“Misuse may cause serious injury of even death.” This is printed on every mat in a gymnastics facility. Yet every day, day-in and day-out, gymnasts willfully ignore it. I call this “Reason No.1 gymnastics is psycho.” A lot of sports make sense, like you could understand how soccer got invented — who doesn’t absent-mindedly kick a rock every once in awhile? Or baseball — let’s hit this thing with another thing! But gymnastics? Yes, let’s just throw ourselves in the air, and aim to land on our feet on a tiny wooden plank raised 4.1 feet in the air that we currently can’t see because we are flying through the air. Just how in the hell did someone come up with this sport, and why? But yet here it is, and there are thousands of men and women that dedicate a good portion of their lives to this lovely form of sanity. And I’m one of them.
Most gymnasts got started in the sport because they took the same toddler gymnastics classes that everyone took as a kid and got hooked. Some got started in it because their parents thought it was easier than testing them for ADD (shout out to my parents). Even though most gymnasts start early on — I started at six — you can’t really tell if this will become the sport that consumes your life. Not unless you’re dead-set on the Olympics, which, as a realistic child, I was not. Until I was about eight I still played almost every other the sport you could think of; I played soccer until I got tired of being the only girl on my AYSO team. I skated, until I decided the rink got too cold. And I played tennis, until it got too hot in the summer. Gymnastics seemed to be the most temperature-controlled at the time, so that’s just what I ended up sticking with.
Then, through no conscious effort on my part, I got picked out of my rec class and moved up by the team coach. She was big on aesthetics, and I just so happened to look like a tiny Russian gymnast at the time. (Have I mentioned pre-pubescent bodies are prime gymnast bodies? No? Well, they are). Then every year I just came back because I liked it. It wasn’t until I got out of compulsory and to the higher levels that I realized I needed to consciously make the choice to stay in the sport, which for me meant moving gyms. From high school on, it became harder and harder to stay in the sport both mentally and physically, you start questioning why you give up so much for this sport that beats you up on the regular. The hours aren’t attractive — for my gym it was four and a half hour-days, six days a week, which didn’t leave a lot of time for a social life as a teen, if any at all.
Then there are all the injuries that increase as your body ages. Try and find one gymnast who hasn’t had at least one MRI, had his or her feet in a boot at least twice or won’t have back problems for the rest of his or her life. You won’t. Also for fun try and find a gymnast that will actually admit he or she is injured, again, you’ll have no luck. I know girls who have competed with and still compete with multiple bone chips, torn meniscuses, fractured feet and so on. Gymnasts live by the idea that as long as you ice it, you’re all good. And on top of that, typically, gymnastics coaches are not the most rational people. They’ll tell twelve-year-olds that are the size of toothpicks to watch their weight or kick you out of practice for having a rough day.
So, with all this self-harm in the name of sport, what’s the draw? Why did I stay in it for 15 years? Why does anyone? There are so many reasons, and at times some are more compelling than others. There are the friendships you make along the way. These friends will be for life, because you’ve spent so much time with them during your formative years. Because you’ve spent more time with them than your actual family, your fellow gymnasts have become your family.
And there’s the fact that you’ve already invested so much of your life in the sport that it would seem stupid to stop when you’ve come so far. This becomes especially true come college. There’s the feeling of flying through the air that you can’t get from anything else, and that feeling of accomplishment and pride in doing something that so few people can do. And lastly there’s that rush when you succeed. When those grueling hours and all that sweating, bleeding and crying in a gym for 12 months pays off. When you are a competitive gymnast, it becomes your identity. No matter when you quit, you will always be a gymnast because of the impact those years have had on your life. And it’s just too hard to give that up with a limited amount of time left in the sport. College gymnastics is a whole different world than club. I was lucky to be on a big team in club, so I was able to experience that sort of team spirit that is emphasized so much in college. But for a lot of girls, the difference is night and day. This time you live with your teammates, eat your meals with them and go to class with them. They become even more prevalent in your life than anything else. While the conditioning and practices remain moderately the same, there is more emphasis in college on just trying to not have everyone’s bodies fall apart, emphasizing staying healthy and safe-to-compete rather than, I don’t know, yelling at someone for being “too dramatic” after they tore their ACL.
But the competition atmosphere is the real difference. Everyone is fighting for a spot to compete for the team, to contribute a score and to help get that win. In club, you were essentially in it for yourself, and you had to compete whether you liked it or not. But in college, you have to bring your A-game every week if you want a chance to go out on the competition floor, and you do it for the chance to make your mark on the team. While this can make it more competitive at times, it does make earning that spot and getting that win all the sweeter. When you know that your team has put their best possible effort out there, and you win, it’s the greatest feeling. And that, that feeling, that commitment and all the years of effort, is why I’ll never be able to let the gymnast part of me die.