Gymnastics. My first love. Gymnastics is fun. It’s incredibly fun, flying around in the air like that, the weightlessness of it, the complete and utter zen concentration required. You are in the moment in gymnastics or you are on the ground, and on the ground quickly. Gravity always works, even if you’re not paying attention. Riding a roller coaster is the closest thing you can get to doing gymnastics if you’re not a gymnast. Running, flipping, lifting, flying through space and time, I miss it everyday. My babysitters, that lived right next door to me, Monica and Lorraine Rickerl, were my first instructors. They looked after my older brother Brad, my younger sister, Jenny and me. They would play with us and throw us around. I learned back handsprings from them. I started going to the Y.M.C.A when I was nine years old. This was in the late 70s, around the same time that the song was popular on the radio. My friends and I all thought that they wrote it about us. My dad made me a balance beam out of two by fours and covered it with carpet so I could practice at home. I was out there in our yard on that balance beam all the time.
I went to a gymnastics summer camp at the local high school when I was 10 years old. Everyone was so encouraging to me. The high school coach and all the girls there wouldn’t stop raving about me. They would tell me how strong I was, how straight my legs were, and that I had really good toe point. Those older girls were famous to me because, as the top gymnasts in Clinton, Iowa, they were in the paper all the time. It felt especially great when they were telling me how good I could be. One day, the head coach, Leah Eberle and her assistant Mike came up to me while I was stretching and said,
“You need to stop going to the YMCA. You need to get yourself to a private club, a place where you could really do well in, where you could improve and excel. What do you say?” My parents weren’t there so I agreed. My first teacher at the Y was a woman named Carla. She had long, kinky hair and I thought she was completely beautiful. They said she was Olympic material, which was really something in the 70s, and I learned a lot from her. However, they didn’t have any specialized, high level coaching there. I only went there for a few hours of practice a week. If I had stayed there, I would have dissolved.
I found a private gym and started learning under the tutelage of Mike, the assistant high school coach. He used to be partners with a man named Mr. Douglas, but they had a falling out and Mike left to start his own gym. He had my parents going, so they enlisted to help him find a new place to rent out. We were close family friends with Mike’s family. His wife was Vietnamese and they had a daughter named Shelly who was a year older than me. She was an exceptional athlete and we became close, but they decided not to open their own gym and moved to Miami soon after. Shelly came back to Clinton when she was a college freshman and told me that the collegiate track coach wanted her to run track, but her gymnastics coach refused. She joked that she got so fast because kids used to chase her around the playground in a game called “Chase the Chink.” There was a lot of racism in Clinton. I was in awe of how she managed to turn it around, make light of it, and became stronger for it.
After Coach Mike moved with his wife and Shelly to Miami, I had to continue gymnastics with the only other coach in town: Mike’s former partner, Mr. Douglas. I heard stories about how mean Mr. Douglas was and I was nervous that he would penalize me for training with his nemesis. With Mike, I was his best little girl. He just trained me as if I was better than the rest of them. But on my first day training with Mr. Douglas, I saw how much better his girls were than me. They had this kind of quality training since they were five or six whereas I had just started just a few years prior. On my first day, we were doing these round-off back handspring full twists and all these other moves I had never done before. I was the worst of the worst, by a landslide. I started balling my eyes out, but I was trying to keep my composure. When I had to go and do a flip, snot flew out of my nose. I noticed the mucus on the floor where the other girls were tumbling. I was so mortified, worrying that someone was going to land in it and know that it was mine. I was expecting deep, public humiliation at my first practice with the big time gymnasts. Then I saw Mr. Douglas nonchalantly walk over and wipe up my snot with his sock. From that moment on, I knew I was going to be okay.
I was so bad when I was in 6th grade. A good score for our age group was a 9.0 or better out of 10.0. A 9.5 was awesome and a 9.0 was really good. If you could get 9.0’s and get a total of 36 all around, that was a solid place to be. To qualify for a state championship, I needed to have a 7.0 average. I remember my mom coming up to me at the state qualifier and explaining that I needed an 11.8 to make it to state. She said,
“Don’t worry about anything. Just go up there and do the best routine you can because you won’t make it to state this year.”
I probably had some 4.0’s and 5.0’s in there. I do remember one particular meet where they wrote the scores out on the ribbons. On my second place ribbon they had written 2.75. I had no chance.
A couple of months after that meet I just started working really hard. In the beginning of 7th grade I would leave middle school at the end of the school day and walk to the gym to train for two hours. Then, my teammates would show up for practice. Somehow, Mr. Douglas either saw potential in me or realized how badly I wanted to be good. Looking back as an adult I can’t believe what drove me as 12-year old kid. I packed my gym bag, packed a snack, walked to practice and worked out twice as many hours as required of me without any asking me or pushing me to do it.
After five months of practicing like this throughout that 7th grade year, I worked my way up to 8.2’s. In the interim, I found an article in United States Gymnastics Federation’s magazine that explained how to train your brain with positive affirmation. I took this to heart and immediately started implementing it. I repeated,“don’t fall,” over and over. I had a teammate that was a junior in high school named Karen. She was a complete Gutsy/Crazy #Bad Ass, but that’ s a story for later. I told her of my recent mental training endeavors. She said, “Hey, Patty; that’s great what you’re doing, but you have to change what you’re saying. If you keep repeating, ‘don’t fall,’ all you are going to hear is ‘fall.’ Instead, I would say, ‘I will make my beam routine. I will make my beam routine.” She was taking psychology in high school, so I listened to her advice and started to basically hypnotize myself. From that night on, every night, I wrote, “I will make my beam routine,” on a piece of paper. I then wrote, “I will keep my legs straight. I will make my beam routine. I will make my aerial-cartwheel. I will make my beam routine,” and I kept going with every specific skill I needed to nail for each of my events. I did it for vaulting, I did it for bars, I did it for beam, I did it for floor, I did it for everything. Once I had my plan mapped out and written down, I would repeat everything 10 times. Then I would visualize what it looked and felt like in my own mind to complete my routines flawlessly. The more I practiced visualization the better I got in my mind and just like Oprah says, “it manifested out in the physical world.” This took me upwards of 30 minutes per night, more time before a big meet approached.
The next state qualifying meet came up near the end of winter 7th grade year. All the way up to the meet and especially the night before, I practiced my mental training. From the year before of getting 4.00’s and 5.00’s, I got 8.95 on floor and an 8.95 on beam. You would have thought I won the Olympic gold, I just couldn’t believe it. Unfortunately, instead of elation, I came back to scrutiny from my teammates. Jacque, Mr. Douglas’s daughter, and Julie were always better than me. But that day I blew them out of the water by two points, a significant amount in gymnastics. They refused to talk to me for the remainder of the day and when they did, they said they weren’t mad at me for winning, but at how I conducted myself throughout the competition. We were all just behaving like 11, 12, and 13-year olds. They were sore that I had beaten them after doing so poorly the year before, and I was hurt that they weren’t happy for me. This was around the time I overheard Jacque arguing with her father one day at the gym. She was complaining that he was always harder on her and meaner to her than any of the other girls he was teaching. Mr. Douglas lost his temper and yelled back,“That’s not true at all! I’m harder on Patty than anyone else here.”
I was flabbergasted. I had not thought him mean at all, but I was grateful that he cared enough to be tough on me.
After qualifying for the state championships, I went home and tallied up my scores. I realized that I could qualify for regionals with my 8.95. From not even coming close to qualifying for state championships the year prior to surpassing the minimum requirement of an 8.5 average for regionals, I was stunned not only with my hard work, but with the impact that mental training had on me. After that, I inserted the idea of regionals into my mantra and kept repeating, “I will make it to regionals. I will make my beam routine. I will make it to regionals. I will make my aerial cartwheel.”
There was a month in between the state qualifier and the state meet. If I performed well at state and received at least a 63.2, I would be able to go to regionals. As a Class II gymnast, that was the highest meet I could achieve at the time. I went to the next practice and told my teammates about all the calculations I had done, that I could make it to regionals that year with my scores. At the next practice after that my teammate Julie turned to me and scoffed,
“No you can’t. My dad thinks that the only person who can make it is Diana ‘cause she’s
the best.” Diana was older and was the reigning high school state all-around champion.
I took it pretty hard. I remember her saying that her Dad thinks I was setting myself up for disappointment and once again, no one was good enough to make it to Regionals except Diana.
The state meet finally arrived and I needed to have the meet of my life to make it to Regionals. I had a good day at compulsories and I was right on track, but I messed up an event on my second day that landed me in the precarious position of needing an 8.4 on my final routine to qualify for regionals. It all came down to the balance beam and I had to make my beam routine no matter what. If I fell I was out. Up to this point, I had been relentlessly training mentally and physically. Each day, I saved an hour before bed to repeat my mantra. In this particular meet I was the last one up on beam. Balance beam takes longer than the other events and so that meant nothing else would be going on. I was the last competitor in the last session of that meet. All eyes would be on me, it would be quiet and scary. As I prepared to start my routine I did my physical warm-ups and told myself I could do it. Then, my body took over. I got up on the beam and I nailed my routine! I didn’t so much as wobble. As soon as I my feet hit the mat, I remember hearing Julie’s dad just screaming from the bleachers. “WOOO! Yes! Great job Patty!” I remembered Julie telling me that he doubted me and here he was, cheering me on and cheering me on loudly. To this day, his support and cheering for me at that moment still chokes me up.
I believe that meet changed the course of a lot of things for me. I think that if I failed that day, I probably would have given up on gymnastics shortly thereafter. But I didn’t fail and I had proof that hard work and faith pays off. I improved my all-around score 13 points in one year. I felt like that empty platitude my mom always repeated but didn’t act on it as it pertained to her own life, “You can do anything you set your mind to” was actually real. So from that point on, that was it, I was a gymnast. And after that meet, I became a highly motivated gymnast.
*Portions of this text written with the assistance of Pauline Shypula