Saturday, April 26, 2008

The blogosphere

I'm trying not to troll the blogs and websites with reactions to my book. It's all a little too much. But I've peeked at some. There are those that seem upset by the book, claiming it's all lies, that I'm a hopeless, pathetic pessimist that never got over not making the 1988 Olympic Team. In truth, I pulled myself out of that race, as it just didn't matter to me anymore. Seemed pointless suddenly, after having dedicated my young life to the sport. I've never once felt a single pang of regret, sorrow, sadness over not having made that team though parents and coaches promised I would.

In point of fact, I am more of a hopeless optimist than most people I encounter; friends would likely vouch for me on this. How else could I believe that I could write a book while maintaining a demanding job and full family life? And do so with no formal writing training, no 'ghost writer' and then, upon completion, have the perseverance to find an agent and get it published? I have a shoe box full of rejection letters from agents. But I kept going as I did back when I was a gymnast. I pulled it off through sheer force of optimistic will. Gymnastics taught me that and I am grateful.

I take offense at being called a pessimist more than I take offense at being called a liar. Isn't that something? I just learned that about myself this week when I found this post on a gymnastics website:

"... the Parkette's are very upset...much like when they were blindsighted with that CNN documentary, which was supposed to showcase what a wonderful club it was (and of couse made Donna look like a horrible person) The whole lot of us from the 80's....Gina Stallone, Tracy Butler, Tracy Calore, Jamie Raines, Sarah Balagosh, Cindy Rosenberry, Lisa Panzeroni...even on to Hope Spivy and Kim Kelly etc...all recall things a lot differently. My time at Parkettes was great and we all go back for Alumni programs and still all keep in touch.

I really do think that a lot of on'es perception of inicidents has to do with the outcome for them, as well as their general outlook on life. Some people are genreally psimistic and are going to see any little negative thing as so much bigger than it was, where optimists are the opposite, and can shrug off the negative ... It seems maybe Sey never got past that one letdown ['88 Olympics], and htat is really sad.

Ok. A few things I have to point out about this post, none of them related to the typos that I've left in for authenticity's sake (and I'm sorry for being a tad snarky):

1) The Strausses weren't made to look bad. They behaved badly and it was aired on national television. There is a difference. Editing can't force the insults and epithets from their mouths.

2) I am in touch with some of the women she cites above as her friends. They have been wholly supportive about the book, as have many other former and current gymnasts, some I don't even know. One of the Tracys referred to above wrote me this email the day after the book came out:

"Hey, Jen. I just finished the book. I really enjoyed it....yes, I cried and laughed...You took me back to a different time and place. At times I could feel the gym again. But I also realized how alone we all felt. Interesting how we all internalized so much of it...and tried to battle the demons within us alone. I wish we could have been there more for each other! "

I stay in touch with many of my friends from Parkettes as well as other gymnasts from the 1980's that I competed with and against. The women that I speak with look back on that time with some fondness and some sadness. Same as me. There were hard times, filled with triumph as well as tears and devastating physical pain. We don't feel the need to whitewash the whole experience in order to feel good about it. We are proud of our accomplishments as gymnasts. And prouder of those after. The hard times are what made us the people we've grown up to be. I, along with my former gymnast friends, embrace it all. The whole kit and kaboodle.

Now that's a positive outlook!


Christine said...

I ran to Barnes & Noble to buy your book as soon as I saw it here last week. Growing up, I participated in the J.O. gymnastics program at a club in upstate New York, never coming remotely close to achieving your success. But even at the lower levels of the sport, I saw stage parents push their children to train and win despite broken elbows and puffed-up ankles, coaches who screamed obscenities at their athletes, young girls struggling with bulimia. And even with my lack of accomplishments in the sport, I have lingering problems like knee tendinitis from over-stretched ligaments, chronic back pain from the years of harsh landings, and bunions brought on by a coach's insistence that I walk around on the knuckles of my toes to improve my point. So while I enjoyed reading your book - I spent the last three evenings holed up in my bedroom pouring through it - it's unfortunate that the issues facing gymnasts are so widespread that your struggles didn't surprise me.

Now I live in the Lehigh Valley (I am an editor at Bicycling Magazine - I went from participating in one sport that requires its athletes to be rail-thin to writing about another, haha). I drive by Parkettes sometimes. I wonder if anything has changed there?

laura kaiser said...

May 2, 2008

Dear Jennifer,

As a former gymnast, judge and coach of 16 years, I’ve been intimately involved with the sport of gymnastics for the past 28 years. I have come to know the inner workings of 11 clubs, and have worked closely with hundreds of gymnastics coaches, and have befriended and worked with a number of national and Olympic level gymnasts as well.
I was deeply saddened to read of your experiences growing up. I am so sorry that you were surrounded by a number of neglectful adults who were harmful to you in your childhood. I’m also sorry that you didn’t find your experience at the higher levels of competition to be a positive influence in your life.
Fortunately, yours is not the common experience most girls who enroll in a gymnastics class end up having. For almost all children who walk through the doors of a gym, learning gymnastics is a positive experience. They leave having gained something; be it a mere lesson in motor skills, or self confidence, determination, the attention of responsible caring adults and a second family that lasts a lifetime.
Although gymnastics at its highest levels will always be intense, requiring both risk and sacrifice, it certainly will not be the hell for everyone that it was for you. Much has changed in our sport since the eighties. Eating disorders, for example, no longer occur at a higher rate amongst female gymnasts than amongst random samplings of their non-gymnast peers. The harsh coaching common at some of the big gyms in the eighties is rarely tolerated now, and coaching through positive encouragement is much more the norm. Coaching education and background checks are now in place, and a list of people unfit to work with children is made public to everyone affiliated with USA Gymnastics.
I strongly question your declaration that “Most of the male coaches of the 1970s and 1980s came to gymnastics either as a business opportunity (gym teachers capitalizing on the Nadia craze) or through an unseemly interest in being around little girls in leotards (gym teachers not satisfied with the privacy of interaction with students afforded them in the public schools).” Your publishing this inflammatory statement, which you have no way of knowing, victimizes the thousands of innocent, well intentioned knowledgeable male gymnastics coaches in our country as well as the children who now won’t be permitted to work with them.
I do hope that your book raises awareness about stage parenting and bad coaching where it is tolerated. But I imagine that the more far reaching effect of it’s publication will be to deter many parents from ever enrolling their little ones in gymnastics at all. These children will not be allowed all the gifts that gymnastics quite uniquely has to offer them.
I strongly encourage you to look at the world of gymnastics outside of your personal experience with it and really consider whether you are doing more harm than good through marketing your book and your upcoming public appearances. Who do you think will differentiate between this story of one girl’s nightmarish experience two decades ago and the experience their little ‘Suzie’ will have at their local gym club? I hope you realize that your influence is strong and widespread, particularly through the media, and make every effort to differentiate between your negative experiences and the wholesome and nurturing ones available to children through gymnastics today.
I wish you all the best.

Laura Kaiser

Just Another Gymnast said...


I was at Borders the other day and my children saw your book and raced it over to me. Being a former gymnast and now coach, they assumed I had to have it. I read the forward which sent chills down my spine then I actually put the book back as it hit way too close to home. I made it as far as the next row before returning to the book and stuffing it under my arm, knowing I had to face your words, to see if you really knew what life was like as a gymnast. Needless to say, I could not put your book down for the next three days, except to stop and reflect at every point in the book that completely mimicked my own life. I have finished it now. I think I could have written the same book with very few changes. You and I are exactly the same age, competed in the same region, and I still visit the gyms you attended. While I never came close to the achievements at the levels that you did, I felt the same way at every point of my gymnastics career. Reading your book put me right back in the gym and my body almost starting aching while reading.

I remember everything: the pain, the desire, the drive, the coaches, the weigh-ins required, the conditioning for extra weight, the moms fighting over whose daughter was better, the eating disorders, the disordered eating, the cursing, the abuse for missed skills, the morning then afternoon work outs, the lack of sleep, the tears in the car on the way home because crying was not allowed in the gym, the tears from shear pain and overuse, the attempts to do homework with bloody hands caked with chalk, cutting off my own cast in order to not miss a competition, wanting to give it all up and walk away and knowing that I never really would, and most of all, the fear. I remember the fear. The fear of the skills, of growing taller and getting bigger, of getting hurt, of not being good enough, of disappointing my parents and especially the coaches. Oh, what I would do to just get a nod of approval! I get it. I know who you are. And I was shocked to see in writing what I had put in the back of my mind not ever realizing other girls had felt the same way. I thought I was just weak. Not good enough. Not the best at anything. But...I loved the sport. I still do. My family thinks I am absolutely nuts to still be involved with something that just about killed me as a youth. And, while it did almost destroy me...I know all the great things that the sport gave me and I feel the need to pass that good on to other little girls. That is what no one else reading your book, or hearing my story, or any other gymnast of that time, will ever understand. We did it because that is who we were and still are. I knew nothing else but gymnastics, and I didn't care to know anything else. In college when the injuries threw me out of the sport, I raged into self destruction that only college will allow. It took me years (as well as a verbally abusive marriage and lots of therapy!) to figure out that I could survive being less than perfect. Most people also don't understand that it is not the sport or the coaches that do this to us, it is our drive for perfection and desire to be the best.

I admire you for putting on paper what the rest of us put in the back of our minds (not forgotten, just relived daily as adults in the workforce and with our families). Others have no right to question the validity of your writing, they have no idea the sacrifices we made or the pain and suffering we endured. They need to understand that this was not a book about bad gyms or a bad sport. It is written through the eyes, heart, and soul of a gymnast during the height of the "Russian Philosophy" era of gymnastics. Thank you for letting me know I wasn't the only one with cuticles torn to shreds and lips that looked botoxed from chewing. Thank you for putting my childhood all in one book. I can now hand your book to anyone who wants to know me and why I am the way that I am.

Jennifer Sey said...

Thank you "just another gymnast". I'm moved to tears by your post, your response to the book. I'm glad you found some solace in it, just knowing that others have gone through what you did.

And thank you Laura for your post as well. I am not claiming, nor have I ever in any interviews, blog posts etc, claimed that my experience is representative of the broader experience. In fact, I explicitly state that this is a memoir, my coming of age story. I know that many - no most - girls have a positive experience. And that is great. But I have been overwhelmed by the number of emails I've received from women of my generation as well as younger women, only recently retired from the sport, who claim similar circumstances. So I'm not as confident as you are that everything is better.
I love the sport. Some of the best moments of my life happened as a gymnast. I just think that by its very nature - because the girls are so young - the conditions are created whereby abuses can take place. They don't most of the time. But they can.
Regards, Jen Sey

MRR said...

I made a review of Chalked Up on my blog: