Alison Berkley Margo: The Princess’s Palate
August 1, 2012
You guys probably don’t know this, but I was a pretty serious gymnast once.
My mom put me in gymnastics when I was 8 years old because she noticed I was getting a little “thick through the midsection,” as my dad would describe it. She thought that would be a good way to address the issue without actually saying anything about it.
That worked out pretty well until my coaches just came out with it and told me I was too fat. They said I’d get point deductions for not having a more chiseled stomach. I had a four-pack instead of a six-pack. They told me to go on a diet. But when you’re 10 years old, you don’t even know what dieting is. All you care about is getting a prize with your Happy Meal.
It wasn’t like I wasn’t training enough. I became one of those special athlete kids who had my whole schedule rearranged so I could leave school at 2 o’clock and go straight to the gym for a four-hour practice.
Saturday practice was even longer – we had an hour of ballet and three hours of “conditioning” which consisted of things I couldn’t even imagine doing today: 50 chin-ups, 50 chin-up pullovers, 50 leg lifts, 50 pushups, 10 standing back tucks, five rows of five back handsprings, and splits with one foot elevated on a mat that we’d have to hold for two minutes on each side.
Despite all that, I was still too fat, but working out like a fiend and never getting skinny would end up being the story of my life.
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“How come there are no photos of me doing gymnastics?” I asked my mom the other day.
“I don’t think we were allowed to take photos,” she said in a tone that suggested she really had no excuse.
“But why aren’t there any photos of me with my teammates or anything?” I persisted.
“Oh, I don’t know. We didn’t take photos back then like we do now.”
“Really.” I knew she was reaching. “Is that why Ryan’s dad has home videos of, like, everything he ever did?”
I want to know if it was how I remember it. Was I any good? I think I was, at least until I started getting injured and then I started holding back, which led to more injuries.
I do remember winning ribbons and medals. I remember the leotards and the sweatsuits that were navy blue with yellow stripes up the sides and had our names embroidered on the front and “Gymnastics Training Center” on the back. I remember the blisters on the palms of our hands and the bruises on my legs. I remember the way the chalk smelled and the way the beam felt underneath my feet and how we always had to walk on our toes, even just walking around the gym.
I remember having no life other than gymnastics.
It got harder as we got older. Once, our coaches let us take a Friday night practice off to go to the junior high school dance. It was an exciting night – everyone kissed someone, and for one night, we were like normal teenagers. Our coaches were furious with us for being so distracted. That sort of put things into perspective: We saw what we were missing, and we all pretty much quit after that.
I remember thinking, “I’m not going to win, so what’s the point?” I knew by age 12 that I wasn’t going to the top.
Still, everything was easy after gymnastics. I became a diver for a while, loving landing in water rather than a hard floor or a narrow beam. In high school, I played soccer and lacrosse and couldn’t believe our practices were only two hours – so easy! No doubt gymnastics was an optimal platform for any sport. It taught me about dedicating yourself intensely to something, which is the only real reward since there can only be one champion after all.
That’s why I’m, like, a wreck watching these girls in the Olympics. I’m on the edge of the couch with a pile of tissues, my throat in a lump, bags under my eyes, telling Ryan to be quiet every other second (nothing unusual about that), staying up later than I should.
What I know of the rigors of the sport is nothing compared with what these girls are facing. It’s like the opposite of “A for effort” or “It’s how you play the game.” It’s gold medal or bust. It’s putting all of your eggs in one basket. It’s putting your life on the line.
I get especially squirmy when they show the parents’ reactions from the stands. Like, did these girls put this kind of pressure on themselves before they’re even old enough to drive? I doubt it.
All I can say is thank God Team USA won the gold. I’m actually scared for those Russian girls. The way they were carrying on with the tears and the frozen expressions on their faces, you wonder if they’re going to be in big trouble when they get home.
On that note, thank God Michael Phelps was able to pull off the medal-winning record and get the media off his back. They’ve been hounding the poor guy just because he got busted smoking weed and hanging out with strippers. Of course he does! I get enough of a thrill just watching those boys parade around half naked and lithe and ripped, all wet and shirtless. They deserve to party with strippers.
Anyhoo, back to women’s gymnastics. (It is hard to switch gears watching sometimes, though, isn’t it?)
Victory is glorious, but making history is a lot of pressure. I can only hope that rather than those who don’t bring home gold being traumatized for life, at least everything will seem easy to them after this.
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