“You’re not living up to your potential.” Those are probably the scariest words anyone has ever spoken to me. I’ve spent my entire life running as fast and as far as I can, trying to grasp that elusive goal. It seems like I should be able to do it – after all it is my potential – and yet I never quite get there.
My teen years were a blur of trying to always be ten steps ahead of where I was. I couldn’t be thin enough or smart enough or fun enough to represent the real me. College was worse. I never got so much as an A- and was Valedictorian of every graduating class I’ve ever been in. I gave my Valedictory address with an IV catheter still taped to my hand because I’d worried myself literally sick about what was next. How do you top 6 years of hyperachievement?
Mostly it was fear. Because the corollary of “you could be so much more” is “you aren’t good as you are now.” And if straight A’s and scholarships and slim hips wasn’t good enough then what was I going to have to do to get there? Could I possibly do anymore? Perhaps I was just dumber and fatter and lazier than people realized. Maybe I was at my full potential and they were the ones who didn’t get it. But I didn’t dare tell them lest they be disappointed in me.
It was with this attitude that I approached everything in my life, including gymnastics. Have you ever loved something with your whole being – so much that you dreamed about it and cried about it and read about it until you were so full of it that you couldn’t bear it all – and then not been good at it? I was a competitive gymnast. I practiced gymnastics up through my sophomore year of college. And I sucked. I’m not being modest.
I never made it to a level 10 (the highest competitive level) much less the elite level. I flailed and fell. I broke my foot three times in six weeks in the same spot doing the same trick. I was too tall and too heavy. I lacked the grace and skill that is characteristic of the sport. But I loved it. Oh, how I loved it. That feeling of flying under nothing more than your own power is magnificent. I still dream about it to this day.
But for all the flying there is even more falling. First of all, everything in gymnastics is measured deductions. Unlike other sports where you start at zero and then get credit for what you do, in gymnastics your routines are ranked at what score you would get if you performed everything perfectly, at your full potential. And then every little wobble, kneebend and misstep is deducted from that perfect mark. From the second you step onto the spring floor (you do know that floor has two-foot steel springs underneath it, right?) people are subtracting you.
It doesn’t stop with the scoring. “The less you weigh, the higher you fly,” was the motto at my gym. They never encouraged disordered eating outright but the constant weigh-ins in front of your teammates surely made even the strongest girls consider it.
Jennifer Sey, 1986 US National Champion, outlines this dilemma perfectly in her new book Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastic’s Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders and Elusive Dreams. (Seriously, how did that title get okayed by an editor?? That’s not a title, it’s a freaking plot summary.) In it, she details the tragedy that can occur when you take very young girls – gymnasts usually peak by 16 – with competitive, perfectionistic personalities and put them in a sport that demands nothing short of everything.
In the most heartbreaking moment in the book, Jennifer recounts how her highest gymnastic achievement – winning the national championships and becoming internationally ranked – was turned into just one more failure. Sporting two black eyes (covered for the cameras by makeup) and an open head wound sustained from a fall on the beam due to living for months on 500 calories a day while enduring 7 hour workouts, along with a shattered ankle and a broken-and-never-healed femur that required cortisone shots before every event, she was told that all of it meant nothing unless she made the Olympic team. Which would have meant maintaining her grueling workouts for another two years. Broken, battered, abused and eating disordered, she walked away from the sport she loved because even after everything she’d sacrificed, she still wasn’t good enough.
I wish there was a happy ending to this story – she did get married and have two kids and repair relations with her family – but she writes that every day, every mistake she makes, reminds her of what a failure she is. Because she didn’t live up to her full potential.
This year, in the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese team includes He Kexin (pictured in all 3 photos). World renowned for her unparalleled skill on the uneven bars, she is a controversial figure. Olympic rules state a competitor must be at least 16 years old. But in gymnastics, the younger girls are more flexible, more fearless, more agile and, of course, smaller. He Kexin is 16 according to her Chinese-issued passport. She is 14 according to her actual birth certificate.
Yet no one will file a complaint for fear of retribution from the Chinese judges. And I fear that even if someone were to intervene on behalf of the tiny girl, she wouldn’t take it. Because she has to live up to her potential.