I was in Houston a few days ago for a reading. It was a great little independent bookstore, my favorite kind. I was not insignificantly concerned that no one would show up except my escort, the lovely man hired to drive me around, to and from media appointments. On the other hand, I harbored anxiety that a bevy of ex-Karolyi gymnasts (his gym is located in Houston) would show up and pelt me with rotten tomatoes and epithets. I’d prefer the no one-showing-up scenario.
As I entered, a few women lingered near the stack of my books. It was quite a stack. Could they possibly sell all of these? One introduced herself as Nicky. She was instructed to be there by my aunt Jill. Whew. At least there was one. Another had heard about the book on TV and thought she’d pop in. Nice. Ok. Two friendly faces. No empty bookstore. No rotten vegetables.
The manager of the bookstore had moved a few chairs into a circle, a couch centering the arrangement. Just as we all meandered towards the sitting area, a woman about my age wandered in. She eyed me. I felt compelled to introduce myself. With an outstretched hand, I said, “Jen.”
“Jen! It’s Stacey!” No fucking way. Stacey trained with me in New Jersey before I made the move to Allentown. I remember her being very small, talented, fast, acrobatic; she had a father that hovered, monitoring her every move. And more importantly he watched the coaches with eagle eyes, to ensure they gave her enough attention and paid the respect for her talent that he believed she deserved. She left Will-Moor about the time I went to Parkettes. She chose Karolyi’s. When I was competing as a senior, she was still a junior. She came into her own when I was downward spiraling; she went to the ’88 Olympic Trials but failed to make the team. It was good to see her.
She came with her brother. They were glad I’d written this story, they said. Someone needed to and they’d been waiting for it for some time. Stacey and her dad had even talked about writing a book, from both perspectives. Parent and child, on the same path, viewing it from different sides.
We all sat down. I told everyone a little bit about why I wrote the book, about who I was and why I had some authority to speak about the world of nationally and internationally competitive gymnastics in the 1980s. And then another woman entered. Her face was so familiar, I stopped mid-sentence.
“I know you,” I said.
“Robin --” I got up and hugged her. I remember her as a little girl. All skinny legs and grace. She had also trained at Karolyi’s and then later, SCATs, though only briefly. She was a few years younger than me as well. When she failed to make the ’88 Olympics, she quit. Before finishing high school, she walked away. Good move.
I read an excerpt about moving away from my parents into a coach’s house. Stacey seemed saddened by it. She must have felt the same way, when she left her New Jersey home for Texas.
The non-gymnasts asked lots of questions. The three of us answered them together. Our experiences had been remarkably similar. Injuries, loneliness, physical pain, emotional struggle, some triumph and pride. Yet, our relationship to the sport while doing it was a bit different.
I was driven and competitive. I wanted to be in it, up until the final 18 months. Stacey never had her heart in it, but it was important to her father and it came easily to her (she was SO talented), so she went along. Robin was on the fence. And after too many injuries, she gave it up and her dad cheered the decision. Remarkably, she went on to compete nationally in both rhythmic gymnastics and diving. Talented girl.
We had dinner after – Stacey, Robin, Stacey’s brother, and I. We talked about all the people we knew from back then. The names! Sabrina, Marie, Julissa, Denise, Rhonda, Kristy, Phoebe, Scott, Mary, Heather. These girls and coaches from a lifetime ago! We talked about how we sort of ran away from each other when it was over, needing to define who we were without the sport and without any connection to it or those who did it. Stacey had tried to maintain ties, to extract some good from the friendships tainted by competitiveness. She was hurt when she found girls – now women – not interested. But she understood. We agreed it was nice to find each other again, the hurt of it all having faded.
We talked heavy-heartedly about how lonely and scared we all were; but how, as self involved teens, all riddled with guilt in feeling we were less able to endure the rigors than our training mates, we never reached out to each other. To each of us, the other had seemed stoic. And, ironically, we were all losing it to some extent. How, as mere children, were we able to mask such devastation with poise? I’ll never know.
We marveled that as important as the Olympics seemed back then, having gone or not gone seemed to have very little impact on our adult lives. While the three of us did not go, we certainly know many who did. They don’t seem better or worse off than any of us. Other than Mary Lou whose fame from the ’84 Olympics has, in some ways, defined her career path. Not her life, certainly. But her vocation. Even Olympians go on to get regular jobs, get married, have kids. Normal stuff. I doubt they wear their Olympic medals around the house but I’m sure they take pride in peeking at them from time to time, as they should.
But, that thing, those fabled noble Olympics, that we were all willing to practically kill ourselves over - to starve, and work on near broken bones, popping pain killers like Skittles, to endure screaming, angry coaches and/or parents – it didn’t matter in the long run. These two women seemed happy, accomplished, impressive. Stacey is a mom of two with a graduate degree in pyschology; Robin runs her own business after securing her MBA and learning the ropes at the Coca Cola Corporation. These two have it together. I suppose I'm doing ok as well. Great job, lovely kids, happy marriage. Things are all A-OK for the three of us. No bitterness looking back. Just pride and a touch of wistfullness over having wished we'd known we had each other.
If only to have had visibility to the fact that gymnastics - as important as it felt - was child's play. Olympics or no Olympics our real lives would happen as adults. What sadness and shame would have been averted if we'd understood this then.