telling me I needed more height, that I was going to hit my head on the vault. I kept trying, and he kept telling me the same thing. Eventually I charged toward the vault, leapt onto the springboard and came right back down onto it. I began to fear. So, every time I didn’t vault my coach made me do push ups. I don’t remember how many, but it seems like millions. At that point I think I would have done fabulously in boot camp. Gymnastics felt more like boot camp than like the gravity defying sport I loved. My body hurt all the time, and tumbling didn’t make me feel weightless anymore. It made me feel heavy.
So, I quit.