I have some very mixed feelings about competitive gymnastics. Having taken part in approximately eight intense years of it (as well as three less full-on, school representing ones), I kinda got the inside scoop. I did Artistic Gymnastics to elite stage 3 of 5, and dabbled in Rhythmic, Trampolining, Tumbling, Sports Acrobatics and diving (which I feel is strongly related).
On the one hand, gymnastics is an incredible sport. Some of the most impressive feats of flexibility, strength, fearlessness and ancrobatics I have ever witnessed have emerged from it. It is mind blowing what the human body can achieve. I find it beautiful, amazing and terrifying to watch and to participate in.
The feeling of flying in trampolining, tumbling, vault and uneven bars is something I will miss forever. I have often mused that if I were to die doing anything, I would be most happy for it to be flying or falling. To develope an instinct for how to make your body rotate through the air in ways you’ve never tried before, and that will ensure a precise landing, almost feels like growing a sixth sense. Plus, it was just cool to be truly good at something, and to represent the State or your club or whatever else. And, I won’t lie. I loved being stronger than other girls. I loved being able to do Buffy-esque flips.
I liked the opportunity to choose to develop skills which were of particular interest to me, and to create routines and moves, and choose music that tickled my fancy. I find it interesting to see how some gymnasts are very creative and expressive, and really enjoy embedding aspects of their personality into their routines, while others concentrate far more on technical excellence and totally ignore ideas of fluidity, elegance and personal taste.
I love how tough and determined and brave serious gymnasts are. This is where the good and bad start mixing though. I remember watching a young gymnast in the 2000 Olympics break her ankle during a stretch of tumbling. Seeing that made my screwed up gym-brain go, “Oh, you didn’t rotate enough… you’re gonna get murdered by your coach.” Incredibly, she proceeded to finish the rest of her routine as well as possible. Gymnasts do not abandon an effort. Sure enough her coach was yelling at her as soon as she left the floor, even with her incredibly valiant perseverance right to the end of the music.
“Getting right back on the horse” so to speak, is so vital an idea to this extreme sport. Without it, no one would get anywhere near the level of inhuman ability that some achieve. I was not quite cut out for this level of harshness during my training at about age eight. I remember a few incidents that made it very clear to me that I shouldn’t accept an offer to go train at the AIS and have tutoring instead of school. Thankfully my mother had immediately taken that choice out of my hands anyway (for which I was VERY ungrateful at the time). I was already, at that point training six hours per day, six days per week. It would have, I presume, been even more rigorous a regimen there, which I can’t quite imagine now. But then I was torn, being so in love with gym and having found something I could really excel at.
One of these incidents was when I was training with the school team. I did a split leap on the beam (just as I had a million times before) and landed straddling it, the first point of contact being my crotch. Luckily, I’m not a guy, but by god that hurt. Also, it was scary and shook up my confidence on an apparatus I was previously so comfortable with. My coach gave me 150 situps – as was the punishment for falling off the beam – and then ordered me back on to do 100 of the same leaps again. The idea was that it would stop me from developing a serious fear that might hinder me in the future. I tried, shook and fell several times, redoing my situps, becoming more exhausted and freaked out. Eventually I started crying out of anger, frustration, nerves and adrenalin, snapped at my coach and stormed off. In order to return to training a couple of days later I had to apologise and agree to comply in future.
I had a recurring problem of a similar nature when the blisters or calluses on my hands from training on the bars would rip. The general policy when you get a rip is to tear of the skin/callous flap and get right back to training on the same aparatus. I was considered a massive baby for attempting to avoid this as much as possible, or for cotinuing my training very half heartedly due to the pain.
These are both rather minor, commonplace problems encountered by young gymnasts. It is worth mentioning that a lot of the other participants ignored their rips, their falls and their fears. They were just stronger than me, I suppose.
However, the reason I had to stop being a gymnast alltogether is also very commonplace, albeit less minor. I developed what I think was an RSI in my lower back. It arose from me repeatedly twisting off into a controlled fall midway through a backward walkover on the beam, because I wasn’t confident. I had been practicing this move 3-4 days per week for several weeks and without realising I was hurting my back. I still suffer from mild pain in that area on a regular basis, probably because I have not sought ongoing Physio for it. I also noticed in the last year of my gymmings that my right knee would sporadically give way during running or jumping, and that I had trouble descending stairs and preventing my right knee from hyperextending in standing or lying. I regularly get aching knees, shins and ankles and am not quite sure what the cause is. It sounds like some kind of ligament/connective tissue injury. I will probably figure it out during my Muskuluoskeletal Physio placement next semester (yessss!).
Anyhow, injury being a very common reason for stopping a sport you still love and would be great at… is, shall we say, a bit of a worry? Most of my coaches were coaches because they could not train or compete due to gym-related injury, but couldn’t relinquish their ties with the sport of their dreams. Unstable knees, ankles, elbows, backs, necks etc are everywhere in gymnasiums. Although, I suppose this could be said about many other sports too.
But, let’s not forget the body image confusion. As a teenager at school and practically anywhere else, I admired the bodies of, and hoped that my adult body would one day emulate those of slender, curvacious women who looked soft and fine. As a teenager in the gym, which was just as often my location in those days, I admired women whose bodies were short, compact, muscular, broad-shouldered, those who showed little to no signs of reaching puberty. I envied the girls whose hips were more narrow than their muscular midsections, and whose chests, backs, shoulders and arms looked like those of a very athletic young man. The ones who had 8 packs by the age of seven. I found myself increasingly frustrated in my teenage years as I seemed to fit neither mould fully. I did start to grow and become more feminine, a little. Enough to hinder my balance and strength, but not enough to put to rest my rampaging paranoia that I looked like a boy in girls’ clothing.
Fashion side-note: In my normal teenage headspace, clothes involving sparkles and lycra were not exactly ‘in’. But I remember being so jealous of all the glitzy, diamonty-embellished, faux velvet crop tops that my team mates would convince their parents to fork out for. Funny.
It worries me too, that there are girls I know who trained harder than I did, and went further than I did, and whose bodies have been permanently changed by it. I left gymnastics at age fifteen, and promptly grew taller and more womanly. There are so many that I know, and know of who missed that window for growth entirely and are stunted now forever. At least, that’s how it looks to me. They still look much like the girl in the picture here, minus the facial expression.
I suppose I am talking only from the point of view of women’s gymnastics here, because as far as I can tell, the issue of postponing puberty doesn’t seem to apply to males (the issue of serious injury clearly does though). This may be partially due to the ages at which gymnasts of different genders appear to peak. For men, puberty’s changes actually help, whereas for women, the prepubesent body is much more capable.
Look at this picture of members of the USA Gymnastics Team in 1956:
They look healthy, and like… women. I understand part of what makes gymnastics so amazing is that the nature of the sport is to progress in difficulty and push the human body’s limits further into crazy extreme land. But, I guess that’s the reason why I can’t participate in it competitively anymore.
In an attempt to wrap this rambulation up somehow, I guess I’m really sad that something I adore so much isn’t available to me anymore. It seems that the only way to learn the really cool stuff is to commit to a competitive team and train so hard that it will change/hurt my body in ways I’m not willing to accept. I would love to try an adult acrobatics course at some point though.