My whole life I’ve been “the gymnast“. Sports have always been a part of my life but not usual sports like soccer or basketball… or actually anything involving a ball. I started dance at 4 years old and succeeded enough in that to be invited to go the track of joining the “troupe”, but when I was about 6 I went to a birthday party of a friend and fell in love with the sport of gymnastics. I never had a normal life after that, however, because of where it brought me.
When I was 9-11 we were tested on strength and ability and I had the top overall scores for strength when I was 10, which my mother promptly put in the local paper. (I was crazy jacked little girl). I went to Bela Karolyi’s ranch (in Houston, Texas) to the women’s team training center for camp programs and go to train with the national team coaches. Then when I was in 6th grade I left my private school to homeschool with my team mates. We set up our tables (desks) in the room we used for ballet classes at the gym and actually were able to watch our classes on DVDs sent to us from the program we used. Our coach was our “teacher” who graded everything and it left us with a ton more practice time, and the ability to travel to meets farther away.
My coaches were known because of the few gymnasts (who I homeschooled with) were making national teams and going to important competitions, etc. For a few years I had a crazy life for a little girl. I was tiny, ate power bars, protein shakes and rice cakes like nobody’s business, and could probably beat up a teenage boy at 9 years old. Some of those girls went on to hold titles with high school teams on the state level, D1 level teams and most of my old friends competed in some way with the NCAA. That was always my goal. Every little gymnast dreams of competing on a national level, or going to the Olympics, more commonly, which had crossed my mind a few times, but as I got older I knew what my realistic dream was, and it was one that was absolutely attainable. Actually my more specific goal was to be on the Rutgers gymnastics team, a dream I had since I was about 7 years old, along with the dream of actually GOING to Rutgers for college.
I was 14 and a level 9 when I quit gymnastics and was heartbroken and depressed about it. I remember everything about that day, too – the faces of my coaches, the empty feeling I had that made me want to throw up, and the realization that I was leaving all of my friends, and had almost none in school because of switching around so much and homeschooling for a year. The only type of life I had ever known was going to change and I had no idea what I was even going to do with myself. I had seen some of my friends leave the sport over the years, but I never imagined I would have to leave. The reason behind it was actually because I was in so much pain. The amount of injuries a gymnast sustains is no joke, and no minor issue, as I’m sure numerous gymnasts can speak of. Luckily mine are not life threatening injuries, or bones breaking needing extensive surgeries, or some of the issues elite gymnasts face. Some of the things I struggled with over the years were just common ailments of young athletes like Osgood Schlatters disease in my knees, severs in my heels at some point, sprained ankles, jammed fingers, bruises, severely calloused/ripped hands, etc etc. Those were just daily, normal things.
However other than that there was always one thing that was different about my body type. As I grew it became apparent that I had some form of knock knees that prevented my ankles from staying together. On bars you could really notice it because I would have to try to turn my feet inwards in order to get my legs together, leaving my ankles open. I would always be worried that the judges would think that my legs would not be together even though they were (as much as I could get them, anyway). My ballet teacher helped me feel more comfortable during our classes because when I stand in first position with my heels together my knees would get in the way of my legs being straight. That’s very strange to try to explain, but I was the only person in our class that had to stand in first position with my feet apart. Not only was I learning that gymnastics might not be the best thing for me, but what I was always good at, ballet, was also not something I could pursue. My body was physically not made for these types of sports. Even running and landing puts a strain on my knees and the tendons wear in different ways than other people. On top of that I also had my wrists growing sideways because the growth plates were jammed from how I tumbled and vaulted, I had chronic tendonitis in both wrists and hands, and I had a bible bump inherited on my right wrist (which is PAINFUL and never goes away). On MRIs they found chips of bone just floating around in my knees for some odd reason that they can’t explain. I had started wearing wrist guards to help with my wrist issues but everyone knows once you start wearing them you never take them off, and also had knee braces to help with the pain. I was done, and I told my mom. I was very shy and quiet at the time and I definitely remember not being able to face anyone so I just let myself relax after I finally quit, and started being a normal non-athlete, which I just didn’t know how to do.
In high school I tried to forget and joined every club imaginable (history club, marching band, jazz band, concert band, colorguard, winterguard, golf team, poetry club, literary magazine, science club, women’s choir, mixed choir, theater one act plays, stage crew, make-up crew, National Honor Society), even doing cheerleading for a year, essentially only making the team because I could tumble.
Wherever I went I would do handstands and constantly got asked to “do a backflip” because I was the gymnast. I was known as the gymnast. One year for colorguard we made shirts with quotes on them and mine said “Can you do a backflip?” just to embrace that part of my life a little more. (Colorguard/Marching band was actually a gigantic part of my life and probably rivals my college experience competing for the best 4 years spent doing 1 thing, but that will be an entirely different blog post) In 8th grade I did the talent show for our school and I did gymnastics on those horrible fold out panel mats over a gym floor. It worked, but when I thought I could do it for our high school talent show when I was a sophomore I landed just a little too hard doing a back layout step out and my knee crumbled. My legs were definitely not meant to land other than together. I tore my meniscus further than it already had been and the bones crunched together. Not too bad of an injury but still not enough to keep me from trying. When I got accepted to Rutgers, I actually found out that they had something called the gymnastics CLUB team, which was different that the D1 team. I could do gymnastics again? Worth the possible pain? Always. Turns out that some amazing girls who went to the open gym at Rutgers and worked with the D1 team actually started the club the very semester that I had FOUND the team. My first year at Rutgers they had only been a club for one semester, and I was starting with their first full year as a sport club and their first year competing, too.
It was strange, but familiar. I was with other girls who had been injured and quit, girls who had done gymnastics their whole lives, and some girls who were just starting, but we all loved the sport the same. Of course when I found out I could compete I was so excited. I was competing for RUTGERS and I was doing the sport I had loved my entire life, and doing it for fun for the first time, not to get a score, but simply for the love of the sport. The day before our home competition at Rutgers we were practicing in the practice gym doing our routines for the next day, while a lower level USAG meet was going on in the other half of the gym (with my old coaches and teammates also participating). My first tumbling pass was going to be somewhat simple for me, but not something I ever competed with when I was younger. Front tuck step-out roundoff handspring tuck. Nothing crazy, and nothing crazy for the rest of the routine either. When I landed my front tuck I felt my knee snap, the same knee I had hurt 3 years earlier. It hyper extended and I ended up tearing my PCL and my meniscus again even further. I was forced yet again to stop gymnastics and was on crutches for a few months.
I had extensive physical therapy and then after the spring semester ended I had surgery, but not reconstructive surgery because that was not recommended. Of course my mom said no gymnastics, but I went back in the fall semester and did light work because I still had a considerable amount of pain in my knees. Spring semester came and again it was about a week before our home meet, on a friday again, and during the first pass in my routine which was now just changed to a back layout. Nothing fancy. When I landed my back handspring I landed completely sideways on my foot (somehow I still blame my knock knees for this) and suffered a high ankle sprain.
Pretty gross. I went home and thought I could maybe compete at least once but after realizing I couldn’t put any pressure on it at all I knew I was out for the year yet AGAIN. I went home, sat in my apartment, and cried to my then-boyfriend. All I had wanted to do my whole life was be a gymnast. I wanted to compete for Rutgers. I finally found a way to do it, and 2 years in a row I failed to even MAKE it to a competition because of my body telling me to just give up. I was a mess, a wreck, but couldn’t just give up the sport completely (which, lets be real, I probably should have considering). My friends brought me back, though, and the fact that I ran for an executive board position and won. Becoming the president of the club and working with NAIGC to go to competitions and make the club something that other gymnastics who were possibly in the same position as me could also enjoy was enough to keep me there. Of course I am now completely watered down in everything I do, but simply being IN the gym physically and doing just one handstand can remind me of how much I love this sport.
Currently I have more issues with my legs. I tried running, found out I have runners knee. I can’t kneel for more than a few seconds because of knee pain, can’t squat down low/rest on my heels, because my knees can’t bend that far without being extremely uncomfortable and going uphill/upstairs is sometimes not an ideal situation. I use elevators as much as I can and wear my knee braces. It’s not the worst thing in the world though, don’t get me wrong. I realize I’m extremely lucky to have been able to do this sport physically AND to have been lucky enough to have a supportive family who was willing to drive me places and was able to spend the ridiculous amounts of money this sport costs. And am grateful for every single second of it.
NAIGC, the National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs, is one of those organizations that you can’t help but be thankful for. Just from being apart of this organization we have brought our team to numerous other schools around the east coast and had gotten to travel to their annual National competition in different parts of the country. Never did I ever think that after quitting and being injured so many times that I would even be able to compete at a national competition with over 900 gymnasts and coaches from all over the country in Minneapolis.
Before NAIGC competitions I had never been to Boston before, or any of the other institutions of higher education that we visit while traveling to competitions. I have even made friends who are out of college and still come back to compete on the “alumni” team. Women can come back to compete and reconnect with friends for the rest of their lives, if they really wanted to. (watch the video of the elderly woman doing p-bars on youtube, it’s great.) My team at Rutgers has taught me so much over these years, and really it’s a second family. I can’t wait to start the final semester here, and For many of us, this is more than just a sport. It’s being healthy. It’s traveling. It’s competition. It’s networking. It’s leadership. It’s nostalgia. It’s a challenge. For me, NAIGC was hope. Today, in my senior year, and after finally competing a full season in my junior year, NAIGC is simply, for the love of the sport.