Identity Crisis

 

I never went to prom, I never went on spring break, I never went to Friday night football games, and I never had the summer off for family vacations. Gymnastics is a year-round sport, and the offseason was exponentially worse than season. But man did I love it.

I grew up in the gym. From age 6 I spent every waking minute in one. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I loved it. I have never felt that kind of love for anyone or anything in my life. For a sport to consume your entire life, you have to love it to commit to it. I didn’t even know what I was feeling was love until much later.

I always used the gym as an escape. A 4-6 hour a day, 25-35 hours a week escape. It was a mental vacation, a sanctuary. A chance to forget about everything going on, and focus solely on the moment I was in. It understood me and I understood it.

It was ugly inside that gym.

We were little girls being pushed to our physical, mental, and emotional limits. We never took the easy way out, we never cheated (if you did you wish you hadn’t), we couldn’t cry, we couldn’t talk, we did what we were told when we were told to do it. Follow the rules and work hard and you’ll be great. If you break, you’ll be done.

We were strong.

We were strong in a sense of physical strength but also mental strength. To succeed we had to be mentally prepared. The conditioning was so brutal that many of us would cry silent tears but keep going because if we stopped we would be scolded, and have to start over. Not to mention you would piss off every one of your teammates and that was the worst consequence.

We were crazy.

You have to be crazy to get up on a 4-inch beam that’s 4 feet off the ground (that at one point was taller than me), and enjoy it.

We were tough.

I wasn’t strong enough, flexible enough, lean enough, fast enough, or confident enough. I had to learn to accept the criticism and use it as fuel to become better; rather than have it destroy me. As a girl striving for perfection and being told the way you look is not good enough, you develop the toughest kind of skin.

I’ve landed on my head, neck, back, and face countless times. I’ve thrown my body into a stationary object, and been in physical fights with pieces of equipment, and lost every single time (I don’t recommend kicking a beam). My pain tolerance has since gone down, but back then I didn’t even know half the bones I broke were actually broken until much later. Literally, I fractured my “first rib” (Picture) and didn’t confirm it until almost 2 years later after it calloused over. To this day I still feel the repercussions of all the injuries, hard landings, and incredible wipeouts.

Why in the world did we do it?

Insanity? Love? The things we do for the ones we love, that’s what gymnasts do for the sport. It gave me some of the best moments of my life. I traveled to really cool places, I met my best friends, I learned what love is, I learned how to persevere through unbearable adversity and when people thought I would quit, I kept going. My coaches throughout the years became my gym parents, and were there every step of the way. I made it through to the very end.

A lot of people ask me why the hell I went to Eastern Michigan for college. Well, I went to college for an education; I went to EMU for the opportunity to be a student-athlete at a Division 1 school. I wouldn’t change that for anything.

There’s an expiration date.

Inevitably all good things must come to an end. My expiration date for gymnastics was March 10, 2012 after hyperextending my knee so badly they thought I fractured a bone in my leg, two weeks before my very last meet. I finished out my career hobbling around on crutches in a massive knee brace and rehabbing every day. At the time it was a tough pill to swallow because I wanted one more chance to compete, and it was an ending to a collegiate career full of injuries. In hindsight, I made it all the way to the end. I didn’t quit when I had hip surgery, when I realized I wasn’t living a normal teenage life, or when I wasn’t having a normal college experience. I wanted to reach the retirement finish line.

It’s hard to continue.

Gymnastics was a huge part of my life for many years. It essentially was my life. I don’t think people understand the massive identity crisis that comes when you’re finally retired from the sport. Imagine, 5 hours a day doing one thing and all of a sudden there’s a void when you’re 22 years old. You wake up and the one thing you’ve identified with is no longer there. It’s not only a void, but there’s pressure to fill that void the moment you graduate. My job doesn’t fill it, working out at LA Fitness doesn’t fill it, and writing doesn’t even fill it. To replace the sport is unrealistic, but to find something else I’m passionate about is crucial in moving on. I continue to struggle to find it, almost 4 years after retirement.

I still give back.

I coached for years, and now I find myself donating money to EMU Gymnastics. To see the program doing great things is rewarding as an alumni. Check out the Website


To succeed in such a demanding sport was worth the pain. There was no better feeling than to overcome something I didn’t even think I could do. I credit a lot of my success as an adult to the time I put into the gym as a kid. I credit the coaches I hated on some days and loved on others, the teammates who stuck by me through the worst of days, and continue to do so, and my family who sacrificed so much for me. If it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be who I am today.

I have aspirations as big as the sky, and I fully anticipate achieving them. I had them as a young girl with gymnastics, and I have them as an adult with my career. Sometimes I have to adjust my dreams just like I did as a little girl, but I will never quit.

~S

 

21 thoughts on “Identity Crisis

  1. Absolutely wonderful and insightful . My daughter lived that life and I am so grateful for the new understanding that you have given me. Congratulations on a wonderful article and even more successful life

    • My wife was also an EMU gymnast and I an EMU wrestler. She still coaches gymnastics 20 yrs later. Both of our daughters are gymnast. The best sport to teach life lessons. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Reading your piece, one could quite easily replace “the gym” with “the salt mine”. I have serious concerns with driving kids to such a uni-dimensional existence.
    It’s just not healthy.
    Before you judge my comment, think closely about whether the lessons you say you have learned in sports could not have been achieved in a more balanced way.
    I say the answer is “absolutely” and I’m very sorry that your childhood, your parents middle years and probably your siblings best years were held hostage to a singularly obsessive pursuit, such that you admit that years after, you are struggling to relate to the real world beyond the foam pit.

    For your sake, I very hope (against all probability) that your numerous injuries don’t become debilitating when you reach middle life and beyond.

    Parents, let your kids experiment, live large, read books, go to prom, go on a vacation. They deserve to enjoy their youth and need a variety of experiences to understand and reach their potential.

    • Thank you for speaking up! My childhood was largely “held hostage” by my parent’s obsession with the advancement of an older sister. Her progress came out of my hide!

    • It may seem those lessons can be taught elsewhere, but The lessons she references, most certainly cannot be learned outside of sport.

      You may think the experience is replicable elsewhere… But it’s not. It doesn’t have to be gymnastics… But, to find a way to love the work involved to drive oneself for constant improvement (physically and mentally) toward a goal is un-replicable outside of sport. While pieces of these lessons may be learned elsewhere, the entirety of the experience that is sport… Is not replicable.

      I understand your thoughts, and the experience may seem harsh… And to a certain extent it is… And I am sure the author would agree it’s not a perfect system… But maybe what seems harsh, is just a part of a larger process, where the end result of that process far outweighs the neagtives one incurs along the way?

      It’s not for everyone… But for the ones who love it, and truly appreciate the experience… for those people… The experience is invaluable to who they are… They would never trade that experience, despite the negatives one must endure along the path.

      The Focus today on our youth committing to a single sport at alarmingly young ages, is certainly of concern. But, maybe that is a different topic of conversation? The value and reward an individual learns and receives while committing to an athletic pursuit seems to be the focus.

      There are certainly other ways to teach SIMILAR lessons… But those other ways will never truly deliver the same lessons, and they can’t have the same affect as what sport and commitment to it teaches.

      The question may come up, “BUT is it worth it?!”… And yes… it most certainly is. You don’t get all the good without having to experience all the bad…

      The juice is definitely worth the squeeze…

      You don’t need to feel sorry for her, or any other former athletes like her… I can assure you, they don’t want or need your sympathy.

      • To say you can not learn the same life lessons, or others more important ones, from anything other than sport is absolutely RIDICULOUS. Being an athlete is a choice. Being born with physical challenges, into a war zone, into a dysfunctional family, and many others too countless to name build character by sheer force.

      • Nobody should feel sorry this article couldn’t be more accurate. Like the author explains it was a love like no other, it was her sanctuary. I couldn’t relate more 40 hrs a week I practiced. I started at 2 yrs old and did it until 16. I broke just about every bone in my body and my pain tolerance was so high I never even knew things were broken until much much later, along with 3 concussions. A couple fractures in my lower back are what finally ended my career after 3 years of pounding on it and not telling anyone before going to the doctors prob not the best decision looking back but I can honestly say that was my only regret. Does it sound awful to an outsider reading this absolutely. But I chose it I was never forced I pushed myself to those limits because I wanted so bad to be the best. I had no fear because I had such trust in my coaches if they told me I could do something I’d do it no questions asked. When I was younger if I got in trouble my threat instead of being grounded was not going to practice that night from my mom and there was nothing worse you could’ve done to me. That sport made me who I am and myself and my family would agree is a hardworking dedicated passionate and driven person who learned that from a very young age. It kept me out of trouble, it kept me active, and I was with my second family my gym coaches and my gym friends every morning and night. I love that sport and would I put my future child in it if they wanted to? Absolutely. When I was done I put that passion into my career as a nurse and those qualities all helped me become the nurse I am today and the adrenaline rush I no longer get to feel from trying a new skill for the first time, or competing on a 4 inch beam in front of hundreds of people, I now still get to feel whenever there’s a code or a trauma and I thrive under that pressure. No matter how much I sometimes still have aches and pains or how many things I missed out on growing up I got to do things so many people will never be able to say they could do. I wouldn’t take back one second of my time in the gym. It was hard it was mentally and physically exhausting at times painful, scary, stressful, until you lived through it nobody will know just how much so. It is by far in my opinion the hardest sport there is. But I’d give anything to do it all over again.

    • you could replace anything with “the salt mine” and it would sound horrid. Replace it in “school”, for one: “I go to the salt mine 8 hours a day, and can’t even escape its responsibilities when I’m home”

      Anyways, gymnastics may not be the safest of sports, but it certainly is one of the most impacting and educational. The choice to continue is a personal one, as is any other in life (hopefully).

  3. Love your commitment! Don’t miss the insane sacrifices this sport demands of not only the gymnast, but my non-gymnast children. It’s a great sport that teaches such discipline, dedication, and perseverance. Not convinced the work has that much “pay off”.

  4. reading this as the mom of an 8yo lvl 4 gymnast who had her first injury just a week before her 1st meet as level 4 and she wanted to still compete (sprained ankle, rolled it walking down the rod floor go figure). crying in the doctor’s office when i said i didn’t want her to.
    she did compete but just 2 of the 4 events for the first two meets. this is only her 2nd full year competing and already i worry about what would fill her time if she couldn’t do gymnastics. it’s all she wants to do.
    still trying to figure out how to balance a family life of trying to fit in seeing family who live 1/2 across the country with no time off and taking time off could delay picking up a much desired skill. lol. it’s a family commitment and if she advances to level 6 next year, it’s going to get even worse. but it’s a fun ride and i love watching her do what she loves.

    • I think my mom would tell you to take it in stride! Time off always does some good even if the coaches don’t approve. I always enjoyed days off (even if it was rare) and usually came back refreshed. You’ll find a good balance that works for you and your family as she continues in the sport. Good luck to your daughter and I hope her ankle heals quickly 😊

  5. If only I had seen this 5 years ago, when I was forced to leave gymnastics as a Junior in High School, due to 2 fractures in my spine. I spent the next year and a half in high school miserably trying to find out who I was, in the middle of a small school where I was only known as the gymnast. Thank you for writing this. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better expression of everything I’ve felt. You aren’t alone in this. Good Luck!

    • I removed my daughter from gymnastics after developing stress fractures in her spine. The broken finger, rolled ankles and concussion came with the turf, but I drew the line at the spine! She didn’t speak to me for about a month. (and she was only a level 5). She was not going to be an elite, or collegiate gymnast so I didn’t feel a lifetime of pain was worth it. Thankfully, when she hit high school marching band became her new life. But all those hours in the gym have still paid off for her. She learned commitment, organization and determination more in gymnastics than in any other pursuit. She still says she misses the gym, as do I. The years in the gym show in her marching and her bearing in JROTC (lock those knees out!). There is simply no other sport or pursuit (maybe dance) like gymnastics. It is beautiful and harsh. It will fill your life, but it will break your heart.

  6. I think all sports teach great life lessons and gymnastics is one of the toughest. I was a gymnast and now coach the sport. The love and dedication I gave and continue to give the sport has prepared me for the toughest job of all, a parent. Struggle and adversity build character and I believe we would be better off as a society if more people were exposed to it and taught how to handle anything life throws at them. Life is like a sewer, get back what you put into it. If you have a passion that is your life and will always be a part of you. It can be music, art,sports,charity,etc. Either way In the long run hardwork and commitment will not steer you wrong.

  7. Not a gymnast, but can relate to this in growing up rodeoing. Lots of hard work, time, dedication, “silent tears.” I too, had to take a step back due to horses injuries and had the same “identity crisis.” Here’s what I can pass on to you from what I have learned: Our only identity that can never be taken from us is our identity in Jesus Christ. He fulfills and gives joy unlike any other, even the joy of gymnastics (or for me, horses). Submitting to Him and trusting Him to do what He says is the hardest part, but I promise He is faithful and it is worth it! I am so grateful for the set backs I had that made me re-evaluate my life and find my true identity. God bless and I’ll be praying for you!

  8. Pingback: Sabrina Thomas reflects on her career - Gymnastics Coaching.com

  9. Pingback: Sabrina Thomas reflects on her career | Excellent Liquid Chalk for Weight Lifting

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