Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My Gymnastics Story

By request I decided to share my gymnastics story with all you readers so you can get to know me a little better, since I am lucky enough to know all you lovely people quite well by now. :) This should be fun! I always like thinking back on being in the gym. Some of those practices and meets will always be the best times (though also undoubtedly the most difficult times) of my life and it's fun to share them with people who have the same enthusiasm for the sport. So here we go.

I started gymnastics when I was two years old in the toddler class. I had just recently gotten out of the diaper stage at that point, and only because my mother accidentally brought home blue diapers from the store instead of pink ones and I refused to wear "boy diapers" so ta-dah, I was potty trained, but that's another story. The point is I was very young when I started, and even though the toddler classes were mostly about jumping up and down and crawling on things, I loved it from the very beginning. I was coached by a wonderful lady who had just opened the gym with basically just a few scrap mats, some foam, and an old rope. She accumulated quite a few beams and bar sets pretty quickly, but my parents really enjoyed being a part of the gym as it was just starting to grow, primarily because it was her love for gymnastics and for kids, not any fancy equipment, that made the gym successful. We all had tons of fun there. But, as you can see from these pictures, I was VERY SERIOUS and focused when it came to gymnastics. I've always been that way.



In these photos I was a little older - these are basically the only photos I have - but you can get an idea for what the gym was like and how into gymnastics I was.



And of course I have to share a smiley photo or two, also, because I really did have a blast in her class. I have a few memories of cartwheeling around on the mats and just having a ball. Sorry if this is photo overload, but I'm having a good time reminiscing. :)



Check out my cool Team USA leotard, too!! Best present I ever received. I felt very cool in that leo, haha.



Okay, now getting back to the story. When I was in kindergarten my family moved to another state. My parents were so sad to leave the gym, but I ended up in the perfect situation in the new state. We moved within 10 minutes of an up-and-coming gym which seemed like the obvious choice. At that time my parents had no idea what USAG even was (for a long time even after I joined the team, my dad was calling it USGA :P). Competitive gymnastics was not at all on their radar. They just put me in a class at the new gym because they knew I loved it. My older sister took the class with me for a while but gymnastics was not at all her thing, bless her heart, and she quit pretty early on. No worries, though, she turned out to be an excellent long-distance runner :) But anyway, the class my parents put us in was literally the "level 1" class. Very simple stuff. We were barely doing cartwheels and handstands, and that stuff came very naturally and easily to me. Luckily, within the first few weeks that we were there, the owner of the gym spotted me in my class. Later that day he went up to my parents and said...

"Hey, is that your kid? Does she like gymnastics?"

And my parents of course were like, "Yeah, she seems to really enjoy it."

And he said, "No, I mean, does she REALLY, really enjoy it? Is she cartwheeling down the hallways at home or does she prefer to stand on two feet?"

And my mom explained that the walls in our hallway were constantly dirty from my feet and that I was always flipping off the couch.

That day the owner talked to all the coaches at the gym and immediately had me skip two levels up to what the gym called the "training team," which was really level 3/4 since my gym chose not to have a level 4 team and instead started with level 5 in competition. It was quite a step up from what I had been doing. Four or five hours a week instead of one, the coach was a lot more serious, and we started doing some really serious conditioning. I think that's when my parents realized I might actually be good at gymnastics and it might turn out to be more than just an activity I enjoyed in kindergarten, but when I went into first grade, I took a lot of time off from gymnastics. I was in a high potential class that was meant to challenge me more than the normal first grade class, and I think I just needed a break from some of the extra-curriculars. I was also taking violin and swimming lessons at that time, and if I needed a break, my parents were more than supportive in allowing me that. Gymnastics was the thing to drop since it took up the most of my time. I actually have no recollection of deciding to take time off of gymnastics or even not being in gymnastics during those couple of years, which is the weird part.

I took up the sport again in third grade, I guess, and had to work back into it. I was ready to go by fourth grade, which is when I tried out for the team. I have such clear memories of that. I didn't even particularly want to be a part of the team or have any clue what it entailed, but I tried out because everybody else did at the end of the session in training team. The rules were that you got 3 points if you could do a skill by yourself, 2 points if you could do the skill with a coach standing there (or if you could do a floor skill on your own but on the trampoline), and 1 point if you could do it with a heavy spot. You had to reach a certain number of points by the end of the test to make the team, but no matter how many points you had, if you didn't have your kip, you didn't make the team. Period. That was the #1 rule, and definitely the scariest rule, too. Especially because I didn't have my kip...

EXCITING PART IS COMING! DON'T FALL ASLEEP YET! I know this is getting long. I will provide an intermission soon that will be sure to wake you up. :)

So. The test was going pretty well. I had taken a liking to the head team coach and wanted to impress him. This was all before I learned that he was the devil, but I'll get to that later. No, he really wasn't the devil, he was a great guy, but MAN was he tough on his gymnasts. Rumor had it that he was trained under Bela Karolyi and had adopted Bela's style, but I had no idea who the Karolyis were at the time so the gossip didn't scare me. It should have. Haha. Anyway. He liked my gymnastics and I liked him, and, being a perfectionist, I wanted everything to go smoothly so he would know I was really trying. I was basically good to go points-wise, but I still had to do my kip.

DUN DUN DUN.

We had practiced kips before in pre-team but not too much. When you're only going twice a week, it's hard to pick up the timing on a kip, as I'm sure a lot of you know. Everybody had three tries to get it during the test. I took my first two and came really close but didn't make it all the way up. I was on my third try and I was very, very, very nervous. Everyone kept saying it was my last chance. Well, I went, and guess what? I missed again. But the coach really wanted me on the team so he said, "Do it again. One more try." I missed again. He said, "Do it again. This is the last time." I missed. He said, "Okay okay, one more time, but this is seriously the last time. You make it this time, you're on the team. If not, we'll see you again next year." This was probably the most horrifying moment of my life. I was, like, 9 years old and it was all very intimidating to me. I had to really steady myself. I did the glide, brought my feet to the bar, did the pull-up-your-pants thing, and found myself with my chest to the bar (about at my collar bone) and my arms horribly bent. From there, I muscled my way up to front support, and my brand new coach decided that it counted and I was welcomed to the team. :D Kinda cheap, but hey, I did get my straight-arm kip sometime in the near future and didn't have to waste another year doing the same old thing. My coach knew that I was already a little old for level 5. I turned 10 that year and he saw a lot of potential in me, so he wanted me to get as much time as I could to make it as far as I could in the sport.

INTERMISSION:



Tell me that didn't make you almost pee your pants. So funny. Now continuing with the story.

I remember walking out of the first day of team practice feeling like my legs would never be the same again after all that conditioning. It was so much more than I ever expected. The conditioning list was usually something like 30 pull ups, 60 push ups, 15 skin-the-cats, 3 sets of 30 left lifts, etc. That was crazy to me, but they whipped me into shape very quickly. My 8-pack formed in a very short amount of time :P It was okay, though, because I became fast friends with all the wonderful girls on the team. They really were so welcoming, and that's something I will always be very grateful for. This is about to be really sappy, but it truly was more than a team; it was a family. I know all the team parents were so kind to my parents as newcomers, as well, which is something that seems kind of rare these days. I was very lucky to have been a part of that team in particular. I think it worked out so well because the coaches had a strict no-nonsense policy. If you had an attitude problem or if you weren't kind to your teammates, you were off the team, and once you quit or were kicked off you were not allowed back on under any circumstances.

Of course it wasn't all happy. I was a bit of an easy crier because I would get so frustrated with myself, and I recall being told once after getting upset, "You're 10 years old now, it's time you started acting like an adult." I also remember being told at a meet after falling during warm-ups that if I was going to perform like crap and embarrass the gym then I might as well go home. There was a lot of yelling from the coaches and a whole lot of tears from the gymnasts. There were hollow holds until half the team had burst out in tears from the pain. There was a lot of, "Oh, you think you broke your finger? Go to vault." My parents had a lot of problems with some of those kinds of techniques and really did come to the coaches with an ultimatum at one point. It was either they changed their ways with me, or my parents were pulling me out. I was SO sensitive, and as a coach now I can see how that must have been really frustrating for my coaches, but I needed different techniques. I was already so hard on myself that having someone else giving me all criticism and not very much positive feedback (or so it felt to me) was too much to handle. We often considered pulling me out of the sport all together. To complicate things more, I had Sever's disease in my heels, which made tumbling incredibly painful and lead to a lot of problems with my Achilles.


Despite all that craziness, I had a pretty solid level 5 season. I wasn't winning every meet, and I was still getting really nervous every time I competed, but it wasn't horrible. In level 6, I started winning. In the beginning of the season I would win floor and bars at every meet, and slowly I started winning every event, every time. I had a lot of All-Around medals from that season, and my biggest accomplishment probably of my whole "career" was winning the National Invite in level 6. That's me getting my AA medal. :) That was a really fun meet. It was a travel meet, which was always a good time. We loved staying in hotels with our teammates and coaches. We'd always have a pool party before the meets started and a lot of times the hotel would host a party for all the gymnasts. It was so cool. Do you guys go to travel meets often? Oh, another thing about my gym was that we were really into uptraining, so during the summer after my level 5 season I was learning my Yurchenko and my standing arabian and all that good stuff. That was also a lot of fun.

Then, unfortunately, my family moved again and I had to leave the gym that I loved so, so much. When I left I realized that even though my coach could be incredibly tough, he did want the best for me and to this day remains the most influential person in my life. He taught me my work ethic, he taught me motivation, he basically taught me everything. Not just gymnastics. I wish I had been able to stay and see where I could've gone in the sport with him as my coach. He used to talk about me and a few of my teammates being his little group of future elites. He would say, "you're going all the way to the Olympics" and then add something about how we would go through every level and win the Olympics never once using grips (haha, he hated them). I'm sad I never got to see that day, though sometimes I doubt whether I would've had the mental capability to go elite even if I had stayed at his gym. I knew I had the potential physically, I knew I was strong enough (my nickname quickly became "Beast" once I joined team... *sigh*), but mentally it was really hard on me. I think I was too fragile to go all the way in the sport. Plus, my Sever's was getting worse all the time, I had horribly weak joints, and I found myself in an out of physical therapy quite often.

Once we moved we realized there were not many good gyms in the area. The closest gym - the one I ended up at - was about a half an hour away, which was tough on my mom. Bless her for taking me to and from practice every day. Lucky for her, the hours decreased from 24/week at the old gym to 9/week at the new gym. The new gym's philosophy was very laid-back, basically the girls coach themselves and just try to enjoy what they're doing. That was what I was looking for at that point in my life. I needed to take it down a notch in intensity. I chose it, but I sometimes regret it now. The coach did not spot the gymnasts. Ever. It was tough for me to compete as an optional without having a coach to correct and spot me. He was basically just there to oversee practice. I only had maybe ten teammates in total, and I was one of two optionals. We didn't ever play music in the gym. We could get drinks whenever we wanted. We rarely conditioned. We only vaulted once a month (yes, you read that right). We could even sit down during practice *GASP*. It was just a very different vibe. It works really well for a lot of girls, especially in compulsories, but it didn't work so well for me.

I taught myself my BHS BHS series on beam, my giants on set, everything that I needed in levels 7 and 8. I competed but didn't win. Occasionally I placed in individual events, but without any correction, I formed a lot of bad habits I didn't even know about. I basically just faded out of the gymnastics world. Unfortunately I was never able to compete my level 9 season, but I feel like I did the best I could with what I had available to me, and I'm proud of what I accomplished. It was a good way for me to gradually slow down when it came to gymnastics and slowly realize that there were other important parts of my life that I wanted to focus on. It made quitting so much easier. I was 13 or 14 when I quit, partially because I couldn't go any further in the sport under that coaching style, partially because of my injuries, and partially because I was just done. I miss it very much. I still go to open gym at that same gym I competed optionals in. And I can still do a RO BHS layout half on the tumble trak! :)

Gymnastics was and still is a huge part of my life. I really believe that if you're once a gymnast, you're always a gymnast. Someday I want to open my own gym. For now, I'm happy coaching a recreational class of outstanding kids. I'm hoping that I do the same for them as my old coaches did for me; I just want them to enjoy the sport. I want them to learn more than just how to do a pretty back handspring. I want them to learn that hard work pays off, that it's important to be a good teammate, and that self-motivation is priceless. I'm getting a little cheesy now, but I think a lot of you girls who read this blog will feel the same way someday.

I love talking to all of you about this sport and am so glad you love it as much as I do. If you got to the end of this, you're a champ! I wasn't expecting it to be this long. I guess gym is a bigger part of my life than I even knew! And I could've said so much more about it. If you've got questions or comments on any of this, of course, hit up the comments section. Thanks for reading and I hope this has helped you all get to know me and my experience in gymnastics a little better. :) XOXO

7 comments:

  1. I loved hearing your story it was so interesting. I recently switched from community center classes to an actual club because, even though they have a competitive team, I really want to go farther. So In my first session this spring i "graduated" in to level 2/3 but at my new gym they put me into level 1. I really hope they bring me up a level because all we are learning is easy stuff!

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  2. Hey Meg,

    Thanks for reading!

    If you want to be serious about gymnastics, I think you made the right choice switching to a club. Keep working hard and put your focus on your form. That's probably where you're playing catch-up. Hopefully then they'll move you up quickly and you can start working on more challenging skills. Good luck! Keep me posted. :)

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  3. That was lovely and I hope that my children gain all those great qualities out of their gymnastics careers, however long they are.

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  4. Thank you! That's very kind. And thanks for reading.

    I really think there will always a benefit, no matter how long your children are involved in gymnastics - especially because it is a sport that focuses on both team and individual learning. I always see some sort of growth in the kids, even if I'm just coaching a summer session. Best of luck to you and your kids!

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  5. Love it, i am a male but i adore gymnastics and i am very old for that I am 26, but i still want to keep going to gymnastics :P. You are never too old if that is your passion.

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  6. Hi Juanse, thanks for reading! And good for you! :) Keeps you in great shape at any age, that's for sure. I actually went to the gym just a few weeks ago... I was pretty sore afterward, but it was fun!

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  7. I loved to read it. I have a daughter that is a gymnast in the highest level for her age here in The Netherlands. We moved from USA last year and she was state champion there. It is a pitty you stopped posting in this blog. Very nice!
    Priscila

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