We interrupt your regularly scheduled coverage to bring you a nonfiction narrative from one of our favorite gymnasts-turned-writers, Diana Gallagher, author of the upcoming young adult novel Lessons in Falling. Grab some tea, get cozy on the couch, and enjoy! (Or ignore your responsibilities and read at your desk at work. We don’t judge.)
One day, my coworker, Marly, and I decide to challenge our gymnasts in a way they’ll never expect. As they line up in front of us at the end of practice, I tell them the deal. “If two of the levels win first place team at a competition, then we—” I gesture to Marly and myself “—will compete at a meet.”
Eyes widen. Jaws drop. “What level will you compete? What events?”
“Are you really going to do it?” a skeptic asks, and when I assure her we’re for real, she jumps up and down. “This is so cool!”
“We have to win,” says one of the older girls. Everyone nods.
It’s exactly the reaction we hoped for, and it’s enough of a challenge. So we think.
At the very next meet, one of the levels wins the team award on Saturday morning – a pleasant surprise. On Sunday morning, the Level 3s are dominating their respective age groups. As the team awards are announced, I’m excited and a little terrified.
“And in first place…”
When our gym is called up for their winning team banner, I text Marly two simple words: WE’RE SCREWED.
We decide to compete USAIGC, an alternative league to USAG, and specialize on floor at the Gold level (equivalent of USAG level 8). Marly was a level 10/pre-elite gymnast. I competed level 9. Even being rusty, Gold should be attainable. Months away, we have time to prepare.
Suddenly, it’s March. The meet’s in April. Amount of training accomplished: none.
“Are we really doing this?” Marly gives me that why did I agree to these shenanigans? look.
I’ve attended open gyms with former teammates who will happily hurl themselves into the air without any kind of preparation. They aren’t concerned that they’ve not stretched those creaking muscles and cracking joints. They’re just relishing the feeling of being airborne again.
So, sans stretching, I trot across the floor. When I land my back tuck, my knee immediately crunches. Not an injury. But it doesn’t feel sturdy.
Marly does a full, lands, and dramatically keels over to the ground, gasping for air.
We’re off to a great start.
I choreograph a routine to the Game of Thrones main theme, decide I hate it, and switch to Requiem for a Dream, which could well be Requiem for a Knee depending on how the meet goes. (Between Requiem and music from the miscellaneous Step Up movies, I fit right in with the teens I’ll be competing against.) I spend thirty minutes stretching and approximately two minutes tumbling. My knee still feels crunchy.
“What are your tumbling passes going to be?” the gymnasts ask.
“A back tuck,” I say. “And…a front handspring?”
They laugh, but I’m serious. I can’t risk getting hurt for this one floor routine. Without a two-salto pass, my start value won’t be out of a 10.0, but perhaps my back tuck will wow the world.
“You can definitely do a two-salto pass,” one of the teens says encouragingly. “You were a college gymnast!”
Yes. Many moons ago.
This is just for fun, I remind myself as dread sets in. Who cares? The gymnasts and their parents will be entertained no matter how we do. The bigger takeaway is that we fulfill our end of the bargain, showing that we keep our word. Integrity and other positive life lessons.
At midnight the night before the meet, I realize the truth. I don’t want to just survive; I want a shot of doing well at this thing.
Because I think I can do better. That I’m holding myself back for fear of injury and, namely, embarrassment. Who cares if I’m twenty-nine? Oksana Chusovitina would laugh in my face and then qualify to the Olympic vault finals. I watch videos of Mel Doucette chasing her elite dreams, learning new skills while her former teammates are probably settling into “real jobs,” and I’m inspired.
Here’s the truth: I’m competitive. I don’t want to show up without a 10.0 start value when I secretly think that my body can handle it. And there’s a part of me that, sometimes loudly and other times subtly, has missed the nerves and the highs of competition, of performing, of doing more than I believed I was capable of.
If it’s physically possible to step up my game tomorrow, I’ll find a way.
The Last Chance Invitational takes place on a warm Saturday evening as sunlight streams across the gym through the open garage door. Incidentally, it’s the same gym where I had my first meet ever as a tender Level 4. Back then, I’d been tempted to ask my parents to turn the car around before we arrived. Today, I’m not feeling much different.
At the age of twelve, I was a random kid in a crushed velvet maroon leotard. (Ah, the ’90s, when questionable leotards abounded.) At twenty-nine, all of the coaches and judges know me.
We present ourselves to the judge – our athletes in their elegant long-sleeved leotards, Marly and me in matching black tank leos that our boss generously donated to the cause. “Hi, girls,” the judge says. “How special that you get to compete with your coaches!”
Coaches from other teams pop over. “When are you guys up? We want to watch!”
No hope of flying under the radar here.
Marly, fit and fierce at twenty-one, tumbles first in the warm-ups. She sprints across the floor, does a back layout, flies backwards – and crashes into the bar judge’s table.
That’s one way to make a statement.
“You need to spot me,” I warn our fellow coach who’s here to make sure none of us die (luckily, he has a long wingspan). He nods and walks out to the center of the floor, waiting.
I wipe my sweating palms on my legs, run, and chuck a two-salto pass for the first time in seven years.
“Yeah, Diana!” the gymnasts shout as I land, and I’m surprised, too. In fact, it felt good. The crunching in my knee is a distant memory.
Except when the timed warm-up ends, I’m so jittery that I wonder how the heck I survived all those years of competing. Was I always this nervous? God, who would ever subject themselves to this masochism?
Our fellow coach takes the score cards and makes the line-up. One thing I’ve tried to instill in my athletes is that it doesn’t matter who goes first at a meet. Everyone’s gotta go at some point, and the order is meaningless.
“I can’t go first!” I exclaim with all of the maturity of my nearly-thirty years.
“I’ll go first,” one of our seventeen-year-olds says.
Her routine flies by. Then, for the first time in years, I salute to the judge instead of being the one who raises her hand for the gymnast to begin. I lower into my starting pose as, around the gym, heads turn to watch.
I stand in the corner for my first pass, look down the floor, and begin to run.
As soon as my hands go down for the round-off, my arms feel tired. Not good – I throw the whipback, land low, toss the back handspring, set into the back tuck, close my eyes, say a little prayer, flail my arms for good measure—
And land on my feet.
My gymnasts shout and cheer, coaches around the floor applaud, and I’m so relieved that I start laughing. A little. After all, there’s still the rest of the routine, and I intend to make the best of it.
“On floor exercise,” the announcer begins, “we have a tie for first place.”
Marly and I lock eyes.
The announcer doesn’t bother with the formalities of our full legal names. “Marly and Diana!”
We scamper up on the rickety podium and accept our medals, laughing the entire time.
Sure, it’s a fun local meet that won’t go down in the annals of gymnastics history. But I keep that medal around my neck as we walk out of the gym. I pushed myself, I did what I was afraid to do, and it paid off. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve always taken away from this sport, and being reminded of that is as high an adrenaline rush as any tumbling pass.
“Next year,” Marly says after we’ve snapped a selfie with the gold, “I think we should do the all-around.”
To relive the thrills of the Last Chance, you can watch here.
Diana Gallagher is a coach, Level 10 and NCAA judge, former collegiate gymnast, and reigning Last Chance floor co-champion (see ya in 2016!). She’s also the author of the young adult novel LESSONS IN FALLING, about an ex-gymnast afraid to take risks after an injury, which releases September 8. Follow her on Twitter at @DianaMarieGal.