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 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.
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.
*Portions of this text written with the assistance of Pauline Shypula