“You’re not living up to your potential.” Those are probably the scariest words anyone has ever spoken to me and while they’ve ricocheted through my brain as long as I can remember, when a friend casually said them to me it was as if all the air had been sucked out of me. (Much like the time in my junior lifeguarding class when my bad-at-following-directions partner did rescue breathing on me for real. I swear I almost died.) 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 literally worried myself sick about what was next. How do you top six 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. Leave it to me to gravitate to the sport where everything 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,” is the unofficial motto of many gymnasts. It’s not so much disordered eating as irrefutable physics. Aerodynamic bodies perform better tricks. It’s why children rule the sport despite it being called “women’s gymnastics.”
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.
You may recall the controversy in the 2008 Beijing Olympics surrounding the Chinese gymnast He Kexin (pictured in all 3 photos). World renowned for her unparalleled skill on the uneven bars, she fell short on one crucial measure: age. 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, at the time of the competition, was 16 according to her Chinese-issued passport. She was 14 according to her actual birth certificate.
In the end it didn’t matter: the Chinese won the team gold and He Kexin also took the gold on the bars. After that she took the World Champion title in 2009. But her career had a tragic turn when she fell at the World Championships in 2010 taking her out of competition. The world has already moved on to the next promising girl. Let’s hope this one can live up to her potential.
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everythingfor more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!