We’re back with the translation for the second episode of the podcast Far From Being Done With Gymnastics [in German: Ausgeturnt – Noch Lange Nicht!], in which two-time Olympic medalist Dagmar Kersten talks about her time as a top athlete in the GDR, or East Germany. With stories from her childhood and her time at a sports school, through to becoming a candidate for the 1988 Olympic team, she not only traces her own career as a contemporary witness, but also provides insight into the life of a top athlete in a socialist system. Look forward to exciting stories from childhood dreams, injuries, state doping and Stasi files, to Olympic medals.
A big thank you to Dagmar Kersten for giving us permission to translate her words into English, and to Kristina for providing the translation. You can listen to the podcast in its original German on Spotify.
TW: This episode discusses intensive training with information relating to food and weight, including specific numbers.
Episode 2 – Vernunft in Form
Welcome to the second episode of my podcast, Ausgeturnt. In the last episode, I told you a bit about how I was spotted, how my path in the gymnastics center went, and how I got accepted to the children’s and youth sports school. In the current episode, today, I would like to tell you how I arrived at the boarding school in the children’s and youth sports school in Berlin, what my everyday training looked like, and what I did at school.
I came to the sports school in 1979 and, as I said, I was just nine years old. It was determined that different sports should have different entrance times at the school. For example, figure skaters started school even earlier than gymnasts. They were already at the children’s and youth sports school in first grade, while gymnasts started there in third grade, and other sports, like diving, didn’t have students begin until fourth grade. Swimmers, at least the women, didn’t come to the school until the fifth grade, and athletics and other sports had students begin in seventh or eighth grade. The women were always enrolled a little earlier, but I don’t know exactly why it was done that way.
Dynamo Berlin – that’s where I arrived at the age of nine. It was overwhelming. It was just huge, the area now covers 45 hectares [111 acres] with various sports facilities including two gyms, three speed skating halls, various swimming pools, and so on. It’s hard to imagine. It was like a separate city within a city. Some of it was surrounded by walls. It was kind of fenced off. You could get to the Dynamo Sportforum from the side streets, but there was an official main entrance and you had to go past the porter, and from there it was a long way to the boarding schools [for students]. At the beginning of the property there were speed skating halls and boarding schools and dining rooms for athletes who were already on the national team. And the further back you went, there were the schools and boarding schools for the athletes who had just started. Of course, we were relatively far back, and the gym was the last building.
The boarding schools had four floors. On each floor there were very long hallways, 10 rooms on each side, and there were always between three or four beds in a room, which was of course super exciting as a child. We just had a lot of fun. It’s kind of like a holiday camp, if you know of something like that and can imagine it. And I stayed with good friends and we had typical boarding school furniture. It was super ugly. It was a kind of cherry wood imitation and I recently googled it a bit and found it quite funny that the product line of the GDR [East Germany] was described as “unspectacular” and I can only confirm that. The GDR’s furniture line was called Vernunft in Form [this is literally “Reason in Form” and kind of means the furniture is more functional and practical rather than design-oriented], and to be honest, what else do you expect from “Vernunft in Form” other than furniture that just serves to work and not look a bit nice?
But enough about the interior design, and more about life in boarding school. In the first year, I was in a triple bedroom with my fellow gymnasts. We each had a closet, there was space for hangers on the right-hand side, and a few shelves on the left-hand side, and everyone had exactly one shelf to keep books or whatever we needed for school. It was really super minimalist and yet I have to say it was sufficient.
At the boarding school, we had an educator on each floor, and there was a porter at the bottom in the entrance area. There was a telephone system and whenever we somehow got a call from home, we could run down from the top, because we were housed on the fourth floor, and call our parents there. And the nicest thing was always when the lady or gentleman who was on duty downstairs forgot to change the phone system [I assume this means from an intercom system back to a private call?], then the whole boarding school could overhear what we were just discussing with our parents. We mostly had female educators, and they always saw themselves as a kind of substitute parent, but the socialist environment and them being in the line of education always resonated, so there really wasn’t anything very maternal about them. Well, we liked some more, others less, but overall we didn’t see the educators as educators, only when we had to organize something.
My parents didn’t have a phone, and if I was homesick or something, I couldn’t reach them at all. I had to wait until I was back home on the weekend, or my parents had to go to the neighbors or search for a public phone and could then call me. Some of the children were homesick, of course, and you noticed that in the evenings when they cried into their pillows. I actually only got homesick when I was stressed in the gym and needed someone to hug me a bit or protect me a bit from the circumstances I was dealing with.
We had three coaches, two women. One was the ballet coach, another coach was responsible for balance beam and vault and floor, and we had one coach who actually did the spotting work for everything, helping with the safety when we did high vaults [and things like that]. That coach was also there on uneven bars – that was actually his area of expertise. My coach was my first main caregiver back then and he was very strict, I have to say that. But he was also fair to us. He was child-friendly, but nevertheless, there were always problems. I was a very anxious gymnast and when I didn’t feel confident doing certain things, I had to repeat the exercise until I did it. And of course, I was often put under pressure when the weekend was approaching and he knew that we would be going home. At these times, all of the children would already be sitting there waiting to be picked up by a small bus and they all had to wait for me, and of course that was extremely stressful and put me under pressure. I also think that my coach let me get away with it a few times and said, “just go home and don’t do it.” But that wasn’t much better, because I had the feeling that I had disappointed my coach so much, and then I went home with the feeling that I couldn’t do anything at all. I also thought when I disappointed my coach that he wouldn’t want anything to do with me anymore, but I don’t think many coaches even noticed what was going on in our minds in these instances.
To give an example of what these situations were like…I would go to the uneven bars, which later became my favorite apparatus. The top bar was 2.46 meters [8 feet] high, and to put that in perspective, I went to boarding school when I was nine years old, was 1.27 meters [4 feet 2 inches] tall, and weighed 24 kilos [53 pounds], so you can see how overwhelming such a piece of gymnastics equipment can be to a small child. And when you then do gymnastics on the high bar, that’s a tremendous height when you have to do a handstand on top of it and also look directly down between the two bars at the mats.
Where did this fear of my uneven bars mount come from? I had to put my hands on the low bar and then straddle to the high bar. And it happened to me quite often that I didn’t hold the low bar properly and would then slip headfirst and fall onto the mat in between the bars below. Or that my feet would get caught and at first my coach would catch me, but then I had such a mental block that I just couldn’t jump and there was no way I wanted to take this approach. Strangely enough, there were no other options for the mount. I would approach that differently today. I wouldn’t force a child to do a mount where you can tell that the child has extreme anxieties. I would choose a different element. But that was out of the question. So it had to be this one mount, and it was forced through with lots of commotion. And gymnastics is so complex – you learn by falling, but at the beginning you just can’t fall well, and the first or even all falls at that age simply hurt, and that’s why a mental block or anxiety quickly sets in.
But in spite of this, it never really took the joy out of gymnastics in those first few years. We still had playground equipment outside of the gym, and we sometimes played on the climbing frames after work and continued to do sports, which shows how much joy we had in exercise and that was really important in the first few years. We liked to move, we liked to run, we had fun, but there wasn’t just a gym and training, it was a boarding school with a school, and of course we had to study like every other student in the GDR.
Normal, everyday life looked like this. We got up at 6:30 in the morning. Then we went to the canteen together, at that age still with the educators, and we had a little something to eat there. Then school started and it was usually two hours in the morning, and from there we went straight to training. We always had an hour of “artistic” gymnastics, that’s what it was called, when we got our ballet training. That was a very, very nice start. I had a very good ballet trainer who gave lessons that were suitable for children, and who taught a lot with pictures. I experienced a lot of creativity there, and I have to say that I learned to express myself in gymnastics from her.
Then it was time for the apparatus training. In the morning we had two, uneven bars and vault, then we had a lunch break, then we went back to training in the afternoon, where we had the other two, floor and beam, and then there was always a strength unit and I hated that. I hated the strength training, it was super exhausting and the trainers didn’t let anyone get away with anything. You really had to push yourself to the limit. In between, we had “Batude,” it was called, today it’s the giant trampoline, and that’s where we learned the basics. That was a piece of equipment I really liked. You could jump on it and do fun things with it. We also had foam rubber pits in the gym where skills could be built up methodically.
One might now suspect that we had very little school. One day a week we had our two hours in the morning, but then another six hours in the afternoon. If we sum it up like this, it’s about 18 to 20 hours of school per week, and then there were 30 hours of training. Of course, you can see where the focus was placed and it wasn’t really about only producing good gymnasts, the gymnasts were already good. They were the best from the GDR who got together in the school. But now it was about making top athletes out of them, who would have to represent the GDR in international competitions. Of course, that was not communicated to us or sold to us as children when we were nine, but we noticed very quickly that more and more athletes were leaving school every year. If we were initially 20 athletes who started together, in the end only two remained.
What does that do to a child? In addition to the vague fear of training, and the specific fear of injuring yourself during training, there was also a third component and that was permanent weighing. This was introduced to us so early, that we had to be weighed every morning and a target weight was also set, so that every child at that young age already had weight problems. We were also divided into groups where diet plans were tested, so one group would continue to eat normally, the next group ate more than they would usually eat, and the last group, which I was in, was allowed to only ever eat crispbread with low-fat quark [similar to cottage cheese but with more protein and without curds]. Earlier, I said that I weighed 27 kilos [53 pounds]. I was already one of the “fat” people back then and had to eat low-fat quark. I still can’t look at any low-fat quark to this day. I weighed 24 kilos at a height of 1.27 meters [4 feet 2 inches] and was therefore one of the stocker gymnasts who constantly had to eat low-fat quark and crispbread, and that wasn’t such a delicious crispbread as you would eat today. It was just super, super dusty, and you couldn’t get it down your throat at all.
Paradoxically, after these diet weeks, the food was not adapted or tailored to us, but then went back to normal again. The shot putter standing next to us in the canteen got the same thing on her plate as we gymnasts. They didn’t pay any more attention to it at all. The food was terrible, I have to say. There was also lots of cake and a typical cafeteria tea, and we really had to fight with mice scurrying around there. And a little story, I had my tea mug full of black tea, it was always full of black tea, and while I was drinking, a cockroach rowed towards me…it was a part of everyday life. This also shows how you can imagine such a canteen, and how little value was placed on good food in the early days.
it all sounds pretty exhausting and ugly at first, but I didn’t feel like that as a child. In my early days, everything was still exciting, and I really liked to move, I really, really enjoyed the movement, and the things that happened along the way shaped me, but also caused my stomach to ache in the meantime. All in all, I really enjoyed my time at the boarding school at the age of nine. I also had my success stories.
For example, I did my first double somersault when I was 10 years old and was a bit rebellious. My coach said at the children’s Spartakiade that I should definitely do a double full on floor, which is a back layout flip with a double twist in the longitudinal axis. And I thought to myself, I’ve already done a double somersault in training, why shouldn’t I do it now in competition? I’m here to show what I can do! Then I just went onto the floor and introduced myself there and competed that double somersault. Everything worked, but my coach, of course, was less enthusiastic. But it also shows that I’ve always had a bit of my own head and wanted to show what I can do.
Another story was that in the middle of another competition I suddenly forgot my floor routine, and then I was standing in the middle of the floor at the age of nine, or maybe I was already 10, I don’t remember exactly. I then started crying and my coach said, “Go on, go on!” and I called back, “I don’t know what to do!” You’d think I might never want to compete again, but that wasn’t the case. I put it away and it was a bit embarrassing, but things went better at the next competition.
Of course, my family always supported me in this regard. They came to the competitions and applauded, and my cousins were there, and I already had a special status in the family, which was also evident on the weekends when I came home. It was always great, and I was always the number one child, and I think that also had an effect on relationships in my family. My brother, he was always held back. I didn’t have a real, everyday relationship with my family back then. When I was home, it was something special and everyone was happy and I got every wish, so to speak. It felt like there were no everyday problems like in other families, where you can also grow or learn how to interact socially. Of course, we learned that at boarding school and we supported ourselves there, but we mostly avoided the educators as much as possible. As already mentioned, we had some we liked and some we didn’t like at all.
Whatever was going on, there were also domestic duties that we had to attend to. We either had to clean the hallway in the evening, which took forever, or we had to clean the stairs, and it was always important that it was done properly. We always had sweeping duties, wiping duties, wastepaper basket duties…we learned how to stay organized in our rooms, and how to complete chores. That was very, very important, and of course, there was also drama between us children, if one or the other didn’t sweep properly or didn’t take out the trash can, but those are all such small things that just exist in everyday life. In retrospect, I think it was very, very important, that we not only did sports, but that we also learned a bit about everyday life.
We always went to training camps in winter and summer. In the winter, we had a training camp that I have great memories of. We stayed in such an old house and trained in this dining room, the chairs were pushed aside and we did strength training on coatracks and on chairs. We went skiing in the morning and afternoon, I thought it was great, super nice. That was a time that I really enjoyed, and it was also a nice way to spend time with our coaches. Even if the strength training was sometimes very, very exhausting, we all thought it was a good time.
Later, we had a training camp in Johanngeorgenstadt and initially there was no fixed gym there, though later a gym was built and gym equipment was purchased and suddenly it didn’t have the allure at all anymore. There was no longer any separation from gymnastics. We had to train on the equipment and couldn’t concentrate on other things like skiing or strength training.
In the summer we also went to training camps, so swimming was the order of the day, or a lot of athletic training and running. That was actually always a really nice thing. What wasn’t so exciting was that the food problem was also an issue. I remember I had a friend back then, and there was always liver and kidneys and stuff like that. As a child, who likes to eat liver and kidneys? But it had to be eaten, and I actually ate everything, even if I didn’t like it. I just ate it. But my friend didn’t like it at all, and I remember she had to stay seated for so long until she ate it. We always secretly took a bit of liver from her, or we gave such good advice as how to hide it under the mashed potatoes, although of course that was always exposed. I just can’t understand that. If someone doesn’t like certain things at all, and they have to sit at the table until they’ve eaten that piece of liver or kidney? I don’t understand why they did that with children. It is kind of unnecessary.
In any case, I had developed very, very well because of the talent I brought with me, but also because of the targeted support at school. I was eventually able to start bringing in Spartakiade victories. At first, I was still in third and fourth place in the training center in Cottbus, but more and more often I began to win first and second place, and therefore also had the prospect of making the national team.
So I did gymnastics with my coach from the age of nine to 13, and it was slowly becoming clear that I could be accepted onto the national team because of my very, very good performances. But that’s something we don’t want to discuss anymore this time, that’ll come soon in the next podcast. Stay curious!
One thought on “In Translation: “Far From Being Done With Gymnastics!” Episode 2”
This sounds really fun, actually.
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