In the summer of 1992, when I was four years old, I watched a girl in a white leotard jump towards a wooden beam and fall away. I was sitting on the floor in my living room, between the couch and television. The carpet was mustard-colored and shaggy, dirty to a point beyond cleaning, and I dug my bare toes into the places where the fibers tangled into knots.
The girl who fell on TV was tiny with poufy bangs and blonde hair tied up with a white bow. When the camera zoomed in on her face, she covered her deep-set eyes with her hands. I watched as she lowered her head and her small shoulders shook as if she were hiccupping over and over again.
I didn’t look like this girl. I had brown eyes and shiny straight hair that could never be poufy. But I was petite and skinny, all arms and legs, like a leaping frog. And when I saw this girl I sat straight up and stopped digging my toes into the carpet. Something went off in me. I thought, I can do that too, and I’m going to.
I probably watched other parts of the Barcelona Olympics on TV that summer, but I don’t remember anything except this poufy-banged girl. At some point, my Chinese parents taught me a word to associate with this beautiful, whimsical activity that looked like more fun than anything I’d ever known: ti cao. It must have been a year or two later when I learned the word in English: gymnastics.
Gymnastics was everywhere.
On a warm fall afternoon, my mother and I parked outside the university where my dad worked, waiting to pick him up. I rolled down the back window of our blue Ford Taurus, climbed up through and perched on the ledge. I set my elbows on the car’s dusty roof and proudly looked around feeling as if I were doing something that was a little daring, a little intricate, a little unusual: something gymnastic-like.
The technical textbook name for the sport I loved was Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, though the gymnasts I saw on TV and in books weren’t women at all. They were girls like me. I soon learned that women artistic gymnasts competed in four events: vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor.
My parents’ bed, along with the diagonal runway extended to the bathroom, became a vaulting horse. The edge of our bathtub became a balance beam. So did the wooden strips of our living room floor once the dirty carpet had been stripped away. The front grassy lawn of our apartment building became a floor area. There, I learned to do cartwheels and splits and forward and backward rolls, all in front of an ever-changing audience of passing traffic.
Bars were the hardest to find, but they too were there, in the bathroom, waiting for me to discover them. One day, after a few healthy swings on the bar from where we hung the shower curtain, the metal rod popped out of its wall sockets and sent me crashing, knees-first, into the bathtub. I heard—felt—the crash of my knees up in my eardrums. I stood, worked my legs around. A part of me thought that maybe I was injured. Maybe I’d be able to walk around with my knees wrapped in skin-colored gauze like the gymnasts I saw in TV.
Another time, while showering, I attempted to hang off the ceramic rod against the wall. The rod was meant to hang towels, not little girls, so it broke apart when I dragged my weight on it. A shard landed on my foot and cut open my skin, just missing the little blue veins that would have burst with a lot more blood. I sat on the couch, hair still wet, dutifully pressing a wad of toilet paper onto the deep gash that was about the length of a paperclip. My parents rushed to get the kind Indian doctor who lived across the hall. She listened to my explanation of what happened and told me that I was very brave. No, I would not need stitches. Yes, I would have a scar.
Going to my first gymnastics lesson was like meeting a movie star: surreal and exhilarating. It was a bit ego shattering when the encounter was over, when I realized gymnastics didn’t care about me in the same way I cared about it.
In my home, under the spotlight of my imagination, I was always the winner. I stuck beam routines and nailed vaults, legs perfectly glued together, toes pointed like the girls in the books I studied at the library. In the real gym, I struggled. I was flexible but not particularly strong. I was brave to try new skills but couldn’t land with two feet on the carpeted springboard. My twiggy arms couldn’t pull me over a bar.
At seven years old, I quit. The lessons were expensive and the long-sleeved black leotard my mother bought for me from Kohl’s was for ballet. Maybe I’d be a dancer. Or an ice skater. Maybe gymnastics wasn’t for me after all. In that flippant way children make decisions, I agreed with my parents that one season of lessons was enough.
I don’t remember being particularly upset. I don’t remember how I decided to quit, except that there was an idea of, okay, sure, no more next season. What I do remember is a sharp moment of reality cutting into my conscience. My parents had friends over. I was prancing around in my black leotard. From the hallway I heard our guests ask whether I was still taking gymnastics lessons.
“No,” my mother answered. “But maybe ballet.”
I held my breath and froze. I thought, what?
I didn’t want to be a ballerina. It didn’t even sound right. I wanted to be a gymnast. The word alone made me feel proud and stand a little straighter. It conveyed a sense of something beautiful and cool and strong. It labeled a group of daring, special people that I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to salute judges and have cheering teammates and a coach who gave me bear hugs. I wanted those huge, foamy white handgrips to adjust and readjust. I wanted a competition number safety-pinned to my back and chalk all over my hands and thighs. I wanted to tumble and twist, dance and fly. I wanted to make people gasp.
When I was in the fourth grade, my parents drove me to an open gym event at Salto Gymnastics in Brookfield, Wisconsin. It was a weekend, and the gist was that anybody could walk in, be tested, and placed into their competitive teams. I stood alone in the locker room, nervous and excited, wearing my black leotard, looking up at a giant poster of Shannon Miller holding a straddle on the beam. I thought, This is your moment; show them what you can do.
A woman walked me over to the beam and asked me to perform a cartwheel. I had never done a cartwheel on the beam before but I had done hundreds in my living room. I climbed onto the beam, four inches wide, four feet off the floor, and went for it. I remembered to keep my knees locked straight and toes pointed. I stayed on the beam. It was almost the same as doing it at home.
After my test, the coaches pulled my mother aside and confided that they didn’t know what to do with me. I was much more advanced on floor and beam—the events I could simulate at home—than on bars and vault. The coaches asked my mother why this was. She laughed, didn’t bother to explain in her broken English. I was placed on the Level 4 team.
Less than a year later, my father got a job at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. My parents and I moved to Long Island into a basement apartment. It smelled of mold and we could never figure out how to turn down the air conditioner. During those first long, empty days, my mother and I walked to Swezey’s in the shopping center down the street. We perused the aisles in Wild by Nature, shocked at the price of produce in New York. I practiced my vault run in our new driveway in the house of another family. I combed the Yellowbook for a place to do gymnastics. Then my parents drove me from one end of the island to the other.
The first gym we found was in a strip mall. We peeked through the front windows, stared at the dark apparatus set up in a space next to the store Mandee. It was a Sunday and everything was closed.
My mother whispered what I was thinking: “This doesn’t look safe.”
I pictured myself doing a handstand on the high bar and scraping my feet on the concrete ceiling.
We drove to another gym, a large, boxy, metal-paneled warehouse. The back door was left open by accident. My parents and I tiptoed into the dark room. My heart burst. This was a real gym, chalky and echo-heavy, the bars and all their complicated twisted wires shadowed like dinosaur skeletons in a museum.
We went back the next week to register for lessons. For reasons I still don’t understand, Level 4 in Wisconsin didn’t match Level 4 on Long Island. During my first day at my new gym with my new teammates, I once again found myself, too dreamy to ever admit that I couldn’t do something, attempting skills that I’d never learned. After a particularly lopsided attempt at a front handspring vault, my new coach took me aside. He asked whether I could do a back handspring.
“No,” I said.
“What about a kip?” he asked.
“What’s a kip?”
He looked at me blankly for a second, then called across the gym to a girl near the bars. “Hey, can you show her what a kip looks like?”
I watched—the girl swung, brought her toes to the bar and, with an effortless shift in momentum, propped herself up with the bar at her hip. I shook my head: “No,” I said. “Not that either.”
Those early days on Long Island were tough for my family. We couldn’t stand living in the basement anymore, so we relocated to a motel room. One night, my mother and I drove through a thunderstorm to my gym class. She was quiet, her expression as dark and serious and unsteady as the sky. I knew my gym classes strained our family budget, and I knew my parents fought about this. But still, I could never bring myself to give them up. With this one thing, I was selfish. I knew my parents couldn’t see a point to my lessons. I knew they didn’t believe I could make it to the Olympics. But I still did, as foolish and unlikely as it was.
In the summer of 1998, a gymnast named Sang Lan crashed head-first into the mats when practicing a warm-up vault at the Goodwill Games. She was taken to Nassau University Medical Center, only fifty miles from my new home on Long Island, where doctors tried to realign her spine. I watched on TV as the local news reported that she would never walk again.
Sang Lan was a Chinese gymnast. She was a beautiful girl with an exquisite and innocent look. My mother had commented that she had such a sweet face. I recognized the way my mother said this, slipping into the melancholic voice she reserved for nostalgia. I desperately wanted to hide the news of Sang Lan’s injury. I prayed that my mother wouldn’t find out. But during that week in July, the news was everywhere. My mother found out and I was done with gymnastics. It was simply too dangerous. I wouldn’t be continuing. I was ten years old.
I cried, sulked, walked around in a daze. I was furious, ravenous with disbelief. My mother had clipped short my fantasy. I would never have a shot.
What I didn’t know was that my mother had cried too. Being on team gymnastics meant three three-hour sessions per week and a few hundred dollars more every month. My mother had been looking for a reason to make me quit. Many years later, she mentioned that she had been torn with guilt.
Today, when I watch gymnastics on television, I don’t feel like a fan. I am wistful, full of desire. Sometimes I dream that I am blocking against a vaulting table, flying across a blue landing mat, swinging over a bar.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.