Saturday, May 17, 2008

Am I a liar?

While the bulk of the responses that I’ve gotten to the book have been positive, ranging from empathetic to outright cheers (You’re brave. Thank goodness, finally!), there have been those that claim my depiction of the sport is not accurate. That it is filled with lies. There are even those who go so far as to assert that because I wasn’t a very good National Champ - perhaps even the worst ever (in the words of a few bloggers) – I am vengeful and antagonistic. They argue that my incompetence as a gymnast is evidence that the book is a retaliation, proof of my bitterness. I’ll concede, I wasn’t the best ever. Not sure that mediocre child champion = adult prevaricator. Seems like a tenuous connection.

I suppose I’ll just carry on saying what I’ve been saying: this is my story. Not an indictment of the sport. This was my personal experience, 20 years ago. Not drawing any conclusions that this is what everyone who participates in the sport experiences, now or back then.

What I find most distressing is people saying: releasing it now, before the Olympics, is bad for the sport. They don’t take issue with the content, per se, rather the timing. Vehement dissenters offer that the “marketing” of CHALKED UP – timing its release before the Olympics – is a ploy to optimize sales.

I wrote the book when it spilled forth, back in 2006. It’s just when it came out of me, after ‘cooking’ for over twenty years. There was no intent to time it for the Olympics which are every four years after all, so any book is pre or post Olympics, if you think about it. The fact is my kids were finally old enough that I was getting enough sleep to concentrate for extended periods of time. I wrote it when I wrote it; and I sold it when it sold. No control there. There is a standard delay of 12-18 months between when a book sells to a publisher and when it is released. That time allows for editing, typesetting, etc. That meant the release was going to be early 2008.

Thus, I take issue with the accusatory, finger-pointy “marketing!” claims.

And, it prompts me to ask: So you think marketing is opportunistic, huh, presenting facts in a manner intended to seduce the consumer? Sounds to me kind of like how gymnastics is marketed on television to secure ad revenue and attract new children to the sport. How only the cutest pixies bouncing happily and seemingly without effort are showcased. Viewers rarely, if ever, get to feast their eyes on those who ‘lose’, falling outside the top ranks; girls who plunge to the ground on their heads, faces, backs, bottoms, sometimes incurring unwatchable injuries. Eye-shielding falls are standard operating procedure in gymnastics as it is an incredibly dangerous sport. In football, we are exposed to the bone bashing, as it is somewhat palatable when it happens to big, scary, fully grown adult men. And because it is part of that sport's appeal, it is celebrated to an extent. But no one wants to see a broken-hearted, broken boned sprite sobbing in devastating disappointment or being removed from the competition floor on a stretcher.

Do objectors mean to suggest that my book is ‘marketed’ like gymnastics itself?

Rest assured, marketing or no marketing of this book, the sport will survive as it did after Kristy Heinrich’s death (and the attendant ‘bad PR’) and Joan Ryan’s LITTLE GIRLS IN PRETTY BOXES. Because most people that participate in the sport have positive experiences and most coaches have the best intentions. Just because that is so, does that mean I am ‘not allowed’ to share what wasn’t carefree and unspoiled about my personal experience? Just because most teachers are kind and giving and committed to providing an education to children, does that imply that if a teacher sexually abuses a student that that student shouldn’t speak up? Because it would hurt the education system? Prevent people from going to school?

The sport has a vast and enthusiastic fan base; they are passionate about gymnastics and offended by my story. But it doesn’t mean I made it up or falsely marketed it. And it doesn’t mean the sport will be irreparably harmed. Other sports have come under harsh criticism and flourished just the same. Football and baseball and ice skating. Each of these sports has been thrown into the spotlight for bad behavior (illegal dog fighting, steroid use, knee bashing) and has thrived. Blights on a sport often cause the community to turn introspective, to say, is there something here we need to examine?

When I broke my leg at World Championships, the rules changed soon thereafter, with the intent of keeping the girls safer. When a young gymnast by the name of Julissa Gomez fell on vault in warm up for competition and was rendered paralyzed (and later died from complications), the equipment was modified to accommodate new skills and protect the athletes from unnecessary injuries. These are good things. I’d hope that the community would ask themselves upon reading the book, do any of these conditions still exist and if so, what can we do about it?

Was I obligated to present both sides in a memoir? I don’t believe so. If I was writing a journalistic piece, then yes. But this is a story of personal experience. To suggest that I was morally obliged to illustrate that there are also good coaches with good intentions (which I do include, note: Lolo) would be to suggest that anyone who writes a book about growing up in middle class suburbia and becoming a drug addict must also present the case that some people from the ‘burbs don’t become drug addicts. Isn’t that obvious?


Caroline said...

What you say makes perfect sense and I can't believe that people would attack you for sharing your personal experience. You know what they say: There are three sides to any story -yours, theirs and the truth. You told your side and that's all you ever wanted to do. You should tell your critics that you are glad that they can't relate. That means the sport has changed for the better in the 20 years since you've been in it. If they've never encountered physical and emotional abuse, never starved themselves, never broke a bone, then GREAT. Bully for them. When I look at elite gymnasts on tv today, they do look healthier and happier - gymnasts like Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson. The eyes don't lie, and their bodies are not stick thin. But you had a right to tell your story. I recently read "Letters to a Young Gymnast" by Nadia Comaneci and her story is not everyone's story either. She said Bela was basically a nice guy. Other gymnasts have said he was the devil incarnate. Who is right? Does it matter????

Eileen said...


My name is Eileen and I was one of the team gymnasts when you were at Will-Moor. While I was reading your book, I was right there with you. I can remember the visits by Gary. I believe that you really captured Lolo's spirit. I always believed that she had our best interests at heart. I hope that people will realize that not all of the gyms are negative places.
I wish you the best.

Lauren said...

What is most striking here is how out of proportion Ms. Sey's defensive reaction is to what amounts to the tiny bit of criticism about her book.

I was so excited to see some one tackle such complex subject matter. My excitement was far exceeded by my disappointment. Even if one succeeds in putting aside the purple prose and repetitive passages, one is still left with a highly superficial treatment of what could be provocative subject matter. The intensity of whatever is written is lost in the obvious bitterness (including gratuitous socioeconomic commentary about her former coaches which adds nothing to the story but does amuse given her own time spent in a trailer as a child) and self-absorption. Were you obligated to tell the other side of the story? Definitely not, but taste would have dictated that the book not be entitled in such a misleading manner ("Inside Elite Gymnastics: [very long sensationalist subtitle follow] is hardly suggestive of a personal story).

Yet I am thrilled the book has been published because it has set the bar so low that other former elite gymnasts are guaranteed to come out with much more meaningful commentary--or memoirs--about the sport.

Jennifer Sey said...

hi lauren,

I'm always happy to 'set the low bar'. I love a pun.


Tracee said...

I'm new to the Blog world so, I'll try this again as I am not sure if my first time around worked.

Yes, we were all pushed beyond that which would be considered "normal". Yes,the coaches, judges and Federation officials cared about us, but only to the extent to which our individual success would allow each of them to succeed in their own agenda. It was a crazy world to grow up in and I learned quite a few very "adult" lessons at a very young age. It was a world that I'm certain the general public will have a difficult time grasping. Not to say that they were all good, but personally, I wouldn't trade any of my experiences for anything. I always wondered how much other gymnasts understood all that encompassed the environment in which we all functioned. I was in the Elite world of gymnastics for a sufficient length of time as to gain a pretty good understanding of how it all "worked", or didn't "work". It seems that you now have a very good understanding of all of the inner workings of what is seen as a "lily white" environment, by the general public. In reality, the picture was not always perfect or pretty, but it cetainly provided a wonderful learning ground for all that regular adult life throws at us. Thank you for having the courage to tell the truth about "our world". Even if most don't/won't admit it, we all know that what you have written is very true.
I thank you for your kind words in your book and I am happy to have been a small, positive part of your life as a gymnast.

I wish you the best of luck in your writing endeavors and your future, in general.

Tracee Talavera Kent

Jennifer Sey said...

Thank you so much for your comments. You are truly one of my all time favorite gymnasts. Such poise and dignity. A real hero to me. Your words mean alot. And I agree, I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything, though it wasn't all easy.
Thanks so much. Wishing you the best.

Pammie said...

Hi Jen,
You write beautifully! I am an award-winning (she says, humbly) young adult author currently working on my second novel callled Spotting For Nellie, about two young gymnasts, sisters, and the relationship between them after a terrible car accident leaves one of them brain injured. Anyway, I will list your book as a resource. I LOVED it. Would you be interested in reading a draft for accuracy of gymnastics? If not, I completely understand. Please check out my website: or contact me via email at
Best of luck with your writing.
I think you are very, very courageous. Your words are powerful in their truth.
All the best,
Pamela Lowell, MSW, LICSW, BCD

gymnast83 said...

Hi Jen, I was on the Jr. National Team in the early 80s and experienced much of what you write about. I also experience significant abuse but most of mine was physical (there was plenty of emotional abuse as well). I'd actually like to discuss some things with you "offline". Can I email you?

Jennifer Sey said...

gymnast 83 - yes you can email me.

Kristin said...

I just wanted to say that I've read your book twice now and I loved it. I had read Joan Ryan's book years ago and it's unreal some of the things that go on in gyms that the public never know about. I agree with what Caroline said about the gymnasts today looking healthier and seeming happier. I'll never forget how thin and miserable the girl's looked in Barcelona in '92. Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you for having the courage to write about that time in your life, Chalked Up is one of my favorite books! Take care!

ghislain said...

I Jennifer! I read your book and it is quite similar to what I have lived. I would like to write to you in private because I need help dealing with what I lived in the world of gymnastics during the seventies. I just don't know how to contact you in private. Thank you in advance, Lyne