Saturday, June 28, 2008


My former gymnastics team, The Parkettes, is having a 40-year reunion this weekend. Very few of my friends from back then will attend, not due to any particular grievance. Life just gets in the way of reuniting sometimes; and I suppose a weekend in the ever cosmopolitan, always picturesque Allentown, Pennsylvania isn’t always first on everyone’s list of summer vacation hot spots.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t invited. Despite my now well-documented issues with the years I spent there, I am very curious about how all the girls have fared, what interesting lives they have built for themselves. How child athletes turn inchoate drive into fully formed adult determination (or don’t) is a subject of unlimited fascination for me. Successful athletes have a moxie and tenacity uncommon amongst the general population. I am always curious how it morphs or grows or simply dies in the pursuit of non-athletic endeavors. I plan on getting a full report on my generation of teammates from those I know who are attending.

Even if I hadn’t written the book and become an official foe to my former coaches and a couple of teammates, I wouldn’t have attended the reunion. I left on not – so – good terms and haven’t been in touch since about 1992 when I returned for a mini-reunion just so that I could be a grumpy, rebellious Gen X style pain in the butt. I had just graduated from college and I was puffed up with Stanford liberalism and bulimic ice cream binges; I wanted to rub my I am part of a much bigger world than you are pride in their faces.

I was trying to prove to myself that I had moved on by showing up with a tattoo, a nose ring, a pack of Marlboros and a tough chick on my arm (not my lesbian girlfriend – I’ve never had one of those – but if they wanted to think so, fine). Ironic that to prove to myself I’d moved on I went back seeking the opposite of the approval I’d sought for so long; in desiring their disdain, or at the very least shocked dismay, I was just as entrenched in the morass of dependence as I’d been five years earlier. I needed them to hate me so I could be released from the need to have them love me. If I repulsed them, affirmation would be out of the question. I could give up and move on.

This must be some form of individuation, the means by which a child separates from the ‘parent’. Seems silly and immature and overly dramatic. But I was only 22. I couldn’t think of a better way to define myself than simply defining myself as DIFFERENT from everyone I’d ever known. I didn’t articulate who I was. I just shouted, “I’M NOT YOU.”

When Chalked Up was nearing release, an old coach called a friend and fellow 1980s gymnast to ask if we were in touch, if she knew about the book. “You don’t talk to her do you? I mean, you guys weren’t even here at the same time!”

Said friend reminded her that we indeed were there at the same time, with a smidgeon of disbelief that a coach who’d played such a formative role in her upbringing didn’t recall such an obvious fact.

The few years that each of us trained there – for some of us, over a decade; for me, less than five years - are etched into our memories. Less lively with age, the memories have a scribbled/scrawled quality rather than an ardent, incisive chisel. We have weigh-in dreams when feeling anxious and tend to be a tad too self-critical. We all remember the physical suffering from smashed up bones and torn ligaments but when we talk about it now we laugh, as in: “They insisted there was nothing wrong with that ankle! It was twice the size of the other one! Can you believe? Ha ha ha!” We also remember the good stuff – the medals, friendships and satisfaction.

Despite the muted current day impact of these 20-year old recollections, we remember all of it with astonishing precision and emotional clarity. We remember what it felt like then – the good and the bad; it just doesn’t carry weight today with two decades between those events and our adult selves.

But the coaches don’t really remember us with the same specificity. Each of us was one of many determined sprites with hair sprayed bangs, a ponytail and a limp. The lifespan of a college student has passed since any of my generation stepped foot in that gym. And there were twenty years of Parkettes before we’d ever graduated. Decades crammed with girls – some promising, some forgettable, some feisty, some acquiescent. Some champions. Some also-rans. If a ‘generation’ in gymnastics is 5 years, at least eight generations of gymnasts have floated, flown and fallen through those warehouse doors.

We were fleeting projects; if any of us didn’t work out, there were new projects just outside the rainbow colored walls on MLK drive.

Those coaches were everything to us. And we were cogs in the factory wheel, fodder for their dreams of coaching winners. We thought it was all about us. Until we quit or left or graduated and there were twelve others there, much younger and less tired, to take our places.


Caroline said...

Very interesting, introspective post. I'd love to know what you think of the current Olympic me they seem healthy and happy and strong - what are your feelings about them?

zanney said...

You are an outstanding writer, and I applaud you for basically allowing us into your head. Your honesty is enlightening, and I love how you truly admit how you felt "back then." I attended several Parkette Invitationals (as a spectator), and I often wondered how you elites felt about the environment the Strausses created(as I watched one of your already-skinny teammates jog around in a heavy grey sweatsuit to lose weight). Regardless, I just would like to applaud your honest account of your feelings. You don't have to expose this, and you are brave enough to do so. I hope you're not hurt about your lack of invitation to attend the reunion - you know you deserve to be there if you wanted to. Keep smiling - you were a well-admired gymnast, no matter what medals you've won.