I was so hyped up to be back at Ball State. I had set in my mind that this was the year I would make my mark. I wanted to make a difference on my gymnastics team and do the best I could in school, while having as much fun as possible. Instead of looking at gymnastics as something I had to do to put myself through college, I started to approach it as something I was lucky enough to be able to do for the next three years. College gymnastics was my reward for all those years of hard work. We still worked hard but it wasn’t difficult because by that point, it was such an ingrained habit in most of us, it was just taken for granted that is how you approached practice, and life for that matter.
My college gymnastics team was where the real fun was. We could be doing rotten, tough conditioning and although it wasn’t even close to anything resembling fun, we could make it a good time even if was by nothing more than commiserating together. I had this teammate named Jill that was this tiny, adorable girl at four feet ten inches and maybe 95 pounds. By all appearances Jill was super sweet, and she was also one of those people muttering under her breath complete smart ass comments in the back of the room. She was majoring in counseling psychology and went on to become the graduate of the decade at Ball State when she earned her PhD. She was a good resource for us and she always was very easy to talk with. She would often be doing serious, active listening (I think she was practicing on us) and all I could think was “I know you are doing the best you can not to crack a sarcastic comment and cause us both to laugh hysterically.” At first, we nicknamed her J.D because her last name started with a D. We then collectively, and lovingly I might add, changed it to L.D for Loser Dork.
One day, when we were practicing, our teammate Wendy was doing a leap on the beam when she slipped and split the beam. When that usually happens, you just scrape your leg. But she crushed the beam so hard that she hit her leg and bruised it so badly that it is bruised to this day. Wendy was lying on the ground underneath the beam and a trainer ran up to her to see what was wrong. She turned to Jill and I and asked us what happened. Jill/L.D. didn’t miss a beat and said, “I didn’t see what happened either, but I think she’s choking on her tampon.” As in, she hit the beam so hard that the force launched the tampon into her windpipe.
Gymnastics was tough for sure, though. Your hands would bleed from doing bars. You had blisters inside blisters on your hands. You had bruises and scrapes all over the place. But we were one big family with our coach, Mary Roth, as this mother hen to us all. When Mary’s son passed away in February of my sophomore year, it felt as though she channeled some of that love and that loss into us. She went the extra mile for us all not only in gymnastics, but in the rest of our lives as well.
Mary was always a little tough on me, but I loved her regardless. She knew I was bulimic and yet, she nagged me about my body fat being too high. We had a somewhat complex dynamic. She complimented me on my figure and encouraged me to start modeling. At the same time, she was always harping on me to lose weight for gymnastics. I guess I had a good figure for regular people but for gymnastics she must’ve considered me positively fat. I definitely considered myself positively fat. I remember we went to the fast food place Wendy’s once as a team after a meet. There were three of us she considered to be overweight. She pointed us out in front of the team and the people in the restaurant and said, “You three can’t order fries.” I took it personally, mostly because I was so acutely aware of my body and I felt so bad about it already. We were also the three that were required to come in before practice or after practice and do thirty extra minutes of cardio in addition to whatever training we were already doing in our four hour practices.
These messages were probably conflated by my own insecurities, but at the time, they really stung. Years after I graduated, I asked her about why she was always riding me about my body fat when I never gained more than five pounds from the weight at which she recruited me. First, she apologized. Then she explained that she had been given stringent rules to abide and in the 1980s, body fat was measured with these unreliable and inaccurate instruments. The standards were in place largely for the smaller girls because for a girl like Jill, who was merely 4’10,” to weigh as much as I did at the time, she’d lose her capacity to be a gymnast: her agility, her flexibility; most, if not all, of it would go. As my height dictated a higher weight, I was held on a much shorter leash than the rest of the girls. That being said, through the years, I saw some of the girls gain as much as thirty pounds, but their scholarships were never taken away.
Regardless, Mary’s influence on me was incalculable. Her greatest reach was in the form of traveling. Before going to Ball State, I had hardly traveled anywhere. Before I was 19, I had only visited Kentucky and Florida, and even then, we only traveled by car. I had never flown in an airplane before college. Growing up, travel was out of the question. It was not just that we did not have any money to travel, because we didn’t, but we couldn’t because my mother was far too afraid. My mother was born and raised in Clinton, Iowa. The people there are mostly people that grew up there and never lived anywhere else. They would say they couldn’t travel because money was tight, but they of course they always had money for cigarettes. So for her, even the prospect of driving to Chicago, a mere two-and-a-half hours away, was inconceivable. She was utterly terrified when it came to going anywhere outside Iowa. Both of my parents did not want to leave Clinton for any reason if they could help it. I remember we went to Chicago once, and they were both just afraid of everything: the traffic, getting lost, the crime, all of it was paralyzing. My parents’ travel anxiety was my only example of what it was like to travel. Naturally, I observed my parents and their behavior whenever we went anywhere, so traveling became my fear as well.
Mary completely turned that around for me. No matter what mishap occurred on the road, she was able to figure something out. In college, we were traveling as an entire team, so screw ups were bound to happen. Ultimately, the fear dissipated because traveling with her was so much fun. But more importantly, I was able to see that even when things seemed to go wrong, they were never as bad as I imagined they could have been. And things often went wrong when we traveled together.
The greatest difference between now and then is the cell phone. Phones, especially smart phones with GPS, completely altered how we understand traveling anywhere. My mother was afraid of traffic and getting lost in a city she didn’t know. That has all changed now. It was much easier to get lost in those days. Once, the gymnastics team went to Michigan. We were walking around a mall and all in a music store. I put the headphones on to listen to “I got my Orange Crush” by R.E.M. at full volume. I looked up and everyone had vanished. I guess I was really into that song. I walked outside the mall to where the van had been parked and it was gone. I sat on a bench outside the mall. I knew they weren’t going to leave me there and never come back. When they eventually did come back for me, my teammates told me that once they noticed I wasn’t on the van, they started screaming, “Patty’s not here!” up to Mary, but she wouldn’t believe them. She just thought they were kidding around. Finally, they convinced her that I wasn’t in the van and that they had to turn around. They were back within fifteen minutes.
Cell phones have ruined adventure. There were many instances in which we would get lost or in trouble, but the best one was when we were going to Pittsburg through a snowstorm in two vehicles, a Ball State van and a Ball State car. We got lost the itinerary and all we could remember was that our hotel started with the letter “R.” We stopped off at a gas station to try to contact Mary’s husband John, back in Indiana. There were five of us in the Ball State car. We had 13 cents between the five of us. That is a completely true statement, not an exaggeration. We decided to buy a Tootsie pop with it. I had a phone card and that’s the only way we could pay for the long distance call on the pay phone outside. It was February, we were just outside of Pittsburg and it was nasty cold. I called John after dialing what seemed like 52 numbers with my gloveless, frozen fingers. You had to call the phone card number, enter in your phone credit card numbers, then finally enter the phone number of the person you were calling. John answered! Yes! We had success. “John, it’s Patty.” I blurt out excitedly, then spastically add, “We got separated from Mary and the rest of the team. There’s five of us in the Ball State car. We don’t have any money. We just spent our only 13 cents on a Tootsie pop. There’s a huge snowstorm and we don’t know which hotel we are staying at in Pittsburgh. We know it’s starts with an R.” His casual, slow, measured response, “Huh?..that’s where she is.” Yes, that’s right. He didn’t even know what city or state she was going to, let alone which hotel. “Thanks.” I said quickly and hung up promptly not to use up a greater proportion of what was at the time my entire $15.30 life savings on a phone call. I mean, it was already going to be $2.40 just to set up the call. We drove into the city and found a Radisson. We pulled in, walked into the lobby and saw a crystal chandelier. We longingly asked the guy at the concierge desk if they had a reservation for Mary Roth. We saw the chandelier. We knew our budget. We knew we weren’t staying there but we at least had to try. When he, of course, said no there was no reservation for a Mary Roth, he at least let us use their phone. Of course, that was a life saver because it was free. We were a pretty pathetic lot. No wallets, credit cards or money and no clue where we were going. We called 3 other “R” hotels before we reached the desk manager at the Red Roof Inn. He said “Yes, we have a Mary Roth here. I’ll connect you.” Then Don, our college-aged assistant volunteer coach, threw the phone at me and said, “Here, you tell her Patty. At least you can make her laugh.” The conversation went as such:
Me: “Hey, Mary it’s Patty we’re…”
Mary interrupts through clenched teeth and grits out, “WHERE THE F$%^ ARE YOU?!”
Nope, didn’t make her laugh, not then anyway. Re-telling this story at her retirement party I felt like a comedian on open mike night. I still remember her rearing her head back in raucous laughter. That night in Pittsburg? Not so much. We connected, decided to blame everything on Andrea, she was our best gymnast and wouldn’t really get in that much trouble, and there you have it, everything turned out just fine.
Mary was one of my biggest role models in life, still is. Even when she was completely lost in the middle of Michigan during a snowstorm with 15 college girls, it all managed to work out. I have a saying that I often use: I am just Forest-Gumping my way through life. Mary was my first real example of what it means to do that and do it successfully. By her example, I was able to develop trust in this world. You realize that people will hook you up when you’re in need: they’ll get you some pizza. They might even buy you a beer. You eventually understand that things are going to be okay somehow.