National Gymnastics Day: Share Why You Love Gymnastics
At age five, I walked into a rec gym for the first time. I’m sure I loved gymnastics then because it meant I got to play on colorful blocks and bounce off the walls without restraint or reprimand. I vividly remember jumping back and skimming my head on the trampoline in each wild attempt of my brand-new back handspring. No spot or wedge mat needed. I would jump back blindly and then look to my coach for correction once I was upright again. Their response must have been half correction, half desperation. All the same, I could’ve done hundreds of wild flips without tiring. I’m sure that’s why I loved it. Isn’t that why every little kid loves it?
Maybe my parents and coaches could have foreseen the hardships and heartaches this sport would bring. Maybe they knew I’d fall and break bones, I’d earn myself some online and in-person critics, that I’d, without question, miss social functions for practice or competition, or that I would ache every morning even years after retirement. I knew nothing of these realities. But would I have jumped back and skimmed my head any differently if I had known? Probably not. Definitely not. I would jump head first into gymnastics over and over again. I still do.
I’m 25 years old and nearly four years removed from the completion of my gymnastics career. It ended on the highest note; physically able, on a team I loved, with teammates I will forever call sisters, and with a real understanding of what would happen next. I would complete my last routine, graduate from college and, for the first time ever, prioritize real-world expectations and activities over gymnastics. It’s a transition that is often hard for most collegiate and elite level athletes. Our entire world shifts. But I was aware that with my final dismount and salute to the judge, gymnastics would be over. I was afforded the opportunity to anticipate the shift. Not many high-level athletes have that luxury. Too many end their athletic careers from injury or other circumstances out of their control. I was fully in control of mine and pleased to walk away with a heart full of gratitude toward the sport.
It’s hard to share why I love gymnastics, because I do. But at the same time, I don’t. Some of the greatest disappointments in my sport have been highly publicized as of late. And, for me, my memories and everyone’s stance, story and criticism have all been hard to sort through. I am very thankful for many of the relationships and opportunities gymnastics provided me. In the same breath, it’s hard for my 25-year-old self to remember what my five, twelve, seventeen-year-old self must have loved about the sport. Even in my blurred memory, I know, without question, that some things I held in high regard as a competitor are not the same things I love as a working professional and genuine fan of gymnastics today.
For example, as an athlete, I loved winning. No questions asked. I wanted to leave every meet with a gold medal on my neck. I wanted to take home the biggest trophy, the 1st place banner, the blue ribbon, need I go on? I wanted to, and I was expected to. There wasn’t much talk about things colored silver or bronze in my home or my gym. It’s like it didn’t exist. I don’t have regrets about that, and I don’t think my parents or coaches do either. Why else was I spending 36+ hours a week beating my body up in training? Why else would my mom spend hours on the road traveling me to and from the gym and meets, all time spent away from my siblings or dragging them along for the ride. Why else would my coaches dedicate their days to my training and not to their business as a whole or to their own families? Winning made it worth it (…right?). And winning doesn’t have to mean medals and trophies, it could mean an invitation to training camp, selection for an international assignment, an offer from a NCAA school. Winning came in a lot of shapes and sizes, but nonetheless, it was always expected.
I don’t hold winning in such a high regard anymore. These days I actually get kind of agitated by people’s emphasis on winning. The medal that made me a World Champion never comes out of its box. Plenty of trophies are in my parent’s basement gathering dust. The tangible items that I thought defined me as a gymnast, and likewise as a person, mean so little to me as an adult. But there are some intangibles that I will always hold in a high regard, some things that make my sixteen-year love affair with the sport forever worthwhile.
I didn’t realize this until I stepped away from the sport and spent more time with the general population –you know, the people that didn’t grow up bathing in chalk and have no idea what a grip is – but gymnasts are a different breed. Yes, it takes a certain kind of “crazy” to do the skills we do, but right now, I’m simply referencing mindset. I speak for all too many when I say gymnasts are perfectionists. We see beauty in the grind. We want to blow people away with the effortlessness of our success. Hard work, discipline and dedication isn’t something to be complimented, it’s an expectation. I love seeing little girls walk into the arena at Elevate the Stage, wide-eyed and in awe of the big podium and bright lights. But as soon as the warmup jackets come off and they salute the judge, I can see their true character shine through and the most fearless competitors take the stage.
Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to compete collegiately. Ask me to share what I love about gymnastics and the short answer is always #NCAAgym. At the youth and, for the most part, elite level, gymnastics is individualized. College creates what feels like a brand-new sport, a team sport. But collegiate gymnastics is an expensive program for institutions to maintain and team rosters are always fewer than 20 athletes. In 2017-18, approximately 1,500 gymnasts competed across all three NCAA divisions. There are nearly 87,000 artistic gymnasts coming up through the ranks. Without even doing the math, we all know very few of them will get to be a part of that college atmosphere that I love. That is why Elevate the Stage means so much to me. The opportunity to bring NCAA gymnastics to cities all over the country familiarizes spectators with a beautiful sport. The event allows gymnasts of all ages to compete on a championship stage and provides little girls the opportunity to watch a level of gymnastics that motivated me through sixteen years in the sport. The opportunities are endless for anyone who steps foot into an Elevate the Stage arena.
Gymnastics is like music in a foreign language. With music, you don’t have to understand what is being said to call it beautiful. You don’t have to understand our judges, scoring or routine composition to be amazed by the athleticism, precision or fearlessness of a gymnast. I’ve been an athlete, spectator, fan and now a professional in the sport and the wonder of it all never evaporates. Like I said, I keep jumping head first for this sport. I hope with each collision I am making a positive impact.
Professionally, I work throughout the competitive season to give gymnasts, coaches and spectators from all over the country an impactful and memorable experience at a championship-style event. Personally, gymnastics has given me people, traits and tools that have shaped who I am as a person. Publicly, I’ve watched gymnasts link arms and speak as a collective voice on the world stage.
Gymnastics is sport, community, profession, family and everyday life for me. It resonates with people of all kinds, all over the world. Right now, gymnastics is synonymous with the word change, and I know it can all be for a positive impact in the end.
Gymnastics is everything worth loving, even when I really don’t want to sometimes.