Gymnastics: The Sport That Forever Warped My Mind and Body Image

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"Again.  You will get up on the bar and try it again."

Her hands were bloody and torn in several different places, but she didn't dare ask questions.  She got up and tried it again.  

Time after time, her feet slammed the bar as her body peeled away from it, or she fell flat on the mat, knocking the breath from her lungs.  With each rotation around the wood, her hands became even more shredded, and she was no closer to accomplishing the skill than she had been when the bar rotation began that evening, or when she had first started working on it weeks ago.

As her whole arms began to shake from the pain of her bloodied hands, fear crept into her mind - fear of falling the wrong way and breaking a body part or collapsing from sheer exhaustion, but mostly fear of disappointing her coach.  She fought back tears as a teammate walked behind her and whispered, "Come on, girl, you can do this!"

She could not. 

Another coach, the Brazilian one who actually had a heart for the young gymnasts under Coach R's lead, had been watching the girl struggle and, concerned for her safety, approached Coach R.  In his thick Portuguese accent, he said, "I think that's about enough."

Coach R eyed the Brazilian coach, and when he looked at the young girl, she thought he might burst into flames.  No one ever dared challenge his authority.  He took a deep breath before asking her, "You need a break from bars?"  

The gymnast, trembling, nodded that she did.  

"Alright, you may take a break from bars.  Push-ups won't hurt your hands.  Go do 1,000."

Coach R had been known to administer this punishment before, primarily to the gymnast on the team with the most natural talent who chose not to work hard.  Never to her, though.  She walked to the corner, hands still throbbing, and began.  

One, two, three, four...

9:00 p.m. approached, and the girl's dad arrived at the gym to pick her up.  She was nowhere near 1,000 push-ups, and she wondered if her coach would make her stay until she could no longer move in order to finish.  

He did not.  He always put on his best face for parents.  She showed her dad her battered hands, climbed in the car, and went to bed.

Less than 12 hours later, the girl was back at the gym for her Saturday morning workout with her hands bandaged, dreading bars but determined to impress her coach.  She swung the bar several times and finally completed the skill for the first time after weeks, months maybe, of trying.  She felt sure that her coach had seen her do it, but he never said a word.  

And she was never able to do the move again.

The gymnast quit the sport altogether less than a year after that incident, but the previous years of verbal (and borderline physical) abuse had already caused damage that she would fight to undo for the rest of her life.

That gymnast was me.  

I quit gymnastics at age 14 and had been training 22 hours per week at the time.  

I had completely blocked the above story out of my memory for 15 years or more, and though the particular incident I mentioned was probably one of the more extreme examples of negativity that I endured throughout my 10 years in gymnastics, it is not out of the ordinary range of events that took place at my gym.  

Tiny girls were routinely told that they barely fit in their leotards, hard workers were made to believe that they were lazy, and second place was never good enough.  

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While I was a gymnast, I spent my early teenage years in front of the mirror, pinching my "fat" (skin) through tears; and after the bars skill saga of 2001, I came to believe that the only reason I couldn't accomplish something was because I didn't work hard enough.  That single event proved, in my mind, that I needed to just bandage my wounds, dry up my tears, and try again.  

Today, I still overanalyze every angle of my body, hating the imperfections that I see, and running marathons (literally) in an attempt to get rid of them.  I still fight a tendency to work beyond the point of excellency until I become a frantic mess at the expense of everyone around me.  I still aim to please people because my coach's voice resonates in the back of my head, "That is not good enough."

My daughter started gymnastics this past fall.  I will not let this happen to her.  

My parents have asked me what they could have done to prevent gymnastics' residual effects on my life, and I can honestly say that I don't blame them at all.  They couldn't have done anything.  They sat behind glass walls during my workouts and listened to me talk about how much I loved the sport (which I now realize was not actually the love of gymnastics but of winning).  I never thought to tell them about the abusive things my coach said and did to us because it was all I knew.  Everything he did as a coach, to me, was normal.  

Right now, my Piper can't wait to go to gymnastics on Tuesdays.  She has conquered a number of fears and asks to walk on the "balance beams" (curbs) in every parking lot.  She begs us to "watch this move" in the living room almost nightly.  

I guess it's a wonder that I enrolled her at all, but I don't believe that every girl has the same experience with the sport that I did.  I'm naturally bent toward people-pleasing and perfectionism, so gymnastics simply brought that out in me more.  My daughter is as stubborn as they come, and she's a huge ball of energy needing to be burned.  I think she'll be fine, but you better believe that I'm going to be that "helicopter mom" who is glued to every gymnastics practice and constantly praying that God will protect her where I cannot.