Last weekend, I ran into a local burrito shop to grab some dinner. The TV mounted in the corner of the restaurant was turned to a sports channel; I barely glanced at it, and then I glanced again. It wasn’t football or basketball like usual on the screen, but gymnastics: they had the Nastia Liukin Cup on. I watched several routines even though my food was ready after only a bar routine and two vaults.
Once it flipped to a commercial, I gathered up my food, went out to the car, and cried a little on my drive home.
My birthday this year is the 30th anniversary of my last gymnastics meet. That means it’s been three decades since I last did a giant, landed my back handspring layout on the beam, twisted around twice in the air. I’ve been flightless for three decades, but I still miss that part of my life. I still wake up from dreams in which I nail all of my routines; I look down and see that strong, slim body I used to have and I am overwhelmed, even in dreams, with the feeling of at last, at last, feeling like myself in my own skin. (I also, when I am anxious, have dreams in which I forget my beam routine, or I don’t have my floor exercise music in my bag; my beam shoe is ripped, I’m missing a grip for bars, I still stand afraid at the end of my beam routine, terrified of the round-off dismount I never perfected.)
I really did used to be young, slim, and strong; I knew a hundred different ways to leave the ground.
There were many reasons I quit gymnastics after that meet on my 16th birthday. Partly it was my favorite coach leaving the gym; I didn’t feel like any of the other coaches really had my back. Partly it was guilt over my parents having to spend such exorbitant amounts on me when they were struggling with my dad’s unemployment. Partly I was tired: of being the token “poor girl” on the team, of the intense workout schedule, of not feeling like a normal teenager. Of being almost good enough to be really good, but not quite.
I wish I could’ve taken a break instead of quitting, but the truth is that all gymnastics careers have to come to an end, Oksana Chusovitina notwithstanding. If I had made it like my mother hoped I would—if I had managed to earn a scholarship—I still would’ve arrived at this place, albeit without feeling like I failed: this flightless place.
But although I quit gymnastics, I never really stopped being the person I was a gymnast. In fact, I am a runner because of this girl I used to be.
I learned many things as a gymnast that I still use as a runner. How to not let something pesky like an ankle sprain stop you, for example. How to finish strong despite multiple bleeding blisters. That the cure for sore abs, quads, calves, shoulders, lats, or any other muscle group isn’t rest but more movement. Determination. The sheer pleasure of stretching warm muscles. Finishing what I started. Injuries can be overcome and are simply part of sport. The cure for falling is trying again. Trusting that I can do difficult things with enough preparation. The fact that having a goal is quite often motivation enough.
Never give up.
One might also argue that my affection for pretty running clothes is closely associated with my old affection for pretty leotards.
Plus, after years of running toward the vault and timing my steps perfectly, I can hop a high, tricky curb with grace.
I run for many reasons: it helps with my depression, I love being outside, I want to stay as fit as I can throughout my life. But I also run because I used to be a gymnast. Because as a gymnast I learned that I need to move, every day. It’s part of my psyche. I’m not a natural athlete in the traditional sense; I’m pretty dismal at any sport involving balls. (I’m even really, really horrible at playing pool!) Gymnastics fit what my body needed, which was not only skill but expression. Because of gymnastics, I know how to listen to my body; I know that when I don’t respond to its kinesthetic needs, the physical starts swirling up the emotional, leading to a great big mess.
Gymnastics and running don’t really have a lot to do with each other. Running down the street is hardly an artistic expression the way, say, a toe pointed just so during a backflip is, or the arc of the spine in a backbend, the line of a strong arm as it leads the body in a swing around the bars. The only music is in my headphones, the only dance is in my memory.
But there is still something there. Some connection. There is still a skill to be achieved—running, and then running faster; a better form, a lighter footfall, a stronger arm pump. Running, like gymnastics, is a way of moving my body through the world, propelling it with just my own strength.
I can’t say I can fly anymore. My back is too stiff for back walkovers; instead of turning and twisting along a balance beam, I seek out sunbeams to run through. I can still turn a perfect cartwheel, though. When I am practicing consistently I can still hold a straight handstand. And I still hold her in my heart, the gymnast I used to be. She taught me that movement is a form of joy, and I honor her strength, determination, sacrifice, sadness, tiredness, exhilarated thrill of finally perfecting a move by continuing to move.
I am a runner to honor the gymnast I used to be.
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