When you devote part of your life to a sport that prides itself on perfection and to an extent image it bleeds into how you lead your life when you leave that sport. I spent the first 11 years of my life aiming for that perfect 10.0. That flawless routine that garnered no deductions or criticism. Looking back, even though I tried to get that style of thinking out of my head, it’s still there. Gymnasts are trained from such an early age that any mistake, no matter how small, needs to be fixed automatically and fixed to the point it never happens again. It’s why we train for so long and give our lives to the sport.
Here’s the thing. Perfection doesn’t end in the gym. The way the rest of the world looks at gymnasts, and especially the women, there is an expectation that they are perfect outside the gym as well. Reading this you might think that’s not true but honestly it is. Lives in the gym are completely different than lives outside the gym. Gymnasts are still human. They have feelings and make mistakes. Those feelings and mistakes are what make us human and give us the benefit to live on this earth. There is strive for perfection in the gym but that’s because you can practice one skill or one routine over and over until you have it down. You can’t do that with life. There is no warm-up or 4 hour practice for what life throws at us. We take what we’re given and try our best. People need to get over the idea that gymnasts can get through regular life being perfect.
Welcome to the Real World
From the age of 9 months (yes I know that’s insanely young) to almost 11 years old I spent copious amounts of time training and competing in this crazy sport. I had some extremely high moments (state champion) and some incredibly low moments (multiple injuries in a year) through those times but I was lucky with my experiences unlike many others I know. I had a really supportive team and coaches who just wanted me to get better and an environment I could thrive in. It’s probably why I stayed an extra year after telling my parents I wanted to quit the first time. I’m beyond grateful I stayed that extra year but at the same time I also wonder what life would have been like without the injury I sustained in that year and if I would have discovered something else about myself in that year that I didn’t get the chance to discover.
The first thing I remember after quitting was realizing just how much time I gained back for myself. I didn’t know who I was outside the gym and this was really the first time I ever got to learn who I was. My leotards now had no use anymore and I wasn’t having to struggle to get my grips on for the 10th time that day. It was a surreal realization. I had more time to focus on other hobbies I loved and get to just be me. It was those hobbies that ended up becoming what I wanted to do with my life. One of those hobbies became my college degree and another became a paid side gig. I wouldn’t be who I am now without my time spent with my team in the gym, but I also wouldn’t have realized what I wanted to do in life if I had stayed in the sport longer. I was able to do those things but at the same time I still expected myself to look a certain way and for my body to act a certain way because that’s all I had known and all the media portrays about gymnasts and gymnastics.
What Gymnastics Looks Like in the Media
It’s now over 10 years later and I sometimes still struggle with body image and what I expect my body to look live verses what it does. Yes we compete in leotards, but swimmers and divers compete in basically the same things. They don’t get the same portrayal in media or at least mass media. There was even a point in the sport where if you were built one way you were better than someone who was built differently, even if that other person actually did better gymnastics. Leotards aren’t meant to show off a girls body or make her an object of sexuality. Most gymnasts in the spotlight are minors anyways so it makes a lot of actions and discussions inexcusable and disgusting. Leotards are meant to allow a full range of movement and not hinder any skills that need to be completed. They should be treated as any other sports uniform.
The slightly odd thing about gymnastics is how female dominated the sport is. In a world that is so much dominated by men, this sport tends to stick out. Men in gymnastics have many of the same expectations of themselves that the women do but they are a bit older and are…men. That being said, I’m very aware that men in the sport have their own struggles they have to get through but they aren’t usually held to the same standards in media that the women are.
I can’t wait for the day when the sport I gave my life to and still love to support and watch shifts its focus to the sport itself and not the perfection the athletes strive for or what those athletes look like. Hopefully soon commentators move away from making big deal about deductions and scores and make a bigger deal about what the gymnast actually did do in their routine. Maybe in the future the media will look at an olympic gymnastics team and not tear into each gymnasts image based on how they did their hair or how big/small their muscles are. Do I think that’s going to happen soon? Honestly no, but I do think at some point we can get there. It’s a beautiful sport that doesn’t deserve the image it has and what that image does to the people who participate in it.