Taking Risks

There was a time when I was extremely afraid to step out of my comfort zone. A gymnast for ten years, I devoted my life to one thing, and one thing alone- gymnastics. I devoted myself to the sport, but sacrificed school life, social life, even family life. Gymnastics was my life. It was all I ever knew.

Imagine the shock I felt when, at age fifteen, a second semester freshman in high school, I was told that I would never be able to compete again due to extensive knee injuries. Gymnastics was my comfort zone- my friends were from gymnastics; my confidence stemmed from gymnastics; my sole identity was that of a gymnast. Gymnastics was my ultimate bubble. It took me high up into the skies of glory and success, but when that bubble popped, I came crashing down onto the hard pavement called reality.

During the initial stages of rebuilding my life after the injury, I remember feeling extremely bitter. I was bitter about having to start from square one as a beginner again. I excelled as as gymnast, but found all other aspects of my life- relationships, academics, life skills- to be completely devoid of nurturing. I remember asking God why He let this happen to me. I remember feeling worthless, lost, unsure of my identity and role without gymnastics as my anchor. Beneath all that bitterness, however, was an overwhelming fear. Fear of the unknown.

It took me two years after the injury until I mustered the courage to actively explore new hobbies and passions outside of gymnastics. I attribute this turning point largely to therapy. At my lowest point, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder brought upon by the years of living a high-pressured, competitive athletic career that fueled my already perfectionistic character, to the point where each day felt like walking on eggshells. I didn’t want to mess up; I feared failure and how others would perceive me if I appeared flawed. Because of this obsession with perfection, I closed myself off to the opportunities of trying new things. I lived a safe, risk-free life. Yet I was far from being happy, and even further from feeling fulfilled.

Therapy saved me. Together, my therapist and I worked on changing my distorted thoughts from striving for “perfection” to striving to be “my best”. Once my illusory idea of perfection was stripped away, I was able to open myself up to new experiences without fear of judgement from others. It was ultimately filling my life with new experiences and new people that enabled me to move past gymnastics and rebuild an identity from scratch.

When I started to step outside my comfort zone during second semester of junior year, I was EXTREMELY afraid. However, it was this acceptance of the unknown, and ability to act in spite of fear, that propelled me forward. Was I terrified walking into my first ballroom dance class on Valentine’s Day of 2015? Oh yes. What about that acting class I went to with my two close friends? You can bet I was shaking the whole way to the acting coach’s house. Don’t even get me started on the public speaking class I took at community college during summer of 2015. I vomited the morning of the first session! But what is the common thread among all of these experiences? I was afraid. But did I let the overwhelming fear turn me away? No. I kept going to those dance lessons. I stuck out the entire six weeks of public speaking. I kept. Showing. Up.

But man, am I glad I took that initial ice-cold water plunge into the storms of the unknown. That experience- moving past gymnastics by stepping out of the comfort of the familiar- has taught me some valuable life lessons, the most important being: taking risks, stepping outside your comfort zone, and carrying on in the presence of fear propels personal growth.

These past two years, I’ve experienced more emotional and spiritual growth as a person than I did in my ten years as as gymnast. Granted, the demanding nature of the sport forced me to live such an extreme life of sacrifice (as I’m sure many highly dedicated athletes and artists know). However, I must say that to devote oneself entirely to ONE THING, and to become exceptional at ONE THING, really does not leave much room for personal growth. If I were to do it over again, I would still work hard as as gymnast, but would also maintain a sufficient balance in other aspects of my life, leaving time for family, friends, and experiences outside of the sport.

Thus, my current life mantra- take risks. Even the smallest of risks will bring great fulfillment and confidence. The following are some examples of ways in which I’ve applied my mantra to everyday life:

  • Instead of replaying all the “what’if” scenario’s in your head, just ask out that boy/girl you like, dammit! For my senior prom, I asked this one guy to be my date. Was I nervous while asking him over the phone? Oh yeah. Did he say yes? You can bet he did! At the end, he couldn’t make it due to last minute scheduling conflict. But the point is, by taking a chance and asking this guy to prom, I put myself out there, made myself vulnerable, but gained satisfaction and newfound confidence in the process.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions and participate in class. Let’s be honest- expressing your ideas can be scary. You open yourself up to judgement and even criticism from others. Don’t let this fact stop you from getting your voice heard. I remember sitting in on a statistics class at UCLA, and having a burning question for the TA. I was nervous to raise my hand to ask this burning question, worrying that my question would be dumb, or that the TA would discover I wasn’t an actual UCLA student and kick me out. But I did it anyway, because I figured, why the hell not? The TA ended up giving this long-winded answer to my question, and I was left both satisfied and proud of myself for being able to ask a smart question amidst a bunch of college students.
  • Have you ever dreamt of dancing like the professionals on Dancing with the Stars
    , but was terrified to do so because you worried you would suck? Yup. That was me a year and a half ago. I knew I wanted to try latin dance, but I worried about little things, like “What if my hand sweats too much”, or “What if I’m simply too shy to gyrate my hips like that?” Well, I ended up putting all those insecurities behind me, and carried out my goal. And now I’m dancing  competitively!! Competitions still terrify me (yes, even after 10 years of competitive gymnastics), but that just shows there is always room for growth. That is why I’m committing myself to compete as much as I can before I go to college, with hopes of getting more comfortable on the competition floor. Bottom line is, don’t let fear hinder you from doing what you want to do.

I’d like to conclude this post with a quotation from Nelson Mandela that effectively embodies what I stand for:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

~Nelson Mandela

Such words eloquently describe my life’s mantra: Step outside your comfort zone. The view on the other side is incredible.

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