Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A New Love

I was completely burned out, mentally, emotionally, financially and physically. I decided I was never going back to gymnastics. After training for the past three years nearly 20 hours per week and gymnastics consuming most of my thoughts, I quit. There was a huge void. I surely would have drank myself to death, after all was nothing stopping me now. Thank God I had some other healthy influences. Although never an athlete, my boyfriend at the time was a health nut and into weight lifting. He was 19 and far too old for me, but he was studying to become a chiropractor and earning his prerequisites at Clinton Community College. He asked me if I wanted to go to his gym and work out with weights.

I remember walking into this gym called "Body Works" with its somewhat tattered blue
carpeting, barbells, metal dumbells, and posters of famous body builders up on the wood-
paneled walls. Arnold was there of course, Franco Columbo and some other early greats. The ones that captivated me the most were the images of Rachel McLish and Corrine "Cory" Everson. Female body building then bears no resemblance to what it is now. These women were gorgeous, certainly strong and definitely disciplined. They were my new heroines.

As far as the female population at Body Works, it was just the owner's wife, me and the posters.  The rest of the clientele were small town cops and a few dedicated body builders, all men. The owner, Ron Regenweather, was super nice and he put me at ease working out with the testosterone-fueled clientele.

The first session I could see a hodge-podge of what would be considered real equipment now and a bunch of makeshift stuff too. I mean, people have been lifting since the Stone Age right?  I even saw coffee cans with concrete poured into it with a stick jammed in each end. This place was old school. Except then, it was new school. It! Was! Awesome! I loved it right away. I didn't know how to use most of the equipment, makeshift or not, so I needed a teacher.

Ron grabbed a broomstick and we started doing torso twists to warm-up. He had this whole
program written out for me. It was my first personal training session ever. I already had these massive gymnastics legs, so I was off to a strong start. But this was a new experience and because I'd grown so fast in the previous couple of years, my upper body was not proportionally as strong as the rest of my body. I did bench press the first day, aka "benching" for the experienced weight lifters. He marveled at how strong I was. My upper body wasn't strong for a gymnast but it was freakishly strong for a regular, teenage girl. It was interesting bench pressing for the first time. Ron was there spotting me so it mitigated some of the danger, which of course I didn't like( the mitigated danger, that is). But being under that weight and having to push it off of you, your muscles shaking and burning was something I completely loved.

Ron developed my beginner program and instructed me for the first couple of weeks every time I worked out. After that, I followed this program on my own. I did get a lot of help from the police that worked out there, they would spot me or instruct my form. I think they took an
interest in my success. It didn't hurt that I could do a bunch of exercises from gymnastics
conditioning that they had never even seen. I remember this blue metal chin-up bar. I would
use it to do a bunch of crazy ab exercises like V-ups, windshield wipers, L-hangs, etc. V-ups
involve hanging from the bar with your legs straight down, then with your legs completely
locked-out straight and toes pointed of course, you raise your toes towards the bar. In
gymnastics conditioning you do this extremely slowly, and then as fast and explosive as you
can. Windshield wipers are similar except you keep your toes by the bar and go side to side like the name suggests. It only sounds bad ass because it is!

These big strong guys 10-15 years older than me would try this conditioning and frankly, I would put them to shame. All of my teammates could've done the same thing, but it was still fun to watch. (I'm snickering as I type this.) I have to admit there's not much I love more than beating a man in a physical endeavor. Most of them act like they are automatically better at stuff than you just because they are guys. The smarter ones don't believe this of course.

Ron was one of the smart ones. He knew so much more than I did about conditioning and
weight training. He helped me more than I will ever be able to measure. I don't remember him ever charging me because I undoubtedly couldn't have afforded it then. When I began training there, it was long before the fitness industry was as prolific as it is now. Ron was surely as creative as possible with the equipment we did have available. That was a great lesson I learned from him and being raised in Clinton. You don't need the best equipment to get better.  It reminds me of what's been known as the Rhonda Schwandt story in my home for the past four years. Rhonda Schwandt was one of the best vaulters in gymnastics that the United States has ever produced. She was a national champion on the Elite level in 1978. She grew up in a gym that was so small that the vault runaway was compromised. She had to run down three steps to push off the wall as she turned a corner and then finally got to take off down the drastically shortened runway to punch off the board to thrust herself over the vault and into the sky. Practicing like this must have helped her because when she competed in meets and got to run in a straight line, she could fly! She most certainly would've been an Olympian if it weren't for the 1980 boycott.

This little anecdote became a story in our home because one day when my son was about 11 he complained to me, "I can't hit the ball because I need a better bat like David. You know, a good one, a $400 bat."  I'd like to think I calmly told him that maybe later we could consider the budget and if we deemed it necessary we'd buy him the bat. The conversation actually went more like this:

"YOU ARE SMOKING CRACK IF YOU THINK I'M BUYING AN 11 YEAR-OLD A $400 BAT! I've never even played baseball but I'll tell you how to make your bat work better! Get stronger, do push ups, do your drills, go to practice, shut your mouth and listen to your coach.Seth, this is the first time you are hearing this story but it won't be your last." I then unleashed the Rhonda Schwandt story on him. He never got a $400 bat but he does know how to work hard.

The equipment at Body Works wasn't great but the instruction was. Four months later when gymnastics season started up again in the November of my junior year, I completely geeked out about it and went back. I was able to pick up where I left off from the months of weight training I did, ultimately saving my gymnastics career. If I had broken my wrist and stopped exercising entirely, I would not have been able to get back into the swing of things. My muscles would have weakened in that time and I probably would have dropped out again. The gym in Moline was still without a coach, so I was content to just do high school gymnastics with all of my teammates I grew up with. I was very enthusiastic to be back at gymnastics again. The entire team was all looking forward to a very successful season after we narrowly lost the State Championship the year before. We had one goal, and that goal was to win.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Gymnastics gave me a lot in the way of confidence, but there’s always a flip side. (Haha- get it?)  My brother used to say that there was an awful lot of Patty going on when we were growing up. To my siblings, there seemed to be more energy devoted to my gymnastics than anything else.  At the same time, I was also the family’s banner carrier. I was the proof that everything was going fine at the Johnson’s.

I was bulimic, I was drinking, I had a boyfriend who was far too old for me, but as long as my
face was in the paper, we were doing okay. Every family has some level of dysfunction, but ours was significant. You can’t pick your family, even if you're adopted, which seems strange.

I remember when I was in middle school; my friend and I were the best math students in the
whole school. My friend Bret and I would finish our work ahead of the whole class and start
chattering away. Once, Bret and I started joking around with each other in the back of the room and our teacher marched up to us while everyone else in the class was quietly working. He leaned over and in a hushed, but severe voice, he started scolding us for fooling around.

“Well, this stuff is so easy, what else am I supposed to do?” I whined.

“Listen, it’s not easy for everyone else here,” he said. I remember that being my first epiphany that there were other people learning and maybe I ought to be quiet for them. My sister, my parents’ biological daughter, was never a good student. She had a closer connection to them than I did. Whenever the opportunity arose, my parents always managed to find some way to put me down. I was always reminded of some inadequacy. So I adapted to my parents’ view. I played the ditzy girl despite having near straight A’s throughout the eighth grade. In high school, I expended most of my energy on gymnastics. I got home from practice as late as 11:00 at night. I didn’t party when I had gymnastics, but when I could go out and drink, I did. I had this psychology teacher who told me how smart I was and I brushed it off. He was persistent and asked me what my GPA was and I told him that I had a 3.4.

“Where’d you go wrong?” He asked. “You’re definitely smart enough to have a 3.8” “I’m sorry,” I said. I didn’t know how else to respond. He called me out on it and just wouldn’t let it go. He went on to tell me that he knew I was acting dumber than I was because boys were intimidated of smart girls. I remember feeling like I couldn’t get away with it anymore and he reassured me that it would be alright if I dropped my act. I did well enough to eventually get an academic scholarship, but I’m sure I could have done better. I was so worn down by that point, between my home life and my commitment to gymnastics, I was just trying to cope.

Lacking self-confidence somehow fed into my daredevil personality that my dad antagonized by belittling me constantly. It wasn't personal. He belittled everyone in our family. My brother Brad was a gifted athlete at a child. He was a big kid and good at everything he tried. He played baseball, basketball and football as a kid. My dad was a little guy with short man's disease. He was jealous that my brother had the size to be a great athlete but just didn't care that much about sports. He may have been great but my dad harassed him about his performances in baseball ever since I could remember. My brother broke his leg in football when he was 15 and quit sports entirely. I think my brother just didn't want another thing for my dad to yell at him about. This certainly took the heat off of me. I don't think my dad ever considered my accomplishments important because I was a girl. In this way, I benefitted because neither one of my parents ever criticized my gymnastics. Not even once. They were great sports parents for me. They were supportive and got me where I needed to go but they didn't really care that much about my gymnastics. This allowed me to do whatever I wanted. It kind of hurt my feelings that it wasn't overly important to them but I knew it was better than them caring too much.

I always had incredibly intense focus when I was a kid. (I still do.) If I were watching TV I could block everything out and not hear what people around me were saying. For this my dad nicknamed me “Head in Butt.” It was also because I would make stupid mistakes and didn't have a lot of common sense, or so I was told. I'm not sure if this developed because I didn't want to hear the garbage that my dad was saying or because I was born like this, but either way it helped me in gymnastics, especially on the balance beam. I could block all noises out and concentrate intensely on the task at hand. "Head in Butt" is an incredibly cruel name to call a kid but I suppose in some weird way, it made me a better athlete, which eventually made me a stronger person.

If you were home when my dad was around, he would just start laying into you. When I came back from gymnastics at 10 o’clock at night or later, I’d be starving. I’d get out of bowl of cereal and my dad would be there, making fun of me for how I ate my cereal. If I poured a bowl and leveled it off, he’d mock me for that. If nothing else, he would find anything to use. He would say, “Hey, is that a zit? Is that a zit on your face,” trying antagonizing you into a fight.

When my father started on you, my brother would appear from his room and he would manage to diffuse the situation. My father turned his attention onto my brother. My brother towered over my father and though he never lifted a hand to our dad, he allowed our dad to hit him. When it was over, my brother would leave and punch you in the arm on the way out. In his quiet cavalier way, he protected my sister and me because he knew he was too big for our dad to take him on.

It was a terrible, scary way to be raised, fearing for your physical safety everyday. This fear was lessened only due to my brother and his selfless protection of us when he was only a young teenager. Don't get me wrong, my brother beat the crap out of my sister and I growing up but you were never afraid he was just going to lose it on you. He had control and I don't think what he did to us was any worse than most brothers do to their sisters. The fear of my father though was deep and intense. It made me strong physically and eventually emotionally. I dealt with it at the time by obsessing about food, my body and drinking to excess. In other words, I didn't deal with it but I really didn't know what my options were when I was living under their roof. I just escaped and was out of the house as much as possible.

I broke my wrist towards the end of the gymnastics season of my sophomore year. I had a
mediocre year and I was growing tired of gymnastics. After our team got second at the state
championships that year, my club coach was busted for embezzling money. All his girls at
Moline, including me, were forced to quit. I took 3 months completely off from gymnastics and all physical activity. Then the gymnasts I carpooled with found a new, better gym, the only downside, it was a full 2 hours away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I went from training 0 hours a week for 3 months (which was normally 16 hours per week before then) to 25 hours a week. We were in there from 9:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon with an hour off for lunch. 

After Day 4 of that first week, I had never been so sore in my life, either before or since. We drove out there together, and on the drive back, I stayed the night at a teammate’s house in DeWitt. I was so sore I couldn’t even breathe. I was lying on the floor trying to fall asleep and if I moved, it felt like someone jabbed a knife into each of my muscles. I was lying on the floor crying because I just didn't want to do it anymore. I survived another 3 weeks at the gym during which time I had a small, young 20 something male assistant tell me "my weight was up and my strength was down."  He was spotting me on some elevated push ups on the parallel bars and had to hold me. Granted, I was just bigger than him at 5'9"and 150 and he had just spotted some normal sized gymnast that was 5'2" and 100 pounds. If I had of been my adult self I probably would've just teased him about being so little (I think he was about 5'4") that he couldn't hold me, but I was 15 and struggling everywhere. I took it to heart. He started "counseling" me on nutrition despite the fact he had no nutritional background or training. The take away for me then was that I was a big, fat, giant hog-beast. I was sore and dejected. I quit. I hated gymnastics and was finished forever. I quit!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Flips, Food Problems and Failure

I stopped training with Mr. Douglas when I was 14 to go train at a much bigger gym in Moline, Illinois, with more technical coaches and higher level gymnasts. However, by this time the economic situation of these small, Midwestern towns, including Clinton, grew dire. Most of the town depended on Clinton Corn for work, many of whom had worked there for nearly half a century. In the mid-80s, many workers would just get cards that had “LO” inscribed on them. Countless workers were laid off this way in major sweeps. So much changed so quickly that it decimated Clinton. My parents owned an appliance store, but no one had enough money to buy anything from them. They, like many other shop owners, went out of business in this downward economic cycle. Once the store closed, my dad just lost it. He didn't get another job for six to nine months, so my mom started working part time at JC Penny to keep her husband and three children afloat when welfare fell short.

My dad wanted me to quit gymnastics then, but my mother refused. Later, she said it was because she knew it was the only thing keeping me out of trouble. But at the time, it was a major sacrifice for our family and one of the few times she stood up to my father. There was no money to drive me to Moline, so my mom would drive me to Low Moor, a town fifteen minutes away from Clinton, where I was picked up by a teammate's mother who was getting her doctorate in nursing. She drove me the ten minutes it took to DeWitt, where we would pick up two more gymnasts and all carpool to Moline together. This process took an hour and a half each way. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school, I would wake up at 5:20 in the morning to be in Moline by 7:00.
I partied a lot in high school as a means to cope, but I was still disciplined. I knew that I couldn’t train drunk or with a hangover, so I only partied on the weekends. I loved gymnastics too much to forgo my discipline. It was all I had, it was the only way to get out of my house, and it was my whole identity. Ultimately, I knew that it was my only way out of Clinton. As soon as I got to high school, I was already setting my sights on gymnastics programs around the country.

The summer after my freshmen year, I went to a gymnastics camp at the University of Missouri. I was a camp counselor to pay for the tuition. This was the dream school I wanted to earn a gymnastics scholarship to attend. My father was originally from Missouri and they had one of the best gymnastics program in the country. But more importantly, they had a tall gymnast. I was an average-sized child, but I hit my growth spurt at 13 and I towered over my teammates at five feet and eight inches. I believed that the University of Missouri would take me if they accepted tall gymnasts in the past. I was just elated to be there. One afternoon, I was eating lunch next to the assistant coach to the head coach of the program and he noted with some astonishment at the amount of food I was eating.

“I know. Everyone teases me about how much food I can put away, but I’m working out a lot,” I said. He asked me what I weighed and I told him I was 146 pounds.

“Oh, oh that’s too much. I mean, you look good, but that number is too high. The coach isn’t going to like that.”

"I mean, you look good, but that number is too high." I never forgot that haunting statement from the young assistant male coach of my dream university. Up until that point, I didn’t think much of my weight. I was more aware of my overall size and of my height, but I was all muscle. From the time I was nine years old I remember being always considered strong and muscular. One of my gymnastics teammates way back at the YMCA nicknamed me macho legs before bursting out into this Woody the Wood Pecker laugh. I was a bean pole. At that very gymnastics camp, my body fat was so low that I didn’t get my period until I was 14. Even then I only had it about three times before it went away for another six months.

My sophomore year of high school I went to a slumber party.  Earlier that week one of my older teammates had mentioned that to lose weight she would vomit.  She explained that it was easier to vomit if you started with ketchup. She instructed us to start eating a spoonful of ketchup and throw it back up, then you could get the rest of the food you ate up. That night, we all had our turn with a spoon and the ketchup bottle in the bathroom. There was a whole collection of girls there, some gymnasts and some of our regular classmates.

After that summer camp, all I could think of was losing weight. I figured that meant not eating. I would go two days without food despite working out for four hours each day. I would cave to the hunger and shovel food into my mouth. I remembered the trick with the ketchup and would purge whatever I binged. It never occurred to me whether what I was doing was healthy or not, it just wasn’t in my scope of consciousness. I didn’t even know how to eat nutritiously. My parents ate fast food five nights a week. They were both overweight and neither of them did any exercise. I didn’t know any better. To the best of my knowledge, I was taking my weight into my own hands. All I knew is that I needed to lose weight to be a better gymnast.

When it came to nutrition I was just so uneducated.  Instead of learning how to eat right and fuel my body I took it to the extreme and starved myself.  It took me a very long time to unlearn these habits and connect with my physical sensations of hunger.  I would do anything to improve myself for gymnastics even if it meant not eating.  Which, of course, didn't improve anything.

I was intense.  I also surrounded myself with other gymnasts and athletes that were intense.   When Jacque and I were in middle school, her mom thought it would be a good idea for us to go watch the high school gymnasts compete at the State meet.  They were our gymnastic club teammates for years so we were very close.  This was March of 1982.  Four months earlier in November of that previous year, my club teammate Karin blew out her knee with a torn ACL. She was on crutches for 12 weeks. In early 80's reconstructive surgery for a torn ACL was not common place yet. You just didn’t have an ACL. Karin rehabilitated herself on the bars, slowly reintegrating herself into the events, but she still couldn’t vault at her highest level.  Vault was her best event.

When the State meet rolled around, Clinton High really needed her, but she had not done a Tsukara vault since before she blew her knee out, four months prior. For the past month she'd been competing a watered down vault that couldn't score as well as her Tsukara.  A couple of gymnasts competed and it became evident that Karin was going to need to throw her big vault, The Tsuk, if Clinton High had any chance of winning the State Championship. 

The coach, of course, told her not to but she wanted to do it.  She was standing there and from the stands, we all heard her brother scream, “Just do it!” She stood there for a moment and you could see the look in her eyes when you knew she decided to go for it. Karin took off running from one end of the mat, hit the board, and nailed her Tsuk vault before collapsing onto the floor. Thirteen years before Kerri Strug's vault Karin pulled this off.  She's really the original Kerri Strug in my eyes.

That was our mentality as gymnasts and as athletes, sometimes you had to sacrifice yourself, your health and your body for your sport.  I'm not saying it's right, ok, or mentally sound, I'm just saying that's what happens.  I had a friend in high school who was an exceptional wrestler. Danny and I were always close, though we never dated. Danny was kind of famous in our town. He was the youngest of four boys, all of whom had been state champion wrestlers, so he was beat up on the most and became a better wrestler than all of them. He went to Greece on the junior Olympic program when he was in middle school. Even though he was able to choose his weight class, he still trained extensively. He won four state championships in high school.  His high school record was 126-0 and he earned a full ride scholarship to Iowa State University, a wrestling national power house. He trained so hard that he dehydrated after one practice, cramped up and had to be taken to the hospital.  He was just on a whole other mental level of dedication and body control. He could fall asleep within 60 seconds of closing his eyes. I always admired Danny and used him as a form of inspiration. Though he was on an Olympic level and I was a good gymnasts, but never pre-Olympic, I still looked up to him.

I remember right before I left for college, the local paper printed an exposé on my achievements. They named my 30 state titles, conference titles, regional titles, and then it noted that I had 65 regional conference or state runner up positions. I was horrified that I had twice as many runner-up positions than I did actual titles and I was humiliated that it had been printed for all to see. That was my underlying drive, no matter how good I was, it was never good enough.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Take-No-Crap Coach of a LIfetime Mr. Douglas

After I successfully made it to Regionals I unsuccessfully competed at Regionals.  The entire experience was the epitome of out of my comfort zone.  I went to Regionals and was completely intimidated by all the people there; they just had better training and I was in awe of them all. I was even intimidated by the fact that I was going all the way to St. Louis for the meet. St. Louis was a huge city by comparison of anything I had seen at the time.  I remember falling twice on my best event, the beam.  When I ended my routine I felt so bad.  I was scared Mr. Douglas was going to yell at me, but he just gave me a big hug and told me he knew I did the best I could that day.  

I did do well enough that year to move on from being a Class II gymnast to a Class I though. I realized there that while Mr. Douglas was a good coach and a great motivator, his techniques were not state of the art. He had not trained to become a gymnastics coach. He started working on a farm at the age of six, he was in somewhat of a circus, and then he became an elementary school principal. He was very educated and had a Masters Degree and a nearly completed Ph.D in Education. It wasn’t until he was 55 that he started a gymnastics gym for kids. He was limited to what he had in Clinton, however. He didn’t have all the right equipment. His gym was a former garage that he converted on his own. He attached an apartment to the building and lived there with his wife and daughter. The ceilings were made of corrugated metal and their were some holes when this ceiling met the walls.  There was no air conditioning in the summer, just these massive industrial fans on the ceiling. Good Lord did Mr. Douglas scream at little kids that would try to stick their fingers in those big fans.  You knew of some stuff you could do, but I tell you what, every single kid that had been there more than once knew not to go near those giant fans or you would get a giant yelling session coming straight at you by a red-faced Mr. Douglas. Often times, birds would fly in and if you saw one in the gym, you knew practice would be over. Mr. Douglas would appear with a pump gun and shoot them from the ceiling. He popped them off one by one and the birds would tumble to the floor mat. Someone would have to go and scoop them up after they fell. One time, a bird got caught in the fan. It was churned up, spewing blood and guts all over the whole gym, effectively ending practice that day.

Mr. Douglas was and still is a short, but stocky guy. His hands and grip were so strong he could balance giant, long broomsticks on his middle finger. In Clinton, on the Fourth of July, we had a celebration called River Boat Days. The gymnasts from his club did performances at this community event.  Mr. Douglas would bring out these 14 foot tall ladders and he held on to them at the bottom; one ladder in each hand. Five girls would then climb up on both ladders. One girl would be above Mr. Douglas, another girl above her while three girls hung from the each outer side of the ladders. I remember we had to hook our feet into the rungs of the ladder and do a half back bend 10 feet up in the air.  When you were smaller, you were one of the girls hanging off on the outside of the ladder. As you got older, you were put in the middle to keep the whole thing stable. That’s how we learned, not only from Mr. Douglas, but from the girls who were three or four years older than us. Those girls were your idols and you aspired to be just like them. They were the ones instilling their work ethic in you. Those high school girls would bring you up like, “Hey, this is how it works here.” You couldn’t pull any of that circus stuff off now. Not in a gymnastics gym.  It was too dangerous and things are too litigious nowadays. That’s primarily why he wouldn’t take any crap because he needed our obedience for safety’s sake.

We were a crazy lot. There were days when Mr. Douglas and his wife, the middle school gym teacher who doubled as gymnastics judge, would leave for eight to ten hours to accompany the lower level gymnasts to their meets. Jacque would be left alone at the gym, a mere mile from my home. So I would bike over and we would go nuts in there with some of the other gymnasts, who were supposed to be looking after us. We pulled out these old, squeaky trampolines and flipped in the air on them. Those free-for-alls made us self-reliant. If someone got stuck in the springs, we had to work together to get the girl’s limb free. There was just no option to call an adult. Karen and Jacque used to leap off of the gym’s loft onto a small high-jump pit. Mr. Douglas had constructed a loft so that parents could watch their children from above. Jacque and Karen, however, would flip off from the 20-foot high platform and land into this tiny pit by comparison. It was a miracle no one ever broke their neck, but no one did.

My adventures with Jacque didn’t end at the gym. On one occasion when I was 11 and she was 12, I biked over to the gym to fool around, but arrived to find Jacque holding her mother’s keys.She told me we were going for a ride. I climbed into the passenger’s seat as she fired up the engine and drove us to Kopp’s Meat Market. I remember slinking around the grocery store terrified that someone was going to see us driving off together and call the police.

One time when Jacque was over at my house swimming in our 4-foot deep above ground pool, she looked up at the roof of our one-story ranch home, then over to the fence that surrounded the backyard and the pool.  She said, "You know Patty, that fence goes almost all the way up to the roof.  I bet we could climb onto the fence, then on to the roof, then jump into the pool."  Without a moment's hesitation, or more importantly, thought to the potential dire consequences,  I said, "You're right, that'd be fun!"  Jacque then quickly scaled the fence, walked the top of it to the roof, then ran off the roof into the pool.  She was her father's daughter after all.    I followed immediately after.  We got back out and did this over and over again that first day.  Soaking wet, running on a sloped roof of tile into an above ground pool that was only four feet deep and at least a five foot long clearance from the house to reach the edge of the pool.   Of course no one was home and they let us swim in the pool anyway.  It was 1980.  Nobody cared about supervision.  That was for sissies! Ha! Jacque and I are a multitude of our other teammates did this for three straight summers. 

And then...my sister!  I made the mistake of talking my non-gymnast, normal-person sister into jumping off of the roof too.  I should've considered that when I had to physically push her up the fence so she could get up that maybe she wasn't cut out for this.  I gave her exact directions on how to place her hands and feet to get from the fence to the roof, (my Pilates cueing skills were developing even then). She reached the roof shaking like a terrified Chihuahua and screamed with drool coming out of her mouth,  "I won't jump! I won't jump!"  "SHUT UP!!!!" I whisper-yelled. "You're going to get us all in trouble.  It's not like you're on top of the Sears Tower. Just jump already"  I knew our neighbor Nosy Rosie was going to be over any second, which of course happened.  She brought her daughters, our lifelong babysitters, Lorraine and Monica too. They were mad at me and blaming me for the whole thing. I uttered what is currently my 13 year-old son's favorite phrase,"What?! I didn't do anything." Then the firefighters from across the street came over, not the hot kind either.  They helped her get off of the roof via the climbing onto the fence which was totally ridiculous in my 14 year-old mind and much more dangerous than just jumping into the pool.  After all I'd done it a thousand times and nobody had ever gotten hurt.  Granted, we were all skilled gymnasts that were fearless, but that was besides the point.  

Next up, my Mom and Dad came home from work.  My Dad was so pissed he was spitting when he yelled as fast as possible like it was all one sentence with no time to answer any of the following questions,  "You've could've broken your God Damned Neck!  What were you thinking?!!  Are you an idiot?  When I think of one of you kids slipping on that wet roof and tripping on that gutter, falling and smashing down onto the concrete because you missed the pool.  Oh My God!  What the hell is wrong with you?!"  To this day I remember my little 14-year old daredevil gymnast mind and the following thought that ran through my head,  "Oh my God! He's so crazy.  There is no way that would EVER happen.  What we were doing was completely safe.  I've done it  thousands of times and never even came close to  stubbing my toe. Not one drop of blood was shed due to this.  It was nothing but fun and now it's all been ruined because my sister is a wimp!"   Of course I never said this to him, just muttered an "I don't know" with a shoulder shrug and an apology that I obviously didn't believe.  I also disclosed to him that we've done it "a couple of times". The honest answer of course would've been a couple of times today, a couple thousand times over THE LAST THREE YEARS! Thank God my sister was caught!  It probably saved my life having someone with a voice of reason or a life protecting sense of fear, which had almost been all been trained out of us by gymnastics and Mr. Douglas.  I mean, we were afraid sometimes doing skills, especially for the first time, but you learned how to manage it.

Besides encouraging us to manage our fear, Mr. Douglas was tough.  I recently visited a high school friend in Washington, D.C. while I was there for a fitness conference.  His sister had taken gymnastics lessons back when we were growing up.  We met up for coffee and we ended up talking about Mr. Douglas.  As a kid, this guy remembered watching his younger sister at the gym and thinking Mr. Douglas was really mean.  I couldn't help but defend my coach.  He wasn't mean or abusive; he just didn't take any crap.  He wouldn't let you loaf around.  He had his expectations and he expected you to meet them.  If you didn't, you were probably going to get shouted at.  Not vituperative insults, but more like, "Get over that vault! You can do this!" It was a survival of the fittest situation and you could either step up or go home crying to your mommy about your mean coach.  On top of it, we're talking about little girls in the '70s and '80s, long before they started pushing girls in sports.  Even still, I never thought he was excessive or extreme.   

What he did was a big deal at the time. It wasn’t like it is now where there is a big sports culture for girls; Title IX happened in 1977, so he was training girls before it was cool. We didn’t know the impact that stuff would have on us, but athletics gives you so much in the way of confidence and independence and before Title IX, there was nothing like that for women. Our high school had a really good gymnastics team because Mr. Douglas was their feeder system. He was the foundation for all of our success in later years. 

    Though I began my gymnastics career at the Y.M.C.A., Mr. Douglas was the first legitimate coach I ever had and his gym was the first gym I ever really trained in. He was the foundation for my success, whose teachings I’ve applied far beyond the limits of the gym walls. From Mr. Douglas, I learned about motivation, perseverance, and a respect for hard work. His sheer joy in his work, in wanting to teach girls how to be strong, was inspirational to me. It not only inspired me to continue to work as a gymnast in college, but my work as a Pilates instructor. I aim to be the Mr. Douglas of whatever it is that I do.

Mr. Douglas and my daughter, Brooke.

Brooke, me and Mr. Douglas.

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Gymnastics.  My first love.  Gymnastics is fun.  It's incredibly fun, flying around in the air like that, the weightlessness of it, the complete and utter zen concentration required.    You are in the moment in gymnastics or you are on the ground, and on the ground quickly. Gravity always works, even if you're not paying attention.  Riding a roller coaster is the closest thing you can get to doing gymnastics if you're not a gymnast. Running, flipping, lifting, flying through space and time, I miss it everyday.  My babysitters, that lived right next door to me, Monica and Lorraine Rickerl, were my first instructors. They looked after my older brother Brad, my younger sister, Jenny and me. They would play with us and throw us around. I learned back handsprings from them. I started going to the Y.M.C.A when I was nine years old. This was in the late 70s, around the same time that the song was popular on the radio. My friends and I all thought that they wrote it about us. My dad made me a balance beam out of two by fours and covered it with carpet so I could practice at home. I was out there in our yard on that balance beam all the time.

I went to a gymnastics summer camp at the local high school when I was 10 years old. Everyone was so encouraging to me. The high school coach and all the girls there wouldn’t stop raving about me. They would tell me how strong I was, how straight my legs were, and that I had really good toe point. Those older girls were famous to me because, as the top gymnasts in Clinton, Iowa, they were in the paper all the time. It felt especially great when they were telling me how good I could be. One day, the head coach, Leah Eberle and her assistant Mike came up to me while I was stretching and said,

“You need to stop going to the YMCA. You need to get yourself to a private club, a place where you could really do well in, where you could improve and excel. What do you say?” My parents weren’t there so I agreed. My first teacher at the Y was a woman named Carla. She had long, kinky hair and I thought she was completely beautiful. They said she was Olympic material, which was really something in the 70s, and I learned a lot from her. However, they didn’t have any specialized, high level coaching there. I only went there for a few hours of practice a week. If I had stayed there, I would have dissolved.

I found a private gym and started learning under the tutelage of Mike, the assistant high school coach. He used to be partners with a man named Mr. Douglas, but they had a falling out and Mike left to start his own gym. He had my parents going, so they enlisted to help him find a new place to rent out. We were close family friends with Mike’s family. His wife was Vietnamese and they had a daughter named Shelly who was a year older than me. She was an exceptional athlete and we became close, but they decided not to open their own gym  and moved to Miami soon after. Shelly came back to Clinton when she was a college freshman and told me that the collegiate track coach wanted her to run track, but her gymnastics coach refused. She joked that she got so fast because kids used to chase her around the playground in a game called “Chase the Chink.” There was a lot of racism in Clinton. I was in awe of how she managed to turn it around, make light of it, and became stronger for it.

After Coach Mike moved with his wife and Shelly to Miami, I had to continue gymnastics with the only other coach in town: Mike’s former partner, Mr. Douglas. I heard stories about how mean Mr. Douglas was and I was nervous that he would penalize me for training with his nemesis. With Mike, I was his best little girl. He just trained me as if I was better than the rest of them. But on my first day training with Mr. Douglas, I saw how much better his girls were than me. They had this kind of quality training since they were five or six whereas I had just started just a few years prior. On my first day, we were doing these round-off back handspring full twists and all these other moves I had never done before. I was the worst of the worst, by a landslide. I started balling my eyes out, but I was trying to keep my composure. When I had to go and do a flip, snot flew out of my nose. I noticed the mucus on the floor where the other girls were tumbling. I was so mortified, worrying that someone was going to land in it and know that it was mine. I was expecting deep, public humiliation at my first practice with the big time gymnasts.  Then I saw Mr. Douglas nonchalantly walk over and wipe up my snot with his sock. From that moment on, I knew I was going to be okay.

I was so bad when I was in 6th grade. A good score for our age group was a 9.0 or better out of 10.0. A 9.5 was awesome and a 9.0 was really good. If you could get 9.0’s and get a total of 36 all around, that was a solid place to be. To qualify for a state championship, I needed to have a 7.0 average. I remember my mom coming up to me at the state qualifier and explaining that I needed an 11.8 to make it to state. She said,

“Don’t worry about anything. Just go up there and do the best routine you can because you won’t make it to state this year.”

I probably had some 4.0’s and 5.0’s in there. I do remember one particular meet where they wrote the scores out on the ribbons. On my second place ribbon they had written 2.75. I had no chance. 

A couple of months after that meet I just started working really hard.  In the beginning of 7th grade I would leave middle school at the end of the school day and walk to the gym to train for two hours. Then, my teammates would show up for practice. Somehow, Mr. Douglas either saw potential in me or realized how badly I wanted to be good.  Looking back as an adult I can't believe what drove me as 12-year old kid.  I packed my gym bag, packed a snack, walked to practice and worked out twice as many hours as required of me without any asking me or pushing me to do it.  

After five months of practicing like this throughout that 7th grade year, I worked my way up to 8.2’s. In the interim, I found an article in United States Gymnastics Federation's magazine that explained how to train your brain with positive affirmation. I took this to heart and immediately started implementing it.  I repeated,“don’t fall,” over and over. I had a teammate that was a junior in high school named Karen.  She was a complete Gutsy/Crazy  #Bad Ass, but that' s a story for later.  I told her of my recent mental training endeavors. She said, “Hey, Patty; that’s great what you’re doing, but you have to change what you’re saying. If you keep repeating, ‘don’t fall,’ all you are going to hear is ‘fall.’ Instead, I would say, ‘I will make my beam routine. I will make my beam routine.” She was taking psychology in high school, so I listened to her advice and started to basically hypnotize myself. From that night on, every night, I wrote, “I will make my beam routine,” on a piece of paper. I then wrote, “I will keep my legs straight. I will make my beam routine. I will make my aerial-cartwheel. I will make my beam routine,” and I kept going with every specific skill I needed to nail for each of my events. I did it for vaulting, I did it for bars, I did it for beam, I did it for floor, I did it for everything. Once I had my plan mapped out and written down, I would repeat everything 10 times.  Then I would visualize what it looked and felt like in my own mind to complete my routines flawlessly.  The more I practiced visualization the better I got in my mind and just like Oprah says, "it manifested out in the physical world." This took me upwards of 30 minutes per night, more time before a big meet approached. 

The next state qualifying meet came up near the end of winter 7th grade year.  All the way up to the meet and especially the night before, I practiced my mental training. From the year before of getting 4.00’s and 5.00’s, I got 8.95 on floor and an 8.95 on beam. You would have thought I won the Olympic gold, I just couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, instead of elation, I came back to scrutiny from my teammates. Jacque, Mr. Douglas’s daughter, and Julie were always better than me. But that day I blew them out of the water by two points, a significant amount in gymnastics. They refused to talk to me for the remainder of the day and when they did, they said they weren’t mad at me for winning, but at how I conducted myself throughout the competition. We were all just behaving like 11, 12, and 13-year olds. They were sore that I had beaten them after doing so poorly the year before, and I was hurt that they weren’t happy for me. This was around the time I overheard Jacque arguing with her father one day at the gym. She was complaining that he was always harder on her and meaner to her than any of the other girls he was teaching. Mr. Douglas lost his temper and yelled back,“That’s not true at all! I’m harder on Patty than anyone else here.”

I was flabbergasted. I had not thought him mean at all, but I was grateful that he cared enough to be tough on me.

After qualifying for the state championships, I went home and tallied up my scores. I realized that I could qualify for regionals with my 8.95. From not even coming close to qualifying for state championships the year prior to surpassing the minimum requirement of an 8.5 average for regionals, I was stunned not only with my hard work, but with the impact that mental training had on me. After that, I inserted the idea of regionals into my mantra and kept repeating, “I will make it to regionals. I will make my beam routine. I will make it to regionals. I will make my aerial cartwheel.”

There was a month in between the state qualifier and the state meet. If I performed well at state and received at least a 63.2, I would be able to go to regionals. As a Class II gymnast, that was the highest meet I could achieve at the time. I went to the next practice and told my teammates about all the calculations I had done, that I could make it to regionals that year with my scores.  At the next practice after that my teammate Julie turned to me and scoffed,

“No you can’t. My dad thinks that the only person who can make it is Diana ‘cause she’s
the best.” Diana was older and was the reigning high school state all-around champion. 
I took it pretty hard.  I remember her saying that her Dad thinks I was setting myself up for disappointment and once again, no one was good enough to make it to Regionals except Diana. 

The state meet finally arrived and I needed to have the meet of my life to make it to Regionals. I had a good day at compulsories and I was right on track, but I messed up an event on my second day that landed me in the precarious position of needing an 8.4 on my final routine to qualify for regionals. It all came down to the balance beam and I had to make my beam routine no matter what. If I fell I was out.  Up to this point, I had been relentlessly training mentally and physically. Each day, I saved an hour before bed to repeat my mantra. In this particular meet I was the last one up on beam.  Balance beam takes longer than the other events and so that meant nothing else would be going on.  I was the last competitor in the last session of that meet.  All eyes would be on me, it would be quiet and scary. As I prepared to start my routine I did my physical warm-ups and told myself I could do it.  Then, my body took over.  I got up on the beam and I nailed my routine! I didn’t so much as wobble. As soon as I  my feet hit the mat, I remember hearing Julie’s dad just screaming from the bleachers. "WOOO!  Yes! Great job Patty!"  I remembered Julie telling me that he doubted me and here he was, cheering me on and cheering me on loudly.  To this day, his support and cheering for me at that moment still chokes me up.  

I believe that meet changed the course of a lot of things for me. I think that if I failed that day, I probably would have given up on gymnastics shortly thereafter.  But I didn't fail and I had proof that hard work and faith pays off.  I improved my all-around score 13 points in one year.  I felt like that empty platitude my mom always repeated but didn't act on it as it pertained to her own life,  "You can do anything you set your mind to" was actually real. So from that point on, that was it, I was a gymnast. And after that meet, I became a highly motivated gymnast. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Road Kill Factory

I grew up in a smelly,little industrial town on the Mississippi River called Clinton, Iowa.  Our three-bedroom ranch home with white siding and red shutters was 1/2 mile from a rendering plant, yet somehow also right across the street from a country club.  Rendering plant? What the hell is a rendering plant?  When I was growing up, we called it the Road Kill Factory.  The smell of rotting animal flesh left out on the road on a sweltering August afternoon permeated the entire South side of Clinton.  It was a stench that lasted the whole year, though it was especially bad in the humid summers.  Clinton Country Club- I can just imagine the distinctive aroma of road kill wafting over and mingling with the freshly mowed grass of the greens.  When you grow up there, however, you are accustomed to it.  It's just the smell of the air.  But if you leave for awhile and come back, the odor mingled with the heat hits you like a wall and makes you gag.  

My Uncle Gary and Cousin Dave both worked at the plant and they told me that they processed dead animals there, whatever processing meant.  The smell got into everything.  When Dave left work, his clothes stunk of the plant, which would stink up his car.  He had to buy a beat-up junk car just for work.  As an adult, my friends busted on me all the time about it.  I can just hear our friend Cy exclaiming, "There you go, bragging about your family money!  Your cousin bought a special car devoted just to drive to his high-flutin' job.  You and your rendering money."  

Then there was the stench produced by ADM, Archer Daniels Midland, a sickening sulfuric smell of what was once known as Clinton Corn.  ADM and the rendering plant were just two of the numerous industrial factories located in Clinton.  The townspeople were happy to have those factories as they employed a lot of people, then the recession hit.  There was a major recession in farming in the 80s.  Think John Cougar Mellencamp's famous hit "Rain on the Scare Crow."  Major farming corporations bought all of the little family farms that people had owned for generations.  I remember that International Harvester planned to build an enormous 100,000 square-foot facility about an hour away from Clinton.  All of a sudden, construction just stopped.  They left that skeleton of a structure up for years and years to come.  Driving by that as a kid just made you have a deep sense of instability.  As if no one was immune to bad financial hardships, not even huge corporations.  Not that Clinton was ever a wealthy community, it certainly hadn't been in recent times, but it took a nosedive in the 1980s.  Everyone lost their jobs, many of the educated people left and everything spiraled downwards.

I grew up definitely lower middle class although I never really had a sense of this when I was a kid.  I don't know if it was because it was a different time, or the area in which I grew up, but nobody cared.  My friends and I never even really knew what a BMW was until we were 16.  In that way, it was kind of a utopia.  Money was never why you liked someone because you were all in the same boat.  It was usually an old, rusty boat.  You were liked for who you were, not the clothes you wore or if you had a trampoline in your backyard.  There was none of that.  You were popular if you were nice, funny, a good student or a good athlete.  

My grandfather was among many in our town who worked at Clinton Corn and ADM since the end of World War II. His character was symptomatic of someone who grew up during the depression. When he died, he left behind close to half a million dollars that he saved over the years. He was a picker in Iowa long before those guys from American Pickers in LeClaire, Iowa,  became famous for it. For at least ten years before he died he couldn’t even fit his car into the garage; there was so much stuff in it. He never paid full price for anything, but would buy a toaster for a dollar and sell it for eight. We found upwards of seven toasters in his garage after he died. My grandfather smoked, he drank, he was diabetic, and he was cheap. He would go to Hardee's every morning at 9:00 AM and order a cup of coffee. He waited there; drinking that coffee and getting it refilled for free, until 10:30, when the restaurant stopped serving breakfast and gave away their sugary, cinnamon biscuits. The biscuits were certainly not at the top of the heart-diseased, diabetic "Ok'd" list, but hey, they were free!  He had open-heart surgery in his late 60s after suffering a heart attack and I remember he told my mom that if he had known how badly it would hurt, he would have just died. He died when he was 72 of another heart attack.

My father’s mother was a farmer in rural Missouri and she had the equivalent of an eighth grade education. My father graduated high school and when he turned 18, they pulled out every single one of his teeth. Rather than attending to his dental problems, they figured it would be far less trouble to remove them and give him dentures. He was an 18 year old with false teeth. He and my mother were both smokers. They never did any form of exercise. I remember if he ever saw our neighbor Loraine out on a jog, he would stop and offer her a ride. When it came to exercise they didn’t believe in doing more work than you had to. But they had trouble conceiving, so they adopted my brother. They adopted me a year and a half later and even before my adoption was finalized, my mother gave birth to my sister.

Stating that my parents were smokers is like saying Bill Gates dabbled with computers.  They really loved to smoke.  In the 1970's their brand was Raleigh Cigarettes.  They had little tickets on the back of the packs and cartons you could redeem for prizes. We "won" all kinds of camping gear, tents, radios and other grand prizes.  To say we had an excess of Raleigh Coupon prizes is an understatement.

My mother was born in 1941 five months before Pearl Harbor. Her father left for the war and came back to Iowa in 1945. He never discussed the war. He dealt with the pain of the war by not dealing with it and drinking too much. Men who came home from the war didn’t have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was no mention of therapy, of abuse, or anything like that. It was 1945 and you better be tough. 

I often think about the way my mother was raised and the time period she grew up in so I could understand her choices. Once my mom found some old books for women from the 50’s and 60’s and showed them to me. They were guides that gave women instructions on how to be a domestic goddess. You were supposed to put lipstick on before your husband came home from work. You should have the kids ready to greet him, dinner already prepared, and in no way could you ever complain about any of it. You were told to be a demure house wife and answer to your husband even if he was an abusive alcoholic, which my father was. 

My mother graduated high school in 1959. She didn’t go to college and stayed in this little town in Iowa her whole life. Leaving, even to go to Chicago by herself, was completely out the realm of possibility. My mom grew up when things were becoming more automated. You didn’t have to detassle corn anymore, you were supposed to stay at home, and so a sedentary lifestyle became normal. Then, all you had for physical activity was cheerleading and swimnastics really. There was no Title IX. 1928 was the first time they allowed women to run in the 800-meter race in the Olympics. Nine women competed, one of whom collapsed at the finish line. The take home message from that event was that 800-meters is too far for a woman to run. There were eight other women who crossed the finish like, but they said they were all collapsing left and right. 

So both of my parents were sedentary, heavy smokers.  They not only hated to exercise themselves, they would make fun of people that did.  My Dad drank too much and my mom ate too much.  How I became a healthy fitness professional is nothing short of a miracle in this life.  

Although I was eventually able to divert myself from many of the health choices of my parents, my fitness story really starts with gymnastics and my childhood coach, Mr. Douglas.

Me at 14 years old.