Kathy (a friend who doesn't have an LJ/Dreamwidth account), asked me to talk about 'doing gymnastics.' Given we met when she was six and I was eight, while we were doing gymnastics, I think that's a very appropriate topic!
I started gymnastics when I was seven, when my mother noticed that I was spending more time on my hands than my feet, and seemed to be climbing to the tops of trees and playground equipment on every available opportunity. Her suspicion proved correct: I loved gymnastics, and continued to do gymnastics for the next ten years. I began in the 'recreational' group, which was a class of one hour a week, and slowly made my way from the lowest levels of regional competitive gymnastics (the kinds of competitions where hundreds of girls were packed into a tiny gymnasium and everyone got a ribbon) to state- and national-level competitions which involved months of arduous training, and, for some reason, industrial quantities of glittery hairspray holding beribboned french braided hair in place. At my peak, I was training for around twelve hours a week, and was strong enough to do fifty chin-ups, hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups without effort, and could climb a rope with weights tied around my ankles, using only my arms.
It was clear, pretty early on, that I was not destined for the Olympics, but I still worked incredibly hard, because it was important to me to do as well as I could at the level I was at, and I was the sort of child and teenager who had no problem with endless repetition and practice, as long as it led to a successful score, exam result, grade, or praise from authority figures. It also helped that I really, really loved doing gymnastics - learning the skills, though sometimes difficult and frustrating, was fun, and because they weren't skills that the average person could do without training, I always felt a real sense of achievement when I learnt to do something well. And, best of all, doing routines on my favourite apparatus - bars - felt like flying.
I'd like to talk about two other things I came to appreciate about being a gymnast. These were not apparent to me at the time, but as an adult, it's clear to me that there were two major benefits to being a gymnast beyond simply physical fitness and another arena in which to develop a good work ethic.
Firstly, precisely because I was not naturally very good at gymnastics - and indeed was not even the best gymnast in my group/team, let alone regionally or nationally - being a gymnast gave me the experience of a decade of working really, really hard at something in which I was never going to succeed. This meant, firstly, that I had to redefine how I understood 'success': success as a gymnast thus became learning new skills, and, after months of hard, repetitious work, performing them as well as I could, progressing to higher levels, and getting scores that I considered to be reasonable. Secondly, a lot of things came easily to me as a child, and I think it was helpful to have areas of my life, such as gymnastics (maths was a similar area, and piano, although I did well in exams, was not naturally easy to me and required hours of practice) in which I had to work very, very hard. I think this gave me a sense of perspective, and prepared me for times later in life in which persistent, repetitive, consistent work would be required.
The second reason I'm grateful for my decade doing gymnastics is that it spared me a lot of traumas and pains of adolescence, especially those common to being a teenage girl. Because I spent the years between the ages of seven and seventeen running around in a mixed-gender gym wearing very little clothing, I managed to avoid body-image issues, instead viewing my body purely as something powerful, something that could do extraordinary things. Because gymnastics took up so much of my spare time, I missed out on most of the house parties, underage nightclubbing, and drunken nights hanging out in the playgrounds of inner-south Canberra that were common to my cohort (and indeed attended by many of my friends). Although these often sounded like a lot of fun, they were also the site of a lot of heartbreak, dubiously consensual sexual activity - and occasionally, sexual assault and violence - none of which we were equipped to deal with. I can remember conversations with my female friends, when we were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen that worried me for reasons I couldn't then articulate, but which now fill me with sadness, as well as relief that I was spared those particular experiences during my teenage years. Of course, what ended up happening was that all the angst, and painful or mortifyingly embarrassing experiences that normally happen in your teens happened to me in my twenties! I might have been slightly more mature than I would've been as a teenager, but I was still ill-equipped to handle them, and my early-to-mid-twenties were really awful in lots of ways. I'm still glad I missed out on all that in my teens, though.
I had to give up gymnastics when I was seventeen, nearly eighteen, towards the end of my second-last year of secondary school, due to both the pressure of schoolwork and the fact that a decade of slamming with the full force of momentum, speed and gravity onto my narrow, flat feet had taken its toll. There's a reason you don't see many older gymnasts - Oksana Chusovitina notwithstanding - the body can't take it after a while. But I still keep vaguely in touch with the goings on at my old gymnastics club (which is now run by a former teammate of mine, and her husband, who was a fellow gymnast at our club), watch Olympic gymnastics, the World Championships, and other high-level competitions whenever they come around, and am still friends with people I met more than twenty years ago when we were little girls dressed in the best in lurid '90s lycra, dreaming of our very own puffy fringes.