The perfect 10. The score that we first saw from Nadia Comaneci, and then a few more times, from a few other standout gymnasts.
It became more and more rare through the years, yet it’s what we work for day in and day out. Nothing is ever good enough. Even when we believe we have performed perfectly, a judge’s score tells us we still have room to improve. We still can upgrade our difficulty, our technique, our consistency.
Two months ago, my gymnastics career came to an end. Nineteen years of determination, sacrifice and hard work verified by an abundance of trophies and awards, all culminated in a single, one-minute and thirty-four second floor routine. I knew going into our floor rotation, the fourth and final event of the Prelims session at the 2015 NCAA National Gymnastics Championships, that our team likely would not advance to the finals. It just wasn’t our year. We had fought and clawed our way through the season, never once giving up or throwing in the towel, but it just wasn’t our year.
The first floor routine was complete. I was up next. I walked to the podium, high-fiving my teammate on the way. She gave me a nod of confidence, and I acknowledged her ever so slightly with my brow. I wanted this.
I wanted to be on that team that came from behind and had a chance to compete for a national title. The judge raised her green flag. I threw my arms up in a ‘gymnast salute’ with a smile and pranced onto the floor.
It’s so funny to me. I look back on that final performance and I can recall every single thought that was going through my mind in those moments. My first tumbling pass, I landed with my knees locked and bounced out of bounds. Screaming at myself in my head, I continued with my choreography: “Of course you would mess up now. Every time the pressure is on you crumble.” I dance to my next corner. Taking my time, I am more fatigued than normal. That happens when I care too much and start trying too hard.
I’m in the middle of the air. One flip. Two flips. I’m on my feet. “Oh, look. You landed one like a normal human being.” I’m dancing my heart out now, urging the judges to forget the mistake I made early on. Just one pass left. I had struggled with this pass in warm ups… and for the previous two weeks. “Don’t let this mental block get you now. This is the last thing you ever get to compete in your life.”
I take off running. Front handspring, set, one and a half twists, my feet hit the ground; I lunge and throw my head back. As I twirl to the ground for my final pose, I smile. Ear to ear. I can’t help it. I knew I would never get to feel this very feeling ever again. I had to soak it in.
As I ran off the floor, I encouraged the next competitor with a high-five and a few words. Then, the floodgates opened. I couldn’t hold back the emotion for another second, and the tears began to flow. I have to stay strong for the four routines to follow, I thought, but the lump in my throat grew by the millisecond.
And so concluded my career. A giant lump in my throat and tear-filled eyes. I believe that I had a good career. I’m proud of what I accomplished.
I was the one who should have trained harder, and taken the extra turns. I wasn’t perfect, and that was on me. It’s just like that mistake on the first tumbling pass of my final performance.
Wanting something too much can make it look as if you don’t want it enough.
The greatest obstacle I had to overcome my first year as a student-athlete was believing that I wasn’t good enough. For the first time, I no longer had the highest skill level in the gym, and though I was used to being the best, I had to come to terms with contributing to a team while not being its top athlete.
It’s hard enough to admit to yourself that you don’t have it all together. Convincing everyone around you that you do is even harder. At Nationals my freshman year, I was pulled from the uneven bars line-up, then faltered in a disastrous beam rotation that hindered our advancement to the NCAA Finals. Talk about a shot at my confidence.
When sophomore year came, I was a new person. I had lost nearly 20 pounds and was working harder than ever. I was strong, faster, more flexible and performing a higher skill level. I was that much closer to being – and looking – perfect. Yet, I still wondered if I was good enough to be a Georgia Gymdog.
The problem was that I equated weight loss with worthiness. I thought that just because I liked what I saw in the mirror, everyone automatically was giving me the thumbs up of approval, too. Gymnastics was easier for me that year.
Junior year wasn’t so dandy. The weight had come back and I wasn’t so self-approving. I was much less perfect. I became sick and spent the majority of the fall semester going to the doctor, taking naps and eating chicken soup and crackers. There were several times when I questioned why I should even continue to try. I was sick, and unable to physically contribute to the team.
How could I have a voice on the sidelines? How could I speak up if I had no actions to back up my words? It became extremely hard for me to wake up in the mornings and go about my day. My favorite thing to do was go home after practice and cook dinner and clean the house. I was really good at those things. I was worth something in my own home.
At the conclusion of my junior year, I had had it with myself. I had never been so miserable in my career as I was standing on the sidelines, watching my team compete at Nationals, knowing that there was nothing I could do to contribute. I hated it. I despised the athlete I allowed myself to be that year, and the character I had become.
The summer before my senior year, I gained what some would call wisdom. I have experienced just about every up and down there is in gymnastics. I knew that I had one last year to enjoy the sport that had made me the person I am today. I knew that my coaches had extreme doubts in how I would return to competitive shape, and I knew that I was the type of person to fight for what I wanted, and prove myself. I was a perfectionist. And so, I trained.
I have shared with you how my senior nationals went. Kind of a silly ending to a story, don’t you think? I, the writer, challenge you, the reader, to recall how I explained my folly in the last floor routine of my life. I want you to remember how my self-doubt, my concern that I was not worthy of having my score count for my team, caused my mistake. My perfectionist attitude ultimately caused my downfall.
Don’t keep yourself from succeeding just because you have an ounce of doubt that likes to creep into your head at the most inopportune times. Don’t keep yourself from succeeding just because you have deemed yourself unworthy.
Reaching a point of self-actualization is not always the result of some great event that results in great change. It doesn’t always result in an “aha!” moment that we often wish and wait for. Instead, sometimes it is the result of many small events that inspire a constant effort to be that person that you have learned to be. Sometimes, it is knowing that you are not perfect but always working to be the best version of you.
Every year, the seniors have a chance to speak at the team’s end-of-the-year banquet. I wrote about destiny, and how it was never easy or perfect to live out my dream. But I did the best I could. I may have pushed people away, or placed an unnecessary amount of blame and pressure on myself, but I did the best that I could. And I will continue to do the best that I know how. I will continue to put forth my best effort to be the best version of me, always remembering that nobody is perfect, but striving for perfection is the best I can do. And so, having shared all that I have, here were my very last words as a Georgia Gymdog:
I am just another little girl who had a glamorous dream. I dreamed of perfection, bright lights, big stages, rowdy crowds, nail-biting moments, and clinch performances. I have long dreamed of the thrill of performing. I love the vision of being in the spotlight, all eyes on me, and letting my performance do all of the talking. Some of my earliest memories include on-the-spot choreographed floor routines on the appropriately blue carpet in my childhood home. Beam routines challenged my bedtime nightly because I wouldn’t rest until Momma scored me at a perfect 10.
In 2011, an eighteen-year-old, wide eyed, brunette haired young woman smiles to herself and claims, “I’ve found my mountain to climb.”
Being known as the girl who does gymnastics found a taste of monotony over the years. Being known as a Gymdog, however, is something to be savored. By choosing to become a Georgia Gymdog, I chose a path that I knew would challenge me, and help me to grow. Knowing that I have lived in the legacy, and tradition of the Red and Black, tells me that I have lived my destiny.
I am stronger, smarter, more courageous, more persistent, and more rooted in my faith. I have run the race and learned from every misstep, setback, high and low. I have found beauty in the detours, and resilience in the roadblocks. As one of my favorite quotes hanging in the training facility states, “Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” I am at peace knowing that I have given all of myself to each and every one of these girls that surround me.
I am forever grateful for the opportunity of a lifetime. The ability to be a team member of the most decorated gymnastics program in the country, and to do it alongside the most loving, supportive and caring group of athletes has been surreal. I long to be able to wear the G, the sparkles and the glitter, and to chalk up just one more time. I would give anything to defy gravity and hear the roar of the coliseum in our favor just one last time. But the problem with just one more is one more is never enough.
It’s the challenging moments that make us great.
We are told time and time again that it is the hard days that make us stronger. I cannot think of a truer statement. To my coaches, thank you for challenging me, for pushing me to my limit daily, and for guiding my potential to the surface. There is no sport as taxing, and mentally challenging than the sport of gymnastics and together we have fought the good fight, left it all out on the floor. To the fans, you’ve raised the bar to unreachable heights. Your support, generosity and friendship are something I fear I will never be able to repay you for. I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart.
And finally, to my family, I can hardly find the words to express my love and gratitude. You all have the most fantastic hearts. Not many people will go the distances you have, literally and figuratively, to see me live my dreams. I could not have done life without you.
Today, a twenty-two-year old, wide-eyed, brunette haired woman is smiling to herself, “I have climbed my mountain. It is time to set my eyes on a new peak to reach, and to watch as the next generation of Gymdogs continue their climb”
Thank you, and as always, GO DAWGS.