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The Absurdity of a Gymnastics Meet

I did gymnastics for eight years before I quit the sport in high school, and the competitions that demanded perfection from athletes barely out of grade school were unique experiences that are hard to forget.

With colorful balloons in the background and medals around their necks, gymnasts salute the audience during an awards ceremony at the end of a day of competition. I am on the far left, competing for Gym Corner Gymnastics. Photo by Heidi Rinkenberger

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Even though I quit gymnastics three years ago, one competition has stayed with me to this day.

It was probably toward the end of my competing career, but I don’t remember the year. 

We had just moved to the floor exercise, the event where we mixed dance and acrobatics in a routine on the floor. I was assigned to perform second, so I had to watch a girl from another team perform before me.

We stood at attention in leotards and scrunchies, the coldness seeping through our bare feet on the concrete floor.

I wanted to move, to get my blood moving, but we were required to stand still, our posture as straight as the line on the mat dividing us and the competition floor.

The silence in the cavernous repurposed basketball gym was deafening, so quiet I could hear the slow breathing of the girl in front of me.

People watched each performance, their bursts of loud applause at the end of each routine echoing through the gym and ending as suddenly as it had begun.

Their unblinking stares felt like lasers, overly invested mothers and fathers who rivaled their own daughters’ competitive drive for the sport.

They view any other girl as a stepping stone on their daughter’s path to Olympic greatness and full-ride college scholarships. 

They shifted on the makeshift metal bleachers when the judges raised their right arms in unison, signaling the beginning of the next routine.

The girl in front of me had her hair in the standard bun, each strand held in place by silvery glitter hairspray to match the silver scrunchie. 

She took a deep breath, and I could see her ribs before she exhaled. 

Her leotard, black with silver sequins feathering around her waist and down her arms, shimmered in the harsh unobstructed ceiling lights.

She stepped toe first onto the floor mat, extending her arms with a flourish, begging the judges to smile favorably on her and give her a perfect score.

The music started with a crash, and she was off, an actress on a stage. 

From one corner of the mat to the other, she ran into her approach and flipped through the air, a bird weighed down by gravity.

Her form was perfect, but her landing drew gasps from the usually silent crowd as she rolled her ankle. 

The girl kept going, her face a mask of the pain I knew she had to be feeling.

She couldn’t afford to stop, not with her score depending upon her performance.

Her smile was stretched too thin across her face, but her body moved on its own, performing the routine she had spent thousands of hours’ worth of practice perfecting.

The music crescendoed and she twirled to face the judges, saluting to mark the end of the 90-second presentation before three people she had never met.

The girl gracefully glided to the edge of the mat.

As soon as she stepped off, she started limping, practically falling into the arms of one of her teammates, who guided her to her duffel bag.

She sat down, wrapped the offending ankle in athletic tape, and stood up again, watching the glowing screen next to the judges for her score.

There was no smile on her face anymore. She was not trying to impress the judges right now. She had to get ready for the next event.

I remember this event, particularly because of the girl’s expression. 

She was determined to finish the meet despite the potential to further injure her ankle. 

I do not know her outcome, if her coach pulled her from the next event or if she did compete. 

She may have finished the meet completely fine and still be competing today, but I remember thinking, wishing – just for a second – that it had been me who rolled my ankle.

I thought it would be nice to have an excuse to not compete for awhile. 

Before I could dwell on that thought, the judges saluted me, I saluted back, and I entered stage right and began my act.

Gymnastics demands perfection.

Athletes start as early as preschool, and the desire for the perfect 10.0 comes hand in hand with the desire to compete. 

With only four events and just one chance per event at each meet, months of literal blood, sweat and tears will be put on display in one day in hopes of a perfect score per the judgment of three people you don’t even know. 

While some thrive on this type of competition, it was eating me alive, each meet gnawing away at my mind as I constantly second-guessed my ability to perform before the judges.

Some athletes view injuries as events to train or compete through rather than a cautionary sign from their body telling them to take a break.

I would obsess over every little mistake from each routine for days after the competition, replaying each wobble and error like a particularly annoying song on mainstream radio. 

For me, the desire for perfection turned into a need for perfection to the point where my life revolved around each competition in a very unhealthy way. 

Realizing that my love of the fun flips and tricks was being overshadowed by the necessity to be perfect in every aspect of competition forced me to relinquish my participation in the sport in order to keep my sanity.

Gymnastics had become my identity, making every little mistake seem monumental.

Although I do not compete anymore, I hope others find joy in the sport, remembering to keep in mind that there is more to life than gymnastics.

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Isabel Rinkenberger

Isabel Rinkenberger

Isabel Rinkenberger is a staff journalist and editor for MBU Timeline. She is majoring in journalism and hopes to either enter the publishing world or work in a journalistic setting upon graduation. Running both cross country and track for MBU, she also enjoys baking and designing websites in her limited free time.

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