Girl Talk: I Was A College Gymnast

For fans of NCAA basketball, March Madness is the culmination of the collegiate sport year. But for me, a former gymnast—mediocre in skill, but a gold medalist in mania—April is what I live for. See, April is women’s college gymnastics month and this year the National Championships were held in Gainesville, Florida, the home of the Gator chop, a choreographic staple in every Florida floor routine. The Championships took place April 21st and 22nd, but aired on CBS this weekend. I watched in awe of all the scrunchies, the hip-hop-“inspired” performances, the eye glitter seemingly applied by a Texas pageant mom, and the women flying through the air and toward the vault and eventually their futures outside of the gym.

If only retiring from gymnastics came with social security benefits. Six years after I hung up my leotard for good, I still watch NCAA gymnastics religiously to see a new generation of athletes transition into women with lives outside the gym.

The first time I saw NCAA women’s gymnastics was in 1993, a year after the Olympic Games that cemented my obsession with the sport. I had wandered into the living room on a Sunday afternoon shortly after I had gotten home from my own gym session. I was 10 and had been taking recreational lessons for two years in the basement of the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, New York. For an hour, I got to run around in a leotard and shorts before I was forced to change back into the sweeping skirts and long sleeve shirts that are the hallmark of Orthodox women.

Once a week was insufficient for me, so I supplemented my lessons by checking out every book on the sport—all three of them—from the public library and memorizing the names of all the former Soviet athletes. (Even when it comes to sports, Jews are still the People of the Book.) I also watched every competition that was broadcast on television. In a good year, this happened twice—both the World and National Championships.

College gymnastics was different from elite competitions, though. The pixies on the international stage, though 15, 16, 17 years of age, looked more prepubescent than I did. College gymnasts, on the other hand, had women’s bodies. To me, this meant they were fat, which is why they were performing watered-down routines. I felt like I was seeing a cheesy reenactment, an athletic “SNL” skit. Still, I watched and recorded meets for later viewings. Being a fan back before the days of YouTube meant being perpetually thirsty. The four years between Olympics was like crossing the broadcast Sahara without water.

There was only one gymnast I recognized at the 1993 NCAA Finals— Kim Arnold. She had made the 1992 Olympic team but was switched out for a younger, slimmer teammate who had been too injured to compete at the national qualifying meets. The commentator said that collegiate gymnastics at the University of Alabama had helped Arnold recover from her Olympic disappointment. I felt bad for her, but as I watched her charge toward the vault, her hips hugged by red spandex, her cropped hair sprayed heavenward and her ample bosom bouncing as she hit the springboard, I couldn’t fathom how she made the team to begin with. Arnold’s vault was not difficult enough to have contended with the competitors in Spain. I didn’t realize that just a year prior she had been capable of far more impressive feats. I didn’t understand that the rules guiding women’s college gymnastics encouraged this kind of skill devaluation. The NCAA format gave former elites a way to slowly wean themselves off the sport that had defined them throughout childhood. In addition to the usual stats (height, athletic accomplishments), the athletes’ majors are also highlighted, a clue to who they might become once they stopped being gymnasts.

It was only as I got older that I valued women’s college gymnastics as more than filler between World Championships and the Olympics. My gymnastics clock was audibly ticking to the tune of knee creaks, for which there was not enough Aleve in the world to dull the pain. As a member of the club gymnastics team at the University of Pennsylvania (which unlike the varsity variety had no minimum talent threshold), I knew these would be my last years in the gym. But I couldn’t enjoy them. I was frustrated every time I had to consign a move to the gymnastics graveyard and I hated the sight of myself in the mirrors that surrounded the floor exercise.

I hadn’t gained the freshman 15—it was more like five—but spandex was as unflattering on my figure as the sport was unforgiving on my joints.
I loathed looking at myself in the mirrors that surrounded the floor exercise mats when I was running through my routine’s dance steps. At 20, unlike at 10, I was grateful to change back into my long skirts and tees after a workout to camouflage myself. I had a newfound admiration for the college gymnasts who paraded their newly developed bodies on television and to harsh criticism on fan message boards. Many also managed to relearn the difficult elements that had been simple for them as young girls, all while completing their graduation requirements. If they beat themselves up over lost skills or blamed those few extra pounds for athletic inadequacy, I couldn’t tell. They seemed happy, healthy and ready for the next chapter in their lives. I had two majors and a three episode a day “Law & Order” habit, and no clue what to do next.

If only retiring from gymnastics came with social security benefits. Six years after I hung up my leotard for good, I still watch NCAA gymnastics religiously to see a new generation of athletes transition into women with lives outside the gym.

I’m taking a cue from them and trying to do something with one of my majors—English Literature—aside from mocking it. As it turns out, I’m much better at verbal contortion than I ever was at the physical kind.

Photo: iStockphoto