Last night, I watched the documentary “Over the Limit”, which follows Russian rhythmic gymnast, Margarita Mamun, and her difficult path to Olympic gold.
Seeing the kinds of verbal and psychological abuse Mamun endured in training and competition and the crippling pressure she faced in representing her home nation, brought me back to my own days as a competitive rhythmic gymnast. My feelings were mixed.
On the one hand, I felt grateful for my career-ending injury, which took me away from the toxic and abusive culture of high-level competitive sports. As a gymnast, I faced all sorts of verbal abuse from my Eastern European coaches, who utilized punishment as a means of shaping mentally and physically tough athletes.
On the other hand, though, I felt a twisted sort of nostalgia for my life as an athlete. I do not miss being yelled at to the point of tears during training or being humiliated in front of all the other gymnasts and coaches at competition, if I failed to deliver a clean routine. I am glad I left all that abuse behind, six years ago. What I do miss, however, is being pushed to the breaking point— mentally, physically—each and every day. I know, sounds weird, right? Especially for someone who always preaches the importance of caring for mental health. The thing is, in spite of the pain and suffering I endured during my time as an athlete, I went to bed each night feeling accomplished, fulfilled, and proud of myself. In many ways, I romanticized pain and suffering. I believed that the more I suffered honorably, the more success I would attain. I was proud of the person and athlete I was. I had clear-cut goals, and there was nothing more fulfilling than achieving those goals, after so much sacrifice. Sacrifice of normalcy. Sacrifice of health. Sacrifice of well-being and fun. The pain and suffering I endured—it made the fruits of my accomplishments all the sweeter.
I was never the most talented rhythmic gymnast, and I knew the Olympics was a long-shot. My long-term goal instead was to make the USA National Team and represent my country internationally. I lived and breathed this dream, and woke up each morning with purpose, passion, and resolve. I knew exactly what I needed to do to achieve my long-term goal: train hard and stay focused. Life was simple. Every minute of every day was planned out, from the blaring of my 5:00am alarm, to the sweet comfort I felt crawling into my bed at the day’s close, physically and mentally exhausted, but completely at peace with myself.
I was always the hardest worker at the gym. The little girls looked up to me as a role model. Was life easy? No. But in many ways, I was living my very best life, during my time as an athlete. I was focused. I was disciplined. I was committed. Most of all, I was passionate. Every day, I got to live my passion. I loved gymnastics with every fiber of my being, and I poured my heart and soul into my sport.
My passion drove me to push myself beyond all physical pain, and even when the excruciating knee pain that started in 2012 eventually rendered me incapable of walking up the steps of my home, I continued to push. After a certain point, it was too much. At age 15, my knee injury forced me to leave competitive gymnastics.
To say I was devastated was an understatement. I fell into a deep, deep depression, and went through an identity crisis. For a long time, I felt totally lost without my sport. I didn’t know who I was or what my purpose was, without gymnastics. My momentum stopped, and I without a dream fueling my spirit, the fire within me extinguished. I continued to excel academically, as I always had. But school didn’t provide me with the same kind of fulfillment that gymnastics did. I missed training, I missed competing, I missed doing what I loved. My heart cried for something my body didn’t allow.
It took two years for my mind and body to heal from the trauma of the injury. The turning point in my recovery came when I was 17 years old. On Valentine’s Day of 2015, I discovered Latin-Ballroom dance. Never could I imagine that I’d find something that gave me as much fulfillment and meaning as gymnastics did. In many ways, dance is very similar to rhythmic gymnastics. Both are aesthetic, performance sports, allowing the athlete to express themselves through music. Dance, like gymnastics, is both physically and mentally demanding. If one is to succeed as a dancer, one must train and work hard and stay focused and disciplined. In pursuing dance competitively, I found something that rekindled my fire and competitive spirit. Because that is who I am, to the core—a competitor and performer.
Fast-forward to September of 2016, when I came to UCLA for university. I was freshly determined to be a pre-med student whilst continuing to dance competitively. In the beginning, I truly believed I would be able to do both. That I would be able to train 4 hours a day at the dance studio whilst maintaining a 4.0 GPA. I had no concept of limits. I believed that my time as a competitive athlete trained me to be superhuman, and that the rules and constraints of reality did not apply to me. And so, I pushed myself to my breaking point. Again, however, I pushed myself too far. This time, it wasn’t physical injury that broke me down. It was mental burnout. The culmination of 18 years of strict discipline and constant work, catching up to me. I snapped. I fell privy to the myriad of temptations surrounding college culture. I started engaging in vices like drinking and partying. I quit premed and stopped dancing. My grades started dropping. My whole life, I prided myself in being a great athlete and excellent student; a warrior and soldier with an iron will and unbreakable mental strength. The person that now stared back at me in the mirror, was unrecognizable.
I think the worst feeling one can experience is self-shame. After stepping into the underworld, I no longer felt pride in myself. Most nights, I’d tumble into bed, completely drunk, waking up with a pounding headache and little recall of the previous night’s events, and a deep, deep feeling of self-shame and self-loathing. I was a far-cry from the disciplined 13-year-old warrior I used to be. I hated the person I had become.
It is only now, during my third year at UCLA, that I’ve begun to straighten out. I’ve dug myself into a deep, deep hole. I don’t blame anyone or anything but myself. But I’m taking steps to crawl back out. I’ve committed myself to abstinence. I’m getting back into a healthy lifestyle of daily exercise and healthy eating. I’m cutting out the partying. Picking up dance once more. Studying hard. My academic performance these past two quarters have been excellent. Slowly but surely, I am beginning to recognize the person in the mirror—no longer a girl, but a woman. Coming to university opened her eyes to a whole new world. She experienced much and made many mistakes along the way, but in the process, she grew tremendously.
Watching “Over the Limit” brought me back to my roots as an athlete. It reminded me that deep inside remains the passionate fighter I once was. And so, I will fight. I will fight tooth-and-nail to regain my discipline, my work ethic, my integrity, morals, bravery, health. I will apply myself to my new goal of becoming a sports and performance psychologist, whilst continuing to grow as a dancer, writer, and figure skater.
My ten years as a gymnast were difficult. But they were also some of my best years. With that deep pain came deeper joy and fulfillment. Gymnastics taught me so, so much. I will always identify as a gymnast, for that part of my identity is my anchor that brings me back to the right path, when I go astray.