Thursday, September 29, 2016

Metal and Mettle

After a successful season of high school and club gymnastics, I was recruited by a couple of different universities.  Ball State University was my best option financially and academically.  I was recruited by their head coach, Mary Roth.  Even though I was pretty much gigantic for a gymnast at 5'9", Mary loved my lines, my toe point, my work ethic and most of all my fun-loving, positive attitude.  I signed for an academic and athletic scholarship.  It should have been the best day of my life, but I was still plagued with the feeling that it wasn't good enough.  My dream had been to go to the University of Missouri.  Never mind that I had heard their coach was a zealot when it came to the weight of his gymnasts.  It didn't take me long to realize Ball State was a great fit for me.

            However, I started college off on the wrong foot, literally. I had been a gymnast since I was nine years old.  I was 18 at the time and had done gymnastics for half of my life.  I'd been injured but never seriously.  One Sunday morning, two weeks before the start of my freshman year of college, I was late for work.  If I'm confessing here, and I am, if it was Sunday morning and I was supposed to work, I was going to be running late for work.   This wasn't just a rare Sunday. I was a waitress at a place called Reynold’s Restaurant. It was totally old school with diner counters and the spinning stools and speckled tile on the floor. The owners were extremely kind to me, and they had a daughter who was also a gymnast. The whole truth is that I was partying the night before. I was too drunk to drive home, so I called my sister to come pick me up instead. That morning, the keys to my car were in her purse, which was in her car, which was in the church parking lot. So while my family was at church, I was running around in my little green waitress uniform, fussing with the little beret, trying to get ready for work with a hangover. I’ve always been late and I know I used to thrive on the adrenaline rush of making it somewhere successfully when I was running late. I didn’t realize I didn’t have my car keys until I ran up to my car door. I rushed over to my neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. Eric, one of the sons, answered and I hurriedly explained that I had slept in, that my sister had my car keys and that I needed a ride to work. He agreed to take me and I asked him to hold on while I got something from home before we left.

            Between our houses, there was a small embankment that sloped downwards from their driveway to ours. As I was sprinting back to my house in my Army green, ugly mini-dress of a uniform, I slipped on the grass and fell. I was sliding down towards our driveway, tugging at my uniform to keep my butt from completely falling out of it. I finally hit the cement of my driveway, which stopped me from sliding, but the momentum grated my ankle against the ground. I heard this awful crack and started to scream for my neighbor to call an ambulance. I remember lying there thinking, “Oh my god, if it isn’t broken and I go into the ambulance, my parents are going to kill me.” So I started shouting that he should un-call the ambulance. I then went to take off my shoe and the bone moved in my sock. There was no mistaking it, it was broken. So I had surgery three or four hours later for a compound fracture, having ripped the outside of my bone and tearing a deltoid ligament, the largest ligament in the human body. They implanted five screws and placed me in a cast.

            Two days later I had a follow up appointment. The surgeon examined his handiwork and told me he was putting me in a hip cast for the next 8 weeks.  Even though I had just turned 18 one month earlier and was basically lying in a self-pity pile I looked straight into the eyes of this prominent surgeon in our town yelled "YOU ARE NOT PUTTING ME IN A HIP CAST!  I WILL NOT DO IT!  FIND SOMETHING ELSE.  YOU'RE NOT DOING THAT TO ME!"  I explained that if he put me in a hip cast I'd be ruined.  I would have to rehab both my ankle and my knee because he was immobilizing that too.  It would be too much to overcome and I had to do gymnastics.  It was paying for my school.  I remember not liking him very much at all even though he did a great job on my surgery.  Surprisingly, he agreed to put me in a removable brace that had both an ankle and a knee hinge.  I liked him a little better after that. I could remove the brace and keep my leg as strong and flexible as possible.  That was one of the first lessons I had in being your own advocate for your health.  Yes, doctors are amazing.  They are very intelligent.  However, they are still people and don't know everything. This made all the difference in the world.  I was able to take off the brace and do rehab.

            A couple of days after my surgery when I was off most of my pain medicine, I had to call Mary Roth and explain to her what happened.  She told me that my scholarship was in jeopardy and she didn't know if I'd be able to keep it and start Ball State at all.  I said good-bye, hung up the phone and I went ape-shit crazy. I started to cry hysterically, visions of Clinton Community College and more years at my parents house were popping in my head.  "Why is God doing this to me?!"  How melodramatic I was!  When I pulled it together about 20 minutes later, I made a call to my high school coach, who told me that it was impossible for Ball State to take my scholarship away for an injury. I calmed down a bit and Mary called me back to tell me she was going to honor my scholarship.

            My parents dropped me off in Muncie, Indiana, exactly two weeks from the date of my injury and surgery.  They spent a couple of days decorating my room, helping me unpack and get settled.  I remember them saying good bye and my Dad crying and choking up through tears, "Take care of that leg."  After they left, I shut the door to my dorm room and felt a little guilty.  I cried a little when they left, but all in all I was overjoyed that I was finally at college.  I had a surge of energy and was completely excited to be there even if I was on crutches.  I couldn't stop smiling.

            I attended classes like any other incoming freshmen but was luckily carted around by the campus police.  The Ball State policy was for the campus police to take injured students to class if they were too hurt to walk.  I went to class and practice.  I couldn’t do anything in gymnastics specifically, but I worked with the Ball State Physical Therapist, Neal Hazen, in the training room as much as I could. I did whatever he told me to do. He really worked on me a lot. He would rub my ankle until I would almost throw up from agony. He was trying to get rid of the scar tissue so that I would retain mobility in that ankle.  Neal was the main reason I was able to get back into gymnastics. I’m always surprised when I work with clients for physical therapy because it’s always just a few short sessions, maybe eight at most. I was in rehabilitating every day and training for four whole hours for months. I would get on this Airdyne bike and they would hoist one foot on a chair while I pedaled with the other. I rode that thing for forty five minutes straight.
The training room was just four concrete walls painted white. I was pretty bored, but I hated going into the gymnastics gym. I’d be stuck watching my teammates learn new awesome skills like double full twists and double backs and I would just be sitting around longing to join them. I hated it that they were getting better while I was not improving in gymnastics at all.  My ankle did get better every day and I was getting stronger.

            I have to admit that the training room was actually a blast.  I don't mean the torturous rehab of it all but definitely the camaraderie of the injured athletes.  It didn't hurt that there were many good looking, athletic men that were injured either.  I was already very social but the training room made me even more so.  I met hundreds of male and female athletes that year.  One thing all athletes have in common is that we all get hurt at one point or another. Even the upperclassmen would come to me to find out where the parties were that weekend.  I always knew what was going on and what was going on was fun.  I still hold the opinion that the best place to grow up is not the best place to live your life.  I mean, I started in Clinton, Iowa.  When it comes to things to do, you couldn't get much worse.  There we learned how to make our own fun.  Now that I was in the big city of Muncie, Indiana, and I swear to God I thought it was a big city then, I felt like I was in the Mecca of activity! 

            I was sequestered to the packed house training room. I guess that was another example of making the best of it.  I had to be in the training room anyway so I might as well make it fun.  When I got more mobility, I moved to the weight room and worked out in there up to two hours per day. I loved the weight room too.  By today's standards that place was a complete dump.  It was in an enclosed basement, concrete room that was humid and sweaty.  The athletes didn't have their own separate weight room then so I was in there with everyday fitness enthusiasts and regular students.  One day, some goofy guy with a "Let's Get Physical" headband on brought in a boom box.  He played the entire Rocky cassette soundtrack.  My smart-alec  bodybuilder friends were shouting, "Go Adrienne!" before their sets of bench and chin-ups.  We pulled off a lot of buffoonery in that sweat box.

Even though I was working hard in the training room, and then in the weight room, (albeit having fun and laughing a lot too) Mary would sometimes hassle me that I would never be at practice.  She wanted me to sit around and support my teammates.  She would say, "I never know where you are all practice."  We would practice every day from two to six and I was trying to spend those four hours training. I figured rehabilitating my ankle was ultimately the best way to support my teammates.  I had to all but beg her not to make me sit and watch the practices. That would have been torture.

After eight weeks, I had my second surgery and they removed the longest pin that went though both my tibia and fibula bones. I was on crutches for another ten days after the surgery before I could start really working out again. After the pin was taken out, I could do pull ups on bars. In gymnastics, if your leg is broken, you’re still expected to use everything else that works. This mentality has stayed with me throughout my years as a personal trainer and Pilates instructor. If my clients ever complain that their wrist is in pain, I say, “Well, your legs work just fine, so you’re going to work those out today.” But it helped me to maintain the condition of my body. If I hadn’t kept exercising, I would not have been able to jump right back into the swing of things.

When I came back from Christmas break and our season began in January, I was ready to compete.  I was still having pain, however. I had been doing gymnastics since that November and the doctor told me I had Achilles tendinitis in my ankle. Even though I was competing, I was really sticking to beam and definitely staying away from vaulting, or anything that required me to run and slam down on my feet. Since I was never very good at bars, I competed in beam as a freshman for Ball State. But even after the season was over, I was still in pain. I remember that was around the same time Jennifer Sey broke her femur in half doing a reverse Hecht
on bars. Six months later, she came back and won the national championship. I had a teammate tell me that if Jennifer could recover after only six months, then so could I. In Jennifer’s 2008 book, she explained that despite breaking her femur, her doctors released her prematurely. She may have won the championship, but she was still very much injured. At the time, however, I got down on myself for not regaining my strength. After eight months, I was still struggling with my ankle and the thought of Jennifer winning a national championship after a much more serious injury was demoralizing. 

In the spring of my freshman year, I was also dating this good looking Senior who was a really accomplished tennis player. He had blond hair, pretty blue eyes and had skin so tan he looked like the quintessential California boy even though he was from Illinois- Normal, Illinois, in fact.  He endured a moped accident when he was 16 and completely crushed his leg. It was still indented and scarred in places where his shin had been bashed in. He had a scar that snaked from his knee all the way down to his ankle. It only happened two years earlier, but he was still able to get an athletic scholarship for tennis to Ball State. He was a MAC champion a few times over in doubles. I hung out with him and he told me that his leg never hurt him. But I’ve often attributed that to the fact that he was kind of a space cadet. He was always happy, which I’m sure had to do with the fact that he was completely gorgeous and had girls falling for him all over the place. He was just one of those people that could derive joy from just looking at the birds, or basking in the sunshine. He was just a really sweet and happy person. But it was still discouraging to me when he told me his leg never hurt and my Achilles wouldn’t stop hurting.

I competed and I finished out the season, but the main issue was that I had difficulty walking, so it obviously would hurt to run, jump and land on my ankle.  I went back to Iowa that summer and made an appointment at the University of Iowa hospital to get it checked out. They confirmed that I had Achilles tendinitis and told me to ice it, rest it and don't do any impact activities.  I wasn't even allowed to jog lightly, let alone do explosive gymnastics moves.  I continued to exercise, but I was really burnt out from gymnastics. Most of my teammates had gotten hurt that year and, overall, our team didn’t do very well. Everyone complained about their injuries incessantly, so being hurt was always on my mind. Because I needed the exercise, but was limited in what I could do, I decided I would finally learn how to swim laps. Up until then, I never knew how to swim a single lap in a regulation sized pool. I could swim to save my own life and knew how to tread water, but I could never swim a single lap straight without taking a break. I went to the four-foot deep lap pool at the Clinton Municipal Pool and began one day, swimming a half a lap, then walking the rest.  Then, I would begin the next lap.  I would swim and walk as much as I needed to fill up 30 minutes.  A couple weeks later I would swim 3/4 of a lap, then walk the rest.  After a few weeks of that I was able to swim an entire lap and just continued like that until I could swim for up to an hour straight.  I would ask anyone around that looked like they knew what they were doing if I was doing a certain stroke right, or I’d ask them to see how I was breathing, and I’d pick up pointers from the random people at the pool. I'm sure my technique was terrible but swimming made me strong.  I really loved being in the water and the ability to work hard without pounding my body.  It also taught me that one can always exercise no matter what injuries they've sustained.  Having Achilles tendinitis was no excuse to be lazy and de-conditioned. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Zone

My teammate, Julie, had shattered her arm the year before.  The doctors weren't even sure if her arm would function normally again, let alone be strong enough to compete in gymnastics again.  Her injury wasn't very common and the procedure needed to straighten it out wasn't that prevalent in 1986.  She went to three different surgeons in our little town of Clinton, Iowa, before her mom decided she needed a more experienced surgeon that could be found in the larger community of the Quad Cities.  Julie had a metal plate and four screws implanted in her arm.  She was in a cast for about 10 weeks.  Once she got out of the cast her elbow wouldn't straighten very much.  She used soup cans to help ease her elbow into the range of motion she needed. 

Before our senior year, I didn't really think Julie was very tough.  I have to say when she hurt herself I was outwardly encouraging her to come back.  Inwardly, I doubted she could.  It was a lot to overcome.  She only had one year left and didn't want to do college gymnastics.  Most of my opinion about her toughness was shaped due to jealousy on my part.  Julie was super tiny.  She was strong, light, and incredibly naturally flexible. She had the body a gymnast was supposed to have.  Plus, she had this gorgeous family and they all looked alike.  As an adopted kid, that was what I was most jealous about.  Her dad was educated, had a good job and her petite, fit mom had three beautiful daughters.  They were like the quintessential J. Crew family you'd see in an ad.  From my teenage perspective I formed the opinion that Julie had it easy and wasn't tough enough to make it back.

Julie had other ideas.  It seemed like she just showed up at practice the first day and picked up where she left off.  In that entire year I only remember her complaining about her arm one time.  The whole entire season, six months of it, she complained one time.  It was a legitimate complaint at that.  We were doing some kind of bounding push-up drills for vault and tumbling explosion.  Basically, you're in a push up and you jump off your hands, in gymnastics terminology, blocking off of your hands from your shoulders, then jumping your hands up to the board.  You "block" or push off of your hands explosively and move from the board, to the floor, the floor to the board, over and over.   It was a lot of impact on her arm.  She winced casually said, "This hurts" and stopped doing the non-essential drill.

I remember her saying repeatedly, "It just doesn't hurt.  I don't have any problems."  Even when teammates and other people at school pressed her, she would just tell them, "Nope. Doesn't hurt."  I'm sure it had to hurt a little, her arm had been shattered.  I love it that she either talked herself out of it hurting or made up her mind that she was going to do gymnastics and her arm would be fine.  Either way, she was another bad ass teammate living the example of how you're supposed to work, live and train. 

We were heavily favored to win the State meet.  We had all of us, the seniors, Julie, Tracy, Andrea and I, plus Danielle, a junior that really grew up with us because she was in our group at Mr. Douglas' gym.  We had an excellent group of incoming freshmen that were very talented, worked hard and were well trained.  We breezed through all of our duel meets, conference, sectionals and regionals and won decisively. 

The state meet was upon us.  It was pay back time.  We had lost to Linn-Mar, a suburb of Cedar Rapids where most of their gymnasts were from the C.R.A.I.G. Cedar Rapids Academy In Gymnastics and also where I trained briefly the burn out summer between my Sophomore and Junior years, a.k.a. the knife in the ribs soreness incident. 

We drew the best order for state, Olympic order starting on Vault.  Everyone hit their vaults.  In those days, we did two vaults.  I was doing a vault that won me the state title the year before.  My next vault was a more difficult rendition of that where I added another twist.  Except for the exceptionally high flipping Tsukahara vaults, my Full Twist On-Full Twist Off was what a majority of college coaches were recruiting.   Flipping vaults were too difficult for me for two reasons:  my height and my slow, non-bounding, white legs.  My legs look strong and they are, but I'm as slow and white as they come.  I had a friend that played college football that would harass me and say, " have them big 'ol regress calves. I can walk backwards faster than you can run forwards."  I hated that only because it was true.  (I'd jokingly punch him right in the arm if I saw him today, but it would be a hard punch dammit.) 

I completely stuck the first, easier vault.  My coach got the score and told me to go for the more difficult vault.  I stuck it.  I jumped up and down and went crazy.  I anxiously awaited the score and it was an 8.95.  What?! I scored a 9.5 the year before on the easier vault.  I'd been easily scoring in the mid-nines all year.  What happened?  My coach overheard a judge more from the central region of Iowa complain that both of my hands weren't hitting at the same time which was an automatic .5 deduction.  Whether they were or weren't wasn't a concern at that point.  I vaulted the same way I had all year, now a different judge has a different opinion and all the other judges aligned with her.  I was out for the all-around title before I even really got a start.  When my score was flashed I can't believe I handled it this well but I made up my mind not to give it another thought.  There was nothing I could do about it.

Next up was Uneven Bars.  The past two years we had a history of basically falling apart on bars.  Our new coach, Miss Chris assured us from the beginning of the year that wouldn't happen this time. We trained so many routines on bars we didn't have the opportunity to fail. All year we did far more routines per practice than we ever had before.  What a great life lesson.  If you're nervous, over prepare. If you're scared, over prepare. If you have head trash from the past, over prepare. Work so hard that your only option is to succeed. We didn't want to do all of the routines at every single practice.  Bars makes your hands bleed. I don't mean this in a metaphorical sense. The skin rips off of your hands from the friction on the bars. Your hands bleed from blisters. Sometimes blisters inside of blisters.  Growing up you think rips suck.  Then you get rips inside of rips (blisters on top of blisters) and you start to think, "Hmm...just a regular old rip really isn't that bad."  You want to do gymnastics and be super human? Guess what? Sometimes it sucks and your hands bleed. That's not a reason to stop training.  

The night before the state meet, Miss Chris set us up to go to a gym near where we competed outside of Des Moines to get our bar settings.  These were the same brand that we were going to use at the state meet and she wanted us to be comfortable.  She really listened to our fears and issues from the year before and was proactive about it.  We all hit every routine.  Bars was Julie's best event before her broken arm and it remained her best event after too.  She completed a flawless routine and got our best bar score.  We had our best score as a team total on bars and our worst event was over.  On to our best two, balance beam and floor exercise.

Throughout my career, I was almost always the last performer for beam and I was for this meet as well. I had a whole system, and it looked like a system of goofing off.  I did this by design.  I could never watch my teammates on beam because if they did well I felt relieved. If they messed up, I didn't want more pressure on myself.  I didn't want my performance affected by whatever they did or didn't do so I just couldn't watch.  They'd let me know after the meet.   I would walk around and believe it or not, even talk to people I knew in the stands.  I would completely distract myself.  Two routines up from me competing I'd start to pay attention to my preparation. I would stretch out.  I would warm up and do my skills on a line when the person before me was competing.  I would either mark or do every skill that was feasible in whatever warm-up area we would have.  Immediately before I would get on the beam, I did three big breaths reaching my arms all the way up, and on the exhale relaxing my arms and head down.  I swear it looked just like a Richard Simmons warm-up. After those were completed, I knew I was ready. 

A lot of gymnasts get completely freaked out when they compete on the beam.  Calm excitement is how I'd describe it. I learned to love the butterflies of competing. It always gave me more energy and made me feel fully alive.  Ever since that State competition way back when I was 12 years old and nailed that routine as the last competitor of that meet on beam, I loved competing.  I felt like I had an ace in the hole with all of that mental training I did.  I was confident on beam.  I loved practicing it which helped me loved competing it. By this time of my senior year of high school I'm sure I would've had scores and scores of sheets of paper of affirmations over the years if I hadn't have thrown them out.  Statements like "I will make it to Regionals.  I will make my beam routine. I will make it to Regionals.  I will make my aerial cartwheel" were written repeatedly.  If I hadn't have thrown out the evidence, it would've looked like the manuscript written by Jack Nicholson's  completely insane character in The Shining.  "HEEERRREE'S Johnny! All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

I was defending my state title in beam but didn't think about that at all.  I was so intensely prepared and just happy.  I competed that beam routine with utmost certainty and confidence. I was solid on every skill and stuck my dismount to boot.  I really didn't care about the score because I knew after all of us hit our beam routines we were going to win the team title.  It was a great score though and I won my second beam title.

Our last event together as a team culminating our lifetimes in gymnastics was upon us. Time to shine on floor and have fun.  Only, I wasn't having fun and was completely stressed out.  I'd been falling on my first tumbling pass in warm-ups and was seriously considering changing my tumbling so I could at least not fall on my butt. Warm ups were over and I'd been falling all over the place.  Under rotating, over rotating and just having bad timing on that first pass. 

Our first three teammates competed very well.  Julie, who competed fourth in the line up, completed a spectacular routine to The Bangle's song "Walk Like an Egyptian".  She even successfully completed the whip backs she shattered her arm on they year before. 

My teammate Danielle was up next. She and I had the same tumbling passes that year, including the first one that I was falling all over with in warm-ups.  Like all of us, Danielle and I had grown up together. She was adopted like me but was an only child.  We spent a lot of time together as kids not only at practice but at her house.  I remember she had a poodle dog that she would "spot" in back flips and even double back flips!  She swore the dog loved it. She made her little brown curly haired dog do double backs! PETA people back off, we were 11.  Today, here she was getting ready to do what would be her last floor routine in competition.  She went up fifth right before me. 

Danielle did an amazing routine to a Banana-Rama compilation.  (No, she didn't wear a bandana. But yes, she did have bad 80s hair just like the rest of us). She choreographed it and we all added in some dance moves for her. It was a fun routine.  She tumbled sky high on all of her first tumbling pass and hit all the rest of them too. A huge, great routine.  That was it for me. I knew I would compete my planned tumbling passes and take my chances.

I began my routine with my favorite song at the time, this cool 80s dance electronica hit, "Let the Music Play" by Shannon. The music had this whip sound in it. I stood right in the corner of the floor mat at attention with my arms straight down at my sides and my head straight down.  The music builds to a whip sound as I simultaneously flicked my hand and arm around in snap.  I took off tumbling and nailed the pass that Danielle just completed and I'd been falling on for the past week. I did it completely and perfectly.  I knew from the time my feet hit the mat while I landed the first pass that this routine was going to be perfect.  Then it happened...the zone.

The zone. It's only happened to me twice in my entire competitive life.  This was the first time.   Years later I had a particularly deep conversation about the zone with a professional football player.  It's a strange and other worldly phenomenon.  I could tell he was a little hesitant to open up about it as I was too.  Neither one of us wanted to appear too much like a drugged up hippy.   He said, "It's surreal, it's like I could see the plays before they happened.  I don't know if it's a metaphysical thing or what but it's like this was written before it even happened to you."

I haven't read about the zone because I don't want the academic side to take away from my experience of it.  It's a spiritual, wild, indescribable experience.  I was in a double handstand pirouette before I really even had consciousness of what was happening.  I had awareness in that moment that everything went exactly as I had rehearsed it.  I still remember my thoughts, emotions and feelings around it vividly.  I did a forward roll out of the handstand double pirouette, spun around on my back (a la break dancing), then flicked my head into the final pose.  Euphoria.  I jumped up, saluted the judges and all of us as a team just went crazy.  It had been a long three years getting to this point.  I could've gotten a 6.0 and we still would have won. 

If memory serves me correctly, I scored a 9.65, Danielle got a 9.6.  It was some incredible score.  We finished one-two.  I never would have done it without her. We won the team title by four points.  We blew them out of the water!   Our coach was recently inducted into our high school's Athletic Hall of Fame.  They mentioned that our team total that year was the highest team score ever.  The record still stands as they got rid of high school gymnastics in Iowa two years later.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


Even though we lost the state championship and at the time it seemed like all of that work was all in vain, we were learning all kinds of valuable lessons.  We were learning how to win even if we didn't actually win.  The winning habit was being developed by our training and practice. We learned to keep going.  We learned that sometimes no matter how much you don't want to do something, that it's going to be uncomfortable, it's going to require effort, it's going to even suck, you sometimes have to do it anyway.  Do it for yourself.  Do it for your teammates.  Do it because you don't know what else to do.  Get up! 

For me the mental training was invaluable.  I also used it to help me in other aspects of life, like driving for instance.  I wasn't naturally a good driver.  I was pretty hyper and afraid I was going to hurt myself or others. This couldn't make less sense considering my complete lack of fear (or judgement) as it pertained to physically dangerous habits like jumping off of roofs into pools. When it came to driving, I was afraid.  I went through Driver's Ed and one of my teammates, Andrea, was in my car.  I was never good.  For some weird reason, that entire semester of practice driving, I would always get too close to parked cars.  Andrea's eyes would bug out and she would usually just roll them really slowly and look out the window.  She was probably praying for all of our safety.

The big day of the driving test I was ready to go.  I thought today, is going to be different.  I can do this!  I got in the driver's seat.  The instructor, who was also a track coach,  was next to me. Andrea and the other student were in the back seat.  I backed out of the parking spot in downtown Clinton and by the look on Andrea's face, I knew something was wrong.  I could tell she was trying to help me by giving me a look that said, "You're forgetting something, remember this..." I had no idea what she was trying to tell me so I just flat out asked her, "What?! What am I doing wrong?"  She couldn't say anything of course because that would be like cheating on a test.  I was completely flustered now.  Then the instructor said, "Patty, you need to take off the parking brake."  He scribbled on his clipboard.  I completely lost my cool.  I thought that mistake was insurmountable and my score was going to be too low to pass.  It wasn't.  He encouraged me and said I would be ok if everything else went right.  I took off the parking brake, proceeded forward and then SLAM!  Our track coach instructor had to slam on his brake because I almost hit the parked car right in front of us.  My test was over.  I'd driven 3 feet. I had to get out and sit in the back. 

Crap!  I flunked.  This was really bad.  I was incredibly mad at myself and felt like an idiot.  I hadn't really flunked many tests in my entire life and this was a big one! I had one more chance.  When you flunk your first driving test, you get one more chance to prove yourself.  If I flunked that second test I would have to start Driver's Ed all over for another semester and not get my license for another six months.  By this time, the gym in Moline, Illinois, had found another coach.  I wanted to start training at Moline Turners that summer and I needed to be able to drive myself there.  None of my former Moline teammates were still doing gymnastics.  There was no car pool in place.  If I wanted to do gymnastics again and make a push to get a scholarship I had to do club gymnastics.  To get to that club, I had to drive myself.  My parents didn't have the time or money.  There was a lot riding on passing this next test.  Then, I had an epiphany.  I told myself, "If I could do aerial cartwheels, that's no handed cartwheels, on a four-inch balance beam, 4 feet up, I can drive a damn car.  Millions of complete idiots can drive and I can join them."   I know I can do this.  For the entire next two weeks before the my second exam, I did mental training at night before I would fall asleep.  I calmed myself down, repeated mantras such as: I will pass this test.  I will stay calm.  I will pay attention and drive safely. 

The day of my second test came.  I was calm and ready.  It was uneventful.  I took it and passed- no instructor brake necessary.  It probably didn't hurt that our instructor was a track coach.  Andrea and I ran track for him our freshmen year.  He liked us and thought we were good kids.  I know he wanted us to succeed and I'm pretty sure I mentioned to him my predicament about the gym.  Regardless, he passed me and I was on my way to Moline.

My parents bought my sister and I an economy car that was was a complete beater.  It was an old, blue Plymouth Colt with a replacement door that was gold from a Dodge Champ.  I used to call it my Champion Colt. It was two-toned baby! It got me where I needed to go, which was the gym in Moline. 

This was another game changer for me.  The gymnasts I trained with in Moline were at a higher level.  At least five of the 12 girls or so I trained with had better, more difficult skills than I did.  It constantly pushed me every practice to do more.  The new girls coach they hired was Dave.  I knew him from my earlier time training in Moline my sophomore year of high school.  He was the boys coach then.  Dave was in his early 20s.  I was 17.  Not a big age difference but a huge life experience difference.  He was married already and had a kid on the way. 

He was a good technician and a lot of fun, probably too fun.  He let us goof around and get away with a lot more than Mr. Douglas would've ever let us pull off.  He didn't think his job was to motivate me or really any of the older girls.   He would say, "If you're 17 years old and can't motivate yourself by this time, it's not my job to do it." I agree with this to some degree but also think Dave was misguided.  One must be intrinsically motivated but it doesn't magically get there. You must either feed or be fed your motivation everyday.  Ask any athlete in any sport that has been coached by one of the greats and they all say,  "She was a great motivator.  He led by example.  He motivated us to be our best together." 

I was the oldest gymnast that Dave had ever coached.  I was definitely the tallest.  I was bigger than the other girls but I was still lean.  I weighed much more than them due to my height, muscle and size.  Dave would make inappropriate comments to me .  He never physically came on to me but would say things like,  "Good God, you have an amazing body.  You must go up in that work out room and drive those men crazy."  (There was a Nautilus gym on the second floor of Moline Turner's that was open to the public.) I was only 17.  I had no capacity to deal with what he was saying and was confused by it.  As a teenager the thought of being attractive to grown men was disgusting and to put it in 80s lingo, downright grody -to-the-max. One day when he started in on this line of "compliments", I countered back with,  "What?  You tell me I'm fat.  You wrote 'Fat Pat' on the beam in chalk right in front of me and the entire team.  Which one is it?! Do I have a great body or am I fat?"  I did have an ally in the owner of the gym, a woman named Janet.  I was too afraid to tell her of the inappropriate stuff he said but I disclosed to her that I was bulimic.  She made sure there was no more of this Fat Pat business.  I was never close enough to my mom to tell her any of this.  I'm not sure she would've understood it anyway.  I  definitely didn't want to jeopardize going to Moline to train.  It was too important to my success.  Even though Dave knew I was bulimic and struggled with my body image, months later he still pointed out my "gut" in front of the entire team of younger girls one day after practice when we were eating lunch.  He said,  "I mean, I know you've had problems with eating, but that (my gut) is just ridiculous."  I was 17.  5'9" and weighed about 150.  If they did body fat measurements then I was probably 18%. 

Even though Dave said those inappropriate and often mean comments I still gained a considerable amount of benefit by training at Moline Turners.  I was fortunate to be able to be gone and out of my house so much.  I would leave by 6 am.  I would train from 7 am to 10 am, lift weights at the Nautilus gym on the second level of the Moline Turner's building, eat lunch and then teach classes.  I taught classes to pay for my lessons.  I would drive home and work at my waitressing job or have fun hanging out with my friends for the rest of the day.  Being busy was my saving grace.

My dad's drinking was getting worse.  He had a job at this point selling cars for a fairly successful dealership so he was no longer unemployed. He was almost always just a terrible person to be around- except when he wasn't.  When he was in a good mood and whistling, he was super funny and sarcastic.  Like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates, when it came to my Dad you never knew what you were going to get.  The rest of the time, I avoided him as much as possible. 

My brother graduated from high school and worked a lot at the Clinton Car Wash or messed around in a body shop working on cars with his friends and his best friend, my cousin David.  He didn't really have a clear idea of what he was going to do with his life.  He hated school so college wasn't really an option.  He joined the Army and left for basic training in the fall of my Senior year.  Our protector was leaving.  It was pretty nerve wracking.  My mom sold furniture at a shop in downtown Clinton. My sister worked as a waitress too.  We were better off financially and off of welfare but we certainly weren't financially stable.  There was absolutely no money for me to go to college, even Clinton Community College.  Being at home was subjecting yourself to negativity, despair, self-pity and fear.  Being in the gym represented positivity, accomplishment, fun and striving for a good future.  I wanted to be in the gym as much as possible. 

I had a difficult life then but somehow it all worked.  My teammates in both Moline and our high school team were always a source of support and ultimately love.  They helped me not only make the best of it, but make it fun. The discipline alone was an escape. By the fall of my senior year, I had everything streamlined. I would leave school at 2:00 when everyone had study hall at the end of the day. I arrived in Moline by 4:00, where I would give lessons for two hours so that I could pay for my own lessons. After coaching, I practiced for three hours and drove back to Clinton. I was gone from two in the afternoon to ten at night. My school work took a hit, but never enough to get me in trouble.  All of my hard work in the gym was really paying off.  My skills, strength and confidence in gymnastics was improving.  I was having a great gymnastics season in both high school and club and getting ready to peak at the State Championship. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016


I picked up where I left off in gymnastics.  I kind of astounded myself.  I had taken off essentially seven months, except for that brief three-week period in Cedar Rapids.    I remember doing aerial cartwheels on the beam my first practice back.  I know in many sports it is commonplace to only compete for one season, but gymnastics was, even then, a year-round sport.  Missing seven months in gymnastics is an eternity.  Usually when one quits, they don't return because it's just too difficult to begin again.  However, I think some of that is just passed off as common knowledge and it doesn't have to be. At that point in my life,  I had trained in gymnastics for seven years.  All of that muscle memory doesn't just disappear. I had kept myself in reasonable shape so it was, simply, a matter of easing into practice gradually. 

And easing was indeed key as I learned a very tough lesson from the intense soreness of the "knife in the ribs" experience at Cedar Rapids, when I was so sore it felt like a knife was going into my muscles between my ribs, aka intercostal muscles.  Hey, at least I learned anatomy from that torture. Oh yes, I know exactly where the intercostal muscles are located.

I really wasn't doing any organized gymnastics from March to November.  I stayed active by lifting weights and stretching, and luckily didn't gain any weight. We also did a lot of diving at our public pool.  My gymnastics teammates were my friends and we had an active and fun social life.  We went to the pool and would play around, flipping and diving off of the boards.  One of our teammates went out for the diving team too, so she would teach us more difficult dives.  I also remember this basketball player who could do all kinds of difficult dives, like one-and-a-half front flips off the high board and even gainer back tucks.  Gainer back tucks are when you run forward, but do a backflip towards the diving board.  You have to thrust your hips forward fast enough so you don't come too close to the diving board and hit your head.  I could never do gainer back tucks, and it drove me crazy that this tall, male basketball player nonetheless, could pull this off.  As much as I love beating men in physical endeavors is exactly how much I hate getting beat by them, especially in a physical endeavor I care about.  It was the thought process of, "If he can do it, we certainly can.  I mean, we're gymnasts!"  He ended up teaching us a bunch of dives and flips that summer, including gainers.  Between lifting  weights, diving purely for fun, and flexibility work I was in good enough physical shape for gymnastics.  More importantly, I was rejuvenated mentally and emotionally.  I was happy to be back at it.

Instead of practicing at the high school and having to set up our equipment everyday, Clinton High School made an arrangement with Mr. Douglas so the high school team could train at his facilities, but with our coach.  This was a great arrangement for us, but not as much for the coaches.  Mr. Douglas and Ms. Eberle notoriously did not get along.  He would belittle her in front of us.  She was usually quiet about it and would do her best to rise above it all.  However, I remember that more than a few times she stood up to him.  I'm sure she felt a responsibility to us, to not let him treat her with disrespect.  It became better as the season progressed, either because she wouldn't tolerate his treatment or because he changed his mind about the situation. 

Regardless, their bickering wasn't an endless issue all season, they were adults after all! We had a very successful season that year and things were going really well for the team and I.  We had won every single one of our meets, including Conference, Sectionals and Regionals by a large margin.  The state championships were 10 days away.

Little did we know what was in store. Some of my teammates and I were lined up to vault and others were tumbling.  I took off running for the vault and out of the corner of my eye I noticed my teammate, Julie, taking off to tumble the same direction.  I was running down the runway and I heard a giant crack, like I had already hit the board.  I remember thinking in that moment, "Wait, I haven't hit the board yet..."  I went over the vault and realized as soon as I landed my vault what happened. That sudden loud, crack was Julie's arm.  I was sick to my stomach.  She was lying in the corner of the floor exercise mat, about 5 feet from the end of the vaulting mats. 

We had trained together since we were 11 years old, surely spending more time together than we did with our own siblings. She was a huge part of our team’s success, and certainly was far and away our best uneven bar worker.  Here she was, lying on the mat in massive pain.  She was obviously out for state, but more importantly, we were concerned for her health. Julie was doing a series of back flips in a row called “whip backs” and she slipped and came crashing down on her arm. Her arm was shattered. 

Julie had surgery the next day and had metal pins and plates positioned. There was a question as to whether she would have a normal functioning arm again, let alone ever do gymnastics again.  We were devastated for her and for our team.  Somehow we continued on with practice through the remaining nine days we had before state.  We still felt we could win the state championship, but we all felt more pressure to perform.  We all had to perform our best routines. 

We went to state and drew a pretty good rotation for us.  Balance beam, Floor, Vault and then Uneven Bars.  Gymnastics scores usually rise towards the end of the meet.  Uneven bars was our worst event, so having it last would potentially help our scores.  We all competed on beam and nailed our routines!  We were off to a good start.  Even though Julie couldn't compete and was one of our top gymnasts on every event, we were such a deep team that we had a great chance to win.  Our floor routines were all a hit.  We were cooking, and next up was Vault, which everyone nailed as well!  Going into our last event we knew it would come down to the wire and we had to have our best routines to win.  We had six gymnasts on each event and four scores counted, meaning two people could miss without having to count any falls. 

There I was, up in the rotation in the fifth spot.  We had two gymnasts already mess up their bar routines, so  I knew my score was going to count.  I did a handstand mount, then a kip through to the high bar.  I went up for one handstand on the high bar, and didn't hit that handstand, but fortunately I had a back up plan already in place.  I belly whipped the bars, which was a common skill in the 70s and 80s, whereby you basically have the bars set to your length so when you smack the bars where your hips naturally bend, you can wrap your belly around the bar. If you're unfamiliar with it, it looks like it could kill someone.  From the belly whip, I jumped up onto the low bar, sprang up to the high bar, and did a press handstand. 

I vividly remember when I did that first missed handstand, one of my teammates gasped like, "Oh no, she messed up!" and I thought to myself, "Don't worry, I got this" as I did a half pirouette on top of the bar.  I was wrapping around the low bar, letting go of the high bar and then reaching back in an Eagle grip to catch the high bar again...except...I... I didn't.  I didn't have it.  I caught it with the very tips of my fingers and couldn't hold on.  I fell.  I Fell! I stood there, under the high bar, looking up at it in disbelief.  What?  This wasn't supposed to happen.  I was supposed to nail this routine.  I jumped back up, finished the rest of my routine and stuck the dismount.  I was incredibly mad.  I'm sure my teammates rallied around me, but I'm also sure I was too mad at myself to accept anything good.  I felt like I had completely let them down, but we still had one more teammate who needed to compete and still had a chance to win. 

Next up was Tracy.  She was put in the anchor spot because she was taking over for Julie and we had already turned in the competition order for state before Julie's injury.  Tracy was a solid gymnast, but wasn't really a star of the team.  She didn't start gymnastics until she was 12 years old, so she missed some opportunities to capitalize on her natural abilities.  She was our 3rd or 4th best gymnast on bars, floor and vault.  Unfortunately, Tracy had broken her hand in an accident on the bars a month prior to state.  She had been in a cast and had only been released to compete for a week. She needed an 8.45, which she was certainly capable of, but to get that score she had to hit. 

We yelled for Crome-dome (her last name was Cromer, she wasn't bald) wildly as she ran towards the bars, hit the vaulting board and jumped over the low bar to grasp the high bar.  She was mounting with the very skill she broke her hand on.  She kipped up to the high bar, stalder-catch to kip, front hip circle to near handstand, belly beat the bar, whipped around the low bar to catch the high bar in an Eagle grip.  She caught it! Next she was going back up to the high bar to dismount.  She nailed it!  It was a good, solid routine.  We needed an 8.45.   She did the absolute best she could because she was certainly still injured.  She hadn't been able to practice bars for a month and only had a week to get ready!  Three of her teammates had fallen before her and she had to take the place of our best bar worker who was horrifically harmed only 10 days beforehand. She delivered when it mattered most.  Tracy "Crome-dome" Cromer is officially a bad ass in my book and she earned her card that day.  They showed her score and it was an 8.6!  Oh my gosh! It was an 8.6! We won!!!

Wait....there's some discrepancy.  Wait...that was the wrong score.  She was given an 8.2.  She was given an 8.2. 

We lost. 

We lost by a miserable, minuscule .25.  After all of that.  After all of the emotional, mental and physical burn out the year before; after all of  the weight training, beginning gymnastics training again, the conditioning. After doing all of it, failure was the result. The last chin-up of a practice, the last pull-up, the final floor routine when you've had a long week and you're tired and sore and you just don't want to do it anymore.  Too bad.  Do it anyway.  Get up!  Go! Once more!  All of that work and we still lost.  It was all for nothing.  There was a picture of my near miss in the paper, only in the picture it looked like I made it.  It was like it was taunting me.  It was an agonizing half-inch away and I missed. 

You can only imagine our teenage devastation. It was complete and utter devastation.  It seems embarrassing now writing about this second place finish at the Iowa State Gymnastics meet with the words utter devastation, but we had no perspective then.  There's no perspective when you're a teenager.  I, especially, had no perspective.  I was completely and utterly miserable.  I felt sorry for myself for weeks.  I complained that no matter how hard you work, it doesn't pay off.  Life was unfair and it was especially unfair to me. 

It may have been the end of my world, but I did wake up the next day.  I remember the first couple of weeks back in school that one of the high school guidance counselors who was our student council advisor sought me out to bring up a conversation.  He mentioned to me that he had heard I had taken the loss especially hard.  I remember him bringing up some loss he had in “some lame basketball game for old people” (my thoughts at the time) and how he messed up a game for his team.  It was really a very sweet conversation and I remember it thirty years later, precisely because he was at least trying to understand what I was going through.  I felt no one understood me at that point, but here he was expressing this deep empathy and I was forever changed for it.  Empathy was a very foreign concept in my home.  The only one allowed to have any feelings that they discussed was my dad, and those feeling were usually ones of anger.  I pulled out a poem I used for motivation through all of the mental training I did over the years.  I had it memorized by heart, but it was nice to have the physical reminder in front of me.

Don't quit. 

When things go wrong as they sometimes will.
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill.
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don't you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When she might have won if she'd stuck it out,
Don't give up though the pace seems slow,
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the struggler has given up,
When she might have captured the victor's cup.
And she learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close she was to the golden crown,

Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far,
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit,
It's when things seem worst that you MUST NOT QUIT.

One of my teammates as she was about to do a belly whip.