Wow. Those are the first words that came to mind, after I closed the book. Wow, was that relatable. I myself was no Olympic gymnast, but as a former competitive gymnast, I got a small taste of some the incredible toil Aly endured throughout her athletic career.
The physical and mental hard work. The numerous sacrifices made. The constant expectation of perfection. The endless, nauseating pressure to perform. The inability to think for oneself. The lack of a voice.
This is the nature of elite level gymnastics. This was Aly’s life. And reading about it made me rethink this whole Olympian thing. Did I really want that kind of life for myself? Constant outside scrutiny from all directions; everyone telling me I was one thing or another; having my fate determined by coaches, adjudicators, national team board members– anyone but myself; having the fate of my competitive career ride on one single routine; being alienated and torn apart if I failed to deliver. I think that, had I been exposed to that level of pressure, I would have broken down. Perhaps it was a blessing that I never was able to fulfill my Olympic dream.
Here’s a fact: Olympic-level gymnastics is not real life. In real life, you are allowed to mess up and not have the whole world come reigning down on you. These gymnasts are held to the standard of perfection, and nothing less. To perform less than what was expected of them would be to forfeit their careers, which to them, meant their very lives.
The demanding nature of gymnastics necessarily entails gymnasts to devote a huge part, if not all, of their lives to what they do. This, I can totally understand. Aly spent most of her life inside the gym, training under the tutelage of her coach, Mihai. When not at the gym, she’d be at national team training camps, or traveling the world for competitions. Aly did go to regular high school, but of course she never partook in social activities alongside her peers. She chose the life of gymnastics, and never looked back.
One thing that alarmed me when I read this book was the realization of just how abusive gymnastics is, especially at the elite level. For years, I had denied that I ever faced abuse during my competitive gymnastics days. I thought it was all a natural and necessary part of my sport. It was only later, when I started going to therapy, and had enough years to separate myself from my days as a gymnast, that it dawned on me– I had been abused as a gymnast. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. At the time, I put up with it, simply because I thought forgoing my own happiness and well-being was a necessary and heroic step to take on the path up the gymnastics hierarchy. I was young, then, but I thought the rest of my life was destined to be filled with stress, pressure, and suffering– all I had ever known.
I kept the fact that I had been abused as a gymnast close to myself for awhile, but reading about Aly’s story reaffirmed my experiences and wiped away any shadow of a doubt I had that gymnastics is, indeed, a sport of abuse.
In gymnastics, girls are conditioned to believe that nothing less of perfection is acceptable. That mistakes are a sin. That weakness is intolerable. That everything your superiors say, you must accept as truth. That your own voice does not matter.
Five years out of the sport, I still battle my “gymnastics demons” every day. Especially that of body image. The nonstop, obsessive talk about weight, and the need to lose weight… the whole thing was absurd and insufferable! Aly herself faced pressure to look a certain way– to reconcile her muscular, athletic build with society’s definition of womanly beauty. In her autobiography, she recounts being yelled at by a national team board member for eating a slice of cheese pizza after finishing a successful competition. She was made to feel so disgraced, embarrassed, and ashamed of herself… all over one slice of pizza. Like, COME ON! Give the girl a break, she just medaled at a world championship! She’s a kid, let her have a freaking slice of pizza, dammit!
Aly also recounts how, during one major international competition, the US fell short of gold during the team competition. They blamed one girl, Mattie Larson, who fell on the floor exercise. After the competition, everyone alienated her. Coaches, national team officials, teammates… as if she didn’t feel badly enough about her mistake, no one let her forget it. Did they think that she WANTED to fall on her tumbling pass? That she did so on purpose? She made a single mistake– but that single mistake had major consequences. That competition marked the last time Mattie competed on the elite circuit. One mistake. Just one mistake cost her her career.
I’m telling you, gymnasts are not held to human standards. The expectation is perfection, and that kind of thinking can be crippling.
And the whole Larry Nassar situation. The well-accredited, outwardly funny, charming, and kind USA Gymnastics team doctor for decades. He was recently charged with sexually abusing hundreds of current and former national team gymnasts. Nassar is a monster, there’s no denying it. But it was the environment in which these gymnasts trained, and the type of mindset fostered by the nature of gymnastics, that made the conditions so ripe for sexual abuse to have happened. From a young age, gymnasts are taught to never talk back to their coaches or authority figures. To listen to everything your coach says, and to execute without objection. Gymnastics taught me a lot of life lessons, but it certainly did not teach me how to speak up for myself. Which is part of the reason why, I think, so many gymnasts didn’t come forward when they were being violated by Nassar during his infamous “massages”, among other things.
I wish there was a way for girls to enjoy high-level gymnastics without having to go through everything Aly and her fellow Olympians went through. Of course becoming an Olympian takes numerous sacrifices… but does well-being have to be one of them? Maybe that’s why Olympians are such highly decorated athletes. Because the journey getting there is one not many can survive.
I just wonder, do all retired gymnasts struggle as much as I do with the scars and psychological trauma of all the years of abuse? Maybe I’m just being “oversensitive”. Maybe what I see as abuse, others perceive to be a normal part of competitive athletics. Maybe others are better able to compartmentalize their “gymnastics life” and their “real life”, and are smart enough to understand that not everything you learn in gymnastics translates to life off the carpet. Also, who am I to single-handedly go up against an institutionalized practice that’s worked for numerous decades to produce the finest of athletes? Especially in the culture of Eastern European and Asian athletics, the quickest way to seeing results is to push the athlete beyond their limits, usually via fear tactics. Scare them to perfection. Is it morally sound? Doesn’t sound like it. But is it still a practice used today? Yes. Because, more often than not, the tactic brings home gold medals. But, as former Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug once said, “There’s more to life than winning medals.”
All that said, I don’t ever regret having been a gymnast. It was the life I chose for ten years, and a life that, in spite of all the pain and suffering, shaped me into the strong woman I am today. I put up with the abuse because I loved my sport; because, despite the grueling hours spent inside a suffocating gym, with my coach constantly yelling at me to do better, I loved gymnastics, and being able to do it made me so happy. I loved training day in and day out in the pursuit of improvement, and always felt so rewarded when I saw the hard work pay off at competition.
One thing I learned in my post-gymnastics years is this: there is a LIFE beyond gymnastics… a life where not everything is measured by your performance. A life where you are worth something more than the number on the scoreboard. I look forward to hearing how Aly’s life after gymnastics plays out. I am sure she will shine, just as she did in her golden athletic career.