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.