Second Chances

I attended college at the University of Utah. That shouldn’t mean much on its own. I’m from southern California, near Pasadena. I had never been to Utah when I decided to go there to school. No, I’m not Mormon.

If you asked me why I went to school there you would get one of several of my standard answers. All of them would be true; they were just different facets the truth. The most common answer I gave was that it was the only school I applied to. And it was. Applying to college involved application fees and I didn’t have a job. Not to mention the enormous forms and essays…but I digress.

The secret answer would have been that I met a boy from Salt Lake City and he fascinated me. He put SLC on my radar. I went there thinking I would find him and hook up and live happily ever after. The truth of the matter was that I called him once or twice after I got there, but never told him that I was only five miles away because I am a horrible coward. I still had the better not to try than to fail mentality. I wandered about the city thinking he could be around any corner and if I saw him I would run the other way (like you do when you’re 18 and cowardly).

The secret secret answer was because they had a gymnastics team. More importantly, I could take gymnastics classes. On my first visit to the college I bought a gymnastics t-shirt. It was bright red with a Ute on the balance beam. I didn’t wear it because I liked black spooky clothes and favored velvet, but I have it to this day.

Education was sadly secondary. I majored in English literature and had absolutely no idea what to do with an English degree. It didn’t matter to me at the time. College was a time for exploration and small scale adventure, maybe even a coup.

Gymnastics class was exhilarating. I hadn’t been on a springy blue mat since sixth grade. Every time I feel the mat beneath my feet it’s like finding a missing piece of myself. They make me want to run and dance and play. And I did. Obviously since it had been so long I couldn’t pick up where I left off. The body remembers what you’ve taught it though. It tries to fall into the splits and bound into forward diving rolls. It just seems to have developed strange impediments like hips that it never had to contend with before. Not to mention that unhealthy fondness for big macs. Of course that could be why there are those hips…

I walked into the beginning gymnastics class and glowed. The class focused on tumbling. Occasionally we tried the other apparatuses, but usually we stuck to the floor. That was fine with me. The floor was my favorite. I loved the bars as well, but my seven year hiatus made bars almost inaccessible. I couldn’t glide around them like I used to, and whenever I tried to spin around them I ended up with two angry bruises on my hip points. Like I said, those hips were new (the breasts too, but they didn’t seem to get in the way as much).

We practiced in the same room the Ute gymnastics team used. It had all sorts of neat equipment that neither of my previous gyms had. The trampoline the Utes used was very long. You could run the length of it and then do a tumbling sequence. We learned to do roundoff back handsprings and roundoff back flips on it. Sometimes we would just practice standing back flips. I never knew how hard my poor stomach muscles had to work to do those. It hurt to laugh for days after, but I was ecstatic. One side of the room was elevated. At one end of it was a pit filled with foam blocks. We practiced tumbling off into that much like on the trampoline. They had harnesses to practice dismounts. We didn’t advance that far in our tumbling prowess to warrant a harness.

They had low beams and high beams. And of course they had a vault. The vault sucked away the happy feeling that just standing on the mats gave me and reminded me of my final days as a gymnast being terrified and giving up.

My heart pounded waiting to run up to the springboard and the vault. Of course there was very little chance of my hitting my head on it considering we were just jumping on the springboard, onto the vault, and onto the fluffy mat behind it. So, I got my second chance at facing my fear. I ran full tilt. I jumped, and I was absolved. The fear lessened each time I faced it. By the end of my three years of gymnastics class there I could front handspring over the vault in the moment, without a thought about the past’s scars.

The vault was the reason I needed to take gymnastics class. I had to face that fear. It wouldn’t erase any of the regret, but it could help me find a more comfortable closure.


I didn’t really notice the void gymnastics left in my life. It was the end of my era of childhood, and I had bigger issues to face than the loss of formal gymnastics training. The summer of my eleventh year was fast approaching and the playground was awash with mutterings of the next school year without recesses. How did one exist without those brief intermissions in a life crammed with math problems, spelling tests, and (worst of all) science labs?

I didn’t miss gymnastics that summer. I didn’t have a chance to. Right after the school year ended my family whisked me off on a month-long vacation. I didn’t have a chance to stretch my legs after a fourteen hour drive to New Mexico let alone to think of the balance beam or the bars. I focused instead on annoying my stepbrother sleeping next to me in the car.

Before long school started up. Seventh grade was harrowing. I got braces. I was awkward. I didn’t dance at the school dances but sat forlornly in the corner. Maybe if I had been tumbling I wouldn’t have felt as awkward. Perhaps I would have had a bit more self esteem, or at least a sense of purpose.

Occasionally the feeling of loss surfaced. The summer Olympics inevitably arrived, and with them came a barrage of television coverage. I only watched the women’s gymnastics and as I watched them I yearned. I sat in the splits and dove into forward rolls down the hallway. Thoughts arose and whispered dangerous what ifs…I sampled my first real taste of regret.

I knew that my dream of being a great gymnast could no longer be fulfilled. I never really forgot that dream, I simply gave up on it. I don’t know if I gave up on it because it got too difficult and seemed unattainable, or if it was the opposite. I met resistance and I fled. And I let that decision influence other difficulties. To me it was better not to try than to fail. Thinking that way seems a violation of our very existence. It takes away all of the sweet fragility of life’s triumphs.


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.