The Zone

My teammate, Julie, had shattered her arm the year before.  The doctors weren’t even sure if her arm would function normally again, let alone be strong enough to compete in gymnastics again.  Her injury wasn’t very common and the procedure needed to straighten it out wasn’t that prevalent in 1986.  She went to three different surgeons in our little town of Clinton, Iowa, before her mom decided she needed a more experienced surgeon that could be found in the larger community of the Quad Cities.  Julie had a metal plate and four screws implanted in her arm.  She was in a cast for about 10 weeks.  Once she got out of the cast her elbow wouldn’t straighten very much.  She used soup cans to help ease her elbow into the range of motion she needed. 
Before our senior year, I didn’t really think Julie was very tough.  I have to say when she hurt herself I was outwardly encouraging her to come back.  Inwardly, I doubted she could.  It was a lot to overcome.  She only had one year left and didn’t want to do college gymnastics.  Most of my opinion about her toughness was shaped due to jealousy on my part.  Julie was super tiny.  She was strong, light, and incredibly naturally flexible. She had the body a gymnast was supposed to have.  Plus, she had this gorgeous family and they all looked alike.  As an adopted kid, that was what I was most jealous about.  Her dad was educated, had a good job and her petite, fit mom had three beautiful daughters.  They were like the quintessential J. Crew family you’d see in an ad.  From my teenage perspective I formed the opinion that Julie had it easy and wasn’t tough enough to make it back.
Julie had other ideas.  It seemed like she just showed up at practice the first day and picked up where she left off.  In that entire year I only remember her complaining about her arm one time.  The whole entire season, six months of it, she complained one time.  It was a legitimate complaint at that.  We were doing some kind of bounding push-up drills for vault and tumbling explosion.  Basically, you’re in a push up and you jump off your hands, in gymnastics terminology, blocking off of your hands from your shoulders, then jumping your hands up to the board.  You “block” or push off of your hands explosively and move from the board, to the floor, the floor to the board, over and over.   It was a lot of impact on her arm.  She winced casually said, “This hurts” and stopped doing the non-essential drill.
I remember her saying repeatedly, “It just doesn’t hurt.  I don’t have any problems.”  Even when teammates and other people at school pressed her, she would just tell them, “Nope. Doesn’t hurt.”  I’m sure it had to hurt a little, her arm had been shattered.  I love it that she either talked herself out of it hurting or made up her mind that she was going to do gymnastics and her arm would be fine.  Either way, she was another bad ass teammate living the example of how you’re supposed to work, live and train. 
We were heavily favored to win the State meet.  We had all of us, the seniors, Julie, Tracy, Andrea and I, plus Danielle, a junior that really grew up with us because she was in our group at Mr. Douglas’ gym.  We had an excellent group of incoming freshmen that were very talented, worked hard and were well trained.  We breezed through all of our duel meets, conference, sectionals and regionals and won decisively. 
The state meet was upon us.  It was pay back time.  We had lost to Linn-Mar, a suburb of Cedar Rapids where most of their gymnasts were from the C.R.A.I.G. Cedar Rapids Academy In Gymnastics and also where I trained briefly the burn out summer between my Sophomore and Junior years, a.k.a. the knife in the ribs soreness incident. 
We drew the best order for state, Olympic order starting on Vault.  Everyone hit their vaults.  In those days, we did two vaults.  I was doing a vault that won me the state title the year before.  My next vault was a more difficult rendition of that where I added another twist.  Except for the exceptionally high flipping Tsukahara vaults, my Full Twist On-Full Twist Off was what a majority of college coaches were recruiting.   Flipping vaults were too difficult for me for two reasons:  my height and my slow, non-bounding, white legs.  My legs look strong and they are, but I’m as slow and white as they come.  I had a friend that played college football that would harass me and say, “GIRL…you have them big ‘ol regress calves. I can walk backwards faster than you can run forwards.”  I hated that only because it was true.  (I’d jokingly punch him right in the arm if I saw him today, but it would be a hard punch dammit.) 
I completely stuck the first, easier vault.  My coach got the score and told me to go for the more difficult vault.  I stuck it.  I jumped up and down and went crazy.  I anxiously awaited the score and it was an 8.95.  What?! I scored a 9.5 the year before on the easier vault.  I’d been easily scoring in the mid-nines all year.  What happened?  My coach overheard a judge more from the central region of Iowa complain that both of my hands weren’t hitting at the same time which was an automatic .5 deduction.  Whether they were or weren’t wasn’t a concern at that point.  I vaulted the same way I had all year, now a different judge has a different opinion and all the other judges aligned with her.  I was out for the all-around title before I even really got a start.  When my score was flashed I can’t believe I handled it this well but I made up my mind not to give it another thought.  There was nothing I could do about it.
Next up was Uneven Bars.  The past two years we had a history of basically falling apart on bars.  Our new coach, Miss Chris assured us from the beginning of the year that wouldn’t happen this time. We trained so many routines on bars we didn’t have the opportunity to fail. All year we did far more routines per practice than we ever had before.  What a great life lesson.  If you’re nervous, over prepare. If you’re scared, over prepare. If you have head trash from the past, over prepare. Work so hard that your only option is to succeed. We didn’t want to do all of the routines at every single practice.  Bars makes your hands bleed. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical sense. The skin rips off of your hands from the friction on the bars. Your hands bleed from blisters. Sometimes blisters inside of blisters.  Growing up you think rips suck.  Then you get rips inside of rips (blisters on top of blisters) and you start to think, “Hmm…just a regular old rip really isn’t that bad.”  You want to do gymnastics and be super human? Guess what? Sometimes it sucks and your hands bleed. That’s not a reason to stop training.  
The night before the state meet, Miss Chris set us up to go to a gym near where we competed outside of Des Moines to get our bar settings.  These were the same brand that we were going to use at the state meet and she wanted us to be comfortable.  She really listened to our fears and issues from the year before and was proactive about it.  We all hit every routine.  Bars was Julie’s best event before her broken arm and it remained her best event after too.  She completed a flawless routine and got our best bar score.  We had our best score as a team total on bars and our worst event was over.  On to our best two, balance beam and floor exercise.
Throughout my career, I was almost always the last performer for beam and I was for this meet as well. I had a whole system, and it looked like a system of goofing off.  I did this by design.  I could never watch my teammates on beam because if they did well I felt relieved. If they messed up, I didn’t want more pressure on myself.  I didn’t want my performance affected by whatever they did or didn’t do so I just couldn’t watch.  They’d let me know after the meet.   I would walk around and believe it or not, even talk to people I knew in the stands.  I would completely distract myself.  Two routines up from me competing I’d start to pay attention to my preparation. I would stretch out.  I would warm up and do my skills on a line when the person before me was competing.  I would either mark or do every skill that was feasible in whatever warm-up area we would have.  Immediately before I would get on the beam, I did three big breaths reaching my arms all the way up, and on the exhale relaxing my arms and head down.  I swear it looked just like a Richard Simmons warm-up. After those were completed, I knew I was ready. 
A lot of gymnasts get completely freaked out when they compete on the beam.  Calm excitement is how I’d describe it. I learned to love the butterflies of competing. It always gave me more energy and made me feel fully alive.  Ever since that State competition way back when I was 12 years old and nailed that routine as the last competitor of that meet on beam, I loved competing.  I felt like I had an ace in the hole with all of that mental training I did.  I was confident on beam.  I loved practicing it which helped me loved competing it. By this time of my senior year of high school I’m sure I would’ve had scores and scores of sheets of paper of affirmations over the years if I hadn’t have thrown them out.  Statements like “I will make it to Regionals.  I will make my beam routine. I will make it to Regionals.  I will make my aerial cartwheel” were written repeatedly.  If I hadn’t have thrown out the evidence, it would’ve looked like the manuscript written by Jack Nicholson’s  completely insane character in The Shining.  “HEEERRREE’S Johnny! All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
I was defending my state title in beam but didn’t think about that at all.  I was so intensely prepared and just happy.  I competed that beam routine with utmost certainty and confidence. I was solid on every skill and stuck my dismount to boot.  I really didn’t care about the score because I knew after all of us hit our beam routines we were going to win the team title.  It was a great score though and I won my second beam title.
Our last event together as a team culminating our lifetimes in gymnastics was upon us. Time to shine on floor and have fun.  Only, I wasn’t having fun and was completely stressed out.  I’d been falling on my first tumbling pass in warm-ups and was seriously considering changing my tumbling so I could at least not fall on my butt. Warm ups were over and I’d been falling all over the place.  Under rotating, over rotating and just having bad timing on that first pass. 
Our first three teammates competed very well.  Julie, who competed fourth in the line up, completed a spectacular routine to The Bangle’s song “Walk Like an Egyptian”.  She even successfully completed the whip backs she shattered her arm on they year before. 
My teammate Danielle was up next. She and I had the same tumbling passes that year, including the first one that I was falling all over with in warm-ups.  Like all of us, Danielle and I had grown up together. She was adopted like me but was an only child.  We spent a lot of time together as kids not only at practice but at her house.  I remember she had a poodle dog that she would “spot” in back flips and even double back flips!  She swore the dog loved it. She made her little brown curly haired dog do double backs! PETA people back off, we were 11.  Today, here she was getting ready to do what would be her last floor routine in competition.  She went up fifth right before me. 
Danielle did an amazing routine to a Banana-Rama compilation.  (No, she didn’t wear a bandana. But yes, she did have bad 80s hair just like the rest of us). She choreographed it and we all added in some dance moves for her. It was a fun routine.  She tumbled sky high on all of her first tumbling pass and hit all the rest of them too. A huge, great routine.  That was it for me. I knew I would compete my planned tumbling passes and take my chances.
I began my routine with my favorite song at the time, this cool 80s dance electronica hit, “Let the Music Play” by Shannon. The music had this whip sound in it. I stood right in the corner of the floor mat at attention with my arms straight down at my sides and my head straight down.  The music builds to a whip sound as I simultaneously flicked my hand and arm around in snap.  I took off tumbling and nailed the pass that Danielle just completed and I’d been falling on for the past week. I did it completely and perfectly.  I knew from the time my feet hit the mat while I landed the first pass that this routine was going to be perfect.  Then it happened…the zone.
The zone. It’s only happened to me twice in my entire competitive life.  This was the first time.   Years later I had a particularly deep conversation about the zone with a professional football player.  It’s a strange and other worldly phenomenon.  I could tell he was a little hesitant to open up about it as I was too.  Neither one of us wanted to appear too much like a drugged up hippy.   He said, “It’s surreal, it’s like I could see the plays before they happened.  I don’t know if it’s a metaphysical thing or what but it’s like this was written before it even happened to you.”
I haven’t read about the zone because I don’t want the academic side to take away from my experience of it.  It’s a spiritual, wild, indescribable experience.  I was in a double handstand pirouette before I really even had consciousness of what was happening.  I had awareness in that moment that everything went exactly as I had rehearsed it.  I still remember my thoughts, emotions and feelings around it vividly.  I did a forward roll out of the handstand double pirouette, spun around on my back (a la break dancing), then flicked my head into the final pose.  Euphoria.  I jumped up, saluted the judges and all of us as a team just went crazy.  It had been a long three years getting to this point.  I could’ve gotten a 6.0 and we still would have won. 

If memory serves me correctly, I scored a 9.65, Danielle got a 9.6.  It was some incredible score.  We finished one-two.  I never would have done it without her. We won the team title by four points.  We blew them out of the water!   Our coach was recently inducted into our high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.  They mentioned that our team total that year was the highest team score ever.  The record still stands as they got rid of high school gymnastics in Iowa two years later.  

2018-12-01T16:31:17+00:00

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