By Nancy Marshall
When I was about eight years old, with a year or two of gymnastics and ballet classes under my belt, I hit the big time and "became" a gymnast. My rite of passage happened one blustery fall afternoon when, bored with the conventional after school activities, I transformed my parents living room into the Olympic Gymnastics Venue. The wooden arm of a chair doubled as my balance beam. I waltzed across the carpet to the dramatic overture from The Nutcracker. Another chair served as the vaulting horse with couch pillows acting as the board. The uneven bars were eliminated because the dining room chandelier was insufficiently anchored.
All was going along just fine. I won the gold on Floor and Beam. Vault was the final event. (I hadn't heard of competition order yet.) With all the gusto I could muster, I ran the entire length of our living room (five steps), put my head in the seat of the chair, kicked my feet in the air and headed for a perfect landing. But halfway through, I realized the vaulting horse had wheels on it and I was sent crashing through the living room picture window. For some Divine reason, I landed in the front yard with only a few cuts on my heals and a stern rebuke from my mom to keep the flipping out of the living room and in the gym where it belonged!
That episode, more than any, marked me . . . "the family flipper," the child who lived upside down; the one who waltzed instead of walked; the contortionist. That was the day I became, The Gymnast. And while my folks weren't thrilled about the broken window, they were grateful to find a sport where their daughter could flourish.
Gymnastics and me. . . it was a good fit.
The childhood fun of recreational gymnastics eventually gave way to the challenge and excitement of competition. When I hung up my gym bag for the last time, I had traveled to the Olympics and beyond. The journey was not without its challenges and heartache . . . but no journey through adolescence is smooth sailing. And I am a better person for taking the trip.
I am now a mother with three children. One of whom transforms our family room into her own gymnastics arena. (We guard the windows.) She's done other sports but none have captured her passion and dedication like gymnastics. My husband and I have joined the carpool club and I've stocked up on needlepoint projects to relieve competition jitters . . . mine not hers. Pictures of Dominique, Kim and Natalie are plastered all over our house and the term, "A Few Good Men" does not refer to the Army.
While we've tried to encourage involvement in other sports, this middle child is drawn to gymnastics like chalk dust to a leotard. If forced to choose, she is adamant. The tennis racket and soccer ball play second fiddle to aerials and back flips! As I watch my daughter literally go head over heals for gymnastics, I recall the "teachable moments" of my Olympic journey and am once again reminded of what's so great about this sport.
Study after study confirm that kids involved in sports, including gymnastics, are more likely to stay away from drugs, score higher on achievement tests, stay in school, have greater self-esteem and live a healthier lifestyle. Show me a child in a healthy athletic environment and I'll show you a child learning motor development, interpersonal relationships skills, perseverance, discipline, commitment, humor, perspective, teamwork, humility and leadership. And the kids think they are just having fun!
No doubt about it, sport enhances life. And for those with a penchant for variety and challenge, the local gymnastics club might be a great place to hang out. Following are a few more reasons why learning a cartwheel is a valuable investment.
Gymnastics is a multifaceted sport. This is a sport that develops physical strength, speed and agility, nerves of steel and competitive prowess. To add to the challenge, the women must combine that athleticism with displays of grace, personality and femininity. Not many sports encompass that variety. Within the three main gymnastics disciplines, (Men's and Women's Artistic and Women's Rhythmic) there are as many as 15 different individual events. Add General Gymnastics and Trampoline and Tumbling and opportunities in the sport are endless.
Gymnastics is a challenging sport. No doubt about it. Walking, let alone flipping is hard to do on a four inch balance beam. It takes more than a few push-ups to master an iron cross on the rings. Leaping through a moving hoop is not a cake walk. Gymnastics is hard. But the very qualities it takes to master these skills-courage, perseverance, risk, determination, vision-are the qualities that foster excellence in any endeavor. Dealing with the "hard" will translate into valuable life skills and strength of character. Bolstered by unconditional love from us (parents) and skilled guidance from her coaches, our daughter will be better prepared to handle the "hard" of life because she faced those challenges in the gym.
The social environment provides for healthy growth. Our nine-year old trains with older and younger gymnasts. She has her self esteem boosted by camaraderie with older teammates who genuinely value her. Because of their role modeling, she has gained enough confidence to reach out to the younger athletes on the team. Few sports provide the opportunity for kids to work so closely with teammates of different ages. I take issue with the media charge that youngsters in our sport are forced to grow up sooner than they should. The social maturity our daughter is gaining within the sport is far healthier than the social maturity forced on kids spending aimless afternoons at the mall or watching television.
Gymnastics teaches individual responsibility and courage. Gymnastics is an individual sport. Yes, there is a team element. But the nature of the sport is individual. During competition, it's the athlete and the apparatus. To execute a routine successfully, under the scrutiny of judges and spectators, it takes concentration, determination, endurance and often courage. Confidence to call upon these qualities is nurtured every time a child attempts another routine. Life requires us to take personal responsibility for the choices we make. Courage to take that responsibility and making right choices is practiced with each mount and dismount.
Gymnastics provides an enhanced childhood. After my Olympic experience, I was often asked if I felt like I had sacrificed a normal childhood for my athletic dreams. I was always a bit confused by that question. I did gymnastics because I wanted to. Sports was not a sacrifice, it was a choice. Granted, that choice meant sometimes I was also choosing to forgo other activities. But, thanks to guidance from my parents and coaches, gymnastics opened doors and enriched my life. Talk to the 90 athletes on the National TOP Team or 50 young men on the Future Stars program and they'll agree.(add some more here)
As I've traveled the country developing the Athlete Wellness Program for USA Gymnastics, I have had the privilege of meeting former gymnasts who now influence their world in other capacities. We've shared stories of our years in the chalk dust and most of us carry the lessons learned to our present day professions.
- The Marriage and Family Counselor who learned, life is not always perfect or fair. She imparts that wisdom to her clients as they wrestle with living in an imperfect world.
- The Gymnastics Coach who learned, people make mistakes. That's a valuable concept to pass on to athletes who expect perfection from themselves and others.
- The Sport Psychologist who learned, who she was becoming and how she treated others was more important than her beam score. That's a key truth to grasp when trying to manage the pressures of competition.
- The Lawyer who conducts sensitive negotiations remembering, healthy and ethical relationships are a critical component to balancing life's pressures.
- The Youth Pastor who learned, faith adds perspective and perspective is everything. Healing words to kids who've lost hope.
- The Orthopaedic Surgeon who persevered through medical school believing the words of his coach, "Failure is not the end of the world . . . and if processed correctly, it can be your greatest asset."
- The Advertising Executive who stays grounded by her belief that, success is a wonderful reward for hard work, but accomplishments (or lack thereof) do not determine a person's value.
It takes wise coaches and parents to translate gym lessons into life lessons. But most gymnastics clubs are founded on the belief that this sport has the potential to be a health enhancing experience for all who participate. If any one is looking for fertile soil in which to grow life's champions. . . you might start at your local gymnastics club.