Around 15 years old, I began to believe that I wasn’t good enough for this world. I wasn’t smart enough, or pretty enough, or skinny enough, or desirable enough, and those beliefs became an accepted part of my psyche. These thoughts played out in my behaviors later in life, particularly with alcohol and men.
While this isn’t a new phenomenon among teenage girls, I can point to something very specific that contributed to these feelings – my experiences as a gymnast. I was competitive in the sport for several years, starting around 7 or 8 years old. To look at me now physically, at 5’10” tall, you’d never guess I was once under 5 feet and less than 80 pounds. The sport retards your growth and can postpone puberty. I didn’t start my period until I was 16.
Gymnastics is a brutal sport, no way around it. It begins as tumbling, balance, flexibility and fun but when you show some aptitude for these basics, you can quickly be flagged as a rising star and get sucked into gymnastic academies and schools that charge fees to be on competitive teams. Back in the 70’s, these gyms were run by former gymnasts, athletes and dancers, and in my particular case, absolute barbaric and conscienceless monsters, and I’m not exaggerating.
My coaches tortured us physically and emotionally, with winning as the only goal and an excuse for the harshness. There were degrading weigh-ins for some little girls who were stocky or had a little extra baby fat. All of us were put through psychologically twisted physical drills – performing routines on balance beams without protective mats underneath, a tactic designed to discourage us from falling. We were forced to chase each other down the vault runway to train us to run faster and faster (panicked as fuck that we’d be run down by the girl behind us). Punishment for failing to execute a trick properly resulted in 100s of pushups, muscles tearing and burning from exhaustion. Coaches used loud and abusive shouting, name calling, and physical intimidation when we couldn’t master something new…the list goes on and on.
As innocent children with no understanding that this was NOT normal behavior, we just took it. We learned not to cry, show emotion, fight back, but instead be stoic and “strong.” I never complained to my parents because I didn’t know any other way. This went on for several years until, around age 15, we’d progressed to more advanced and dangerous tricks and I began to see many of my teammates sustain career-ending injuries – a broken neck, a compound arm fracture, a blown out knee. I, myself broke my foot by falling off the beam on to a concrete floor, cracking the ball of my foot. Again, no mat underneath to cushion my fall. Thanks fuckers.
We’d been taught to ignore fear, but witnessing bones break and tear through skin was too much for me to bear. I began to break down mentally and develop anxiety about going to the gym for practice. I started calling in sick, always insisting my mom make the phone call because I was terrified of the coaches. When my parents told me we were moving to Texas, I felt a huge sense of relief because now I had a reason to quit the sport. My parents never knew of my anxiety because I had no ability to process my feelings, let alone verbalize them. Only now, in recovery, do I have an acute awareness that being in that situation for years was beyond fucked up and detrimental to me.
Years and years later, I learned two things. First, one of my coaches, John, had developed AIDS and died. I had a visceral reaction to this news – I cried tears of happiness. I get that this sounds sick, but he was, without a doubt, the most abusive prick to us. I couldn’t help feeling that his slow and painful death was exactly what the motherfucker deserved.
Second, my gym was shut down as a result of an investigation by the governing body of gymnastics into physical and sexual abuse that was rampant in these gymnastics academies during the 70s and 80s and beyond. I was never sexually abused by coaches but apparently some of my teammates were. There were charges brought against the owner and head coach of our gym. Looking back, I recall seeing girls go into his office for long periods of time with the door shut while the rest of us were practicing. I shudder to think what was happening at that time. Sick, sick fuckers preyed on little girls.
(Joan Ryan wrote an expose about the industry a few years back – Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. I haven’t read it because I lived it, but if you’re interested, you can check out her book here)
It is no wonder I sought alcohol to cope with emotional pain. I thank God I found my way to sobriety and a program of recovery – today celebrating 180 days. I have never before written about this time in my life, and have barely talked about it with friends, let alone shared it publicly. It feels good to exhume rotting, dead emotions and use them as fertilizer for a new beginning…a hopeful, beautiful life filled with wonderful people to help put the memories of monsters who feed on little girls, far far behind me.