Like so many young gymnasts and their families, my daughter and I will be on a first-name basis with the U.S. Gymnastics team — Aly and Gabby, Madison, Simone (!) and Laurie.
We’ll be awed by their powerful, beautiful skills. My daughter soon begins her third year on the YMCA’s gymnastics team. I’ll watch and wonder how elite athletes handle their nerves when the spotlight’s so bright, the stakes so high.
One freakishly warm winter day my daughter, Saskia, had a gymnastics meet. While it was a record-warm winter day in New England, her feet were cold. Icy cold. “I don’t want to go to the meet!” she cried. I corralled us into the van, anyway. She wasn’t in her uniform.
“Your team needs you,” I reminded her.
“Who cares?” she shot back. “I’m not going.”
We pulled onto the highway.
She wasn’t a newbie. A second year teammate, her legs had gotten straighter during performances and she remembered to salute when she completed a routine or vault. The first year’s level one meets had been fewer and smaller.
At level two, the stakes were raised a notch. Maybe that increased pressure was just enough for the enterprise to feel different. She liked to perform in exhibitions, she liked to dangle upside down, and to hang out at practices with her friends. She harbored no Olympic dreams.
I found a parking space in the crowded, slushy lot. “I’m not competing,” she protested. We waited in a dank hallway for her group to be ushered into the gymnasium. There I handed both leotard and girl to her coach. “Tears,” I explained to the coach. “Resistance.”
“No problem,” her coach replied. “I’ve got this.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Good luck.” I blew my gymnast a kiss. “Have fun,” I called out.
Other team parents affirmed I’d done my part to get her into the arms – firm, good-humored, and loving ones – of her coaches.
I don’t harbor Olympic dreams, either. Four hours a week of practice is plenty. Olympic hopefuls practice — just practice — about 30 hours a week. That’s a number you’ll probably hear a bunch when commentators in Rio need to fill up airspace.
My older kids weren’t on teams like this at eight years old (well, not ever). But when Saskia was invited to try out for the team, I wholly endorsed the idea that she channel her considerable physical energies. Translation: tire her out, please! These coaches were wonderful teachers she trusted. I admire how they nurture friendships and team spirit, the gym feels warm and affirming, not mean-spirited or body-shaming or negative.
Competitions – and nerves – weren’t my area of expertise. Unsure what might have triggered her sudden strike, I truly believed what I’d said to her that morning — she was on a team and she had a responsibility to represent that team. So, a bit anxiously, I waited.
A few minutes later, uniform on, she warmed up with her teammates. By then, she was grinning. Everyone stood for the national anthem. Soon thereafter, she giggled with her friends, watched them compete, and she competed as well. She had a great time. She beamed during the endless medal ceremony. Problem – whatever it was – solved.
Not so fast. “I want to quit!” became a teary, pre-meet refrain. Again and again, I trotted out the “teammates depend upon you” line. At meets, her angst dissipated, she looked like a happy gymnast, regardless of how she placed or performed. In fact, she paid little attention to that.
Her scores qualified her for state and regional championships. States was an easy drive from home. Regionals, though, happened over two hours away at eight in the morning. If she’d been reticent about regular meets, how would she fare before larger championships, with two judges per event, and more competitors? I braced myself.
At states, she pulled off some of her year’s best performances. She bobbled, too. Afterwards, medals clanging in her large blue gymnastics bag, she wore a big smile. “I realized that I love meets,” she announced. “And I realized that I was scared of beam but actually, beam’s my favorite event.”
Overnight, she cartwheeled everywhere, and was as likely to be upside down as right-side up. She began to practice handstands constantly.
Regionals were even bigger than states. We stayed overnight in a hotel. Early morning, the breakfast lobby filled with girls and hairspray and ribbons and hairstyling moms. We barely managed a high ponytail.
In the meet, she performed steadily. Aside from beam, no performance was her best ever. On beam, though, she did beautifully and earned her personal best score for the year, coming in fifth. She was thrilled.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned a lot.
For instance, so much about raising humans can be counterintuitive. In this case, the big meet isn’t necessarily harder than the smaller. And we have to be willing to be surprised.
For both of us, the most important lesson is: it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It really is how you play the game.