Grieving for and appreciating the sport that’s taken a beating since the Nassar scandal.
It’s been more than 16 years since I stepped into a gym as a competitive gymnast — but fewer than 16 months since I began struggling with grief and anger when the full horrors of the Larry Nassar abuse scandal unfolded. The former USA Gymnastics national team physician and trainer has now been accused of abusing more than 300 women and girls under the guise of medical treatments for sports injuries.
The brave women who have come forward, the advocates such as Olympic Gold Medalist Dominique Moceanu speaking up and out on behalf of other athletes — and especially the bravery of my beloved coach Trudi Kollar, the world-class gymnast with whom I trained at Geza Pozsar’s national training center in Sacramento, California – as well as journalists like Rachel Nichols who have tried to separate a sport we love from the ugly questions that sometimes seems to linger around it post-#MeToo — all of these people have inspired me to try to understand the questions that have been haunting me for months:
How can we move forward knowing what we know? How can we still show love for a sport that’s given us so much while grieving for our losses? And what should we do with our anger for those who seem to have stolen some of its beauty?
Inspired by NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Dear Basketball,” I’m letting gymnastics know how grateful I am for its many gifts. And what gives me hope is that the very essence of gymnastics that perhaps made us most vulnerable is also what gave many women the strength to speak up — and what will give us the courage to go on.
Courage. Pride. Strength. That’s what little girls are made of.
For as long as I can remember, you were always there for me. You were there when I was tired and broken down. When I was alone and had nowhere else to turn.
You asked so much of me and I gave you everything I had.
The blood, sweat, chalk, tears. Yes, I did it for you.
Because I was so little when you first caught my attention, I’ve asked my mother how I first fell in love with you. It apparently started with a coupon. (She was ahead of her time — this was pre-Groupon.)
My older sisters went to try out a class at the local gym teaching gymnastics on the east side of Cincinnati, and I tagged along. Being the sweet girls they were, they shared everything they loved with me; and naturally, I wanted to do whatever it was they were doing. They were (and still are), after all, my heroes.
I was just 3 years old.
If only my mother had known that coupon would lead to nearly 15 years of training, competitions, icing injuries, coaches coming and going, heartbreak, triumph, and everything in between.
Or maybe she did.
“Look at that little girl!” the mothers would say from behind the glass windows in the stuffy gym lobby. “Who is she?”
At the gym, being little was OK. I was free to be myself. I wasn’t bullied or taunted like on the playground or on the school bus or at ballet school where the other girls and boys made me believe there was something wrong with being different.
At the gym, I was strong. I was focused. I was determined. I studied every gymnastics VHS tape I could get my hands on for hours and hours a day — memorizing every routine, each pointed toe, and every extended finger. I wrote down the hundreds of extra conditioning moves I put in at home and turned them into my training team coach on tiny pieces of paper. I watched the 1984 TV Movie “Nadia” so many times the video tape had to be repaired and eventually retired.
I was 7.
But you tested me time and time again, Gymnastics. Mental toughness? Overcoming fears? Forget about it. As a teenager, I thought my parents’ divorce was tough, but you gave me something tougher: You taught me I could master skills I never imagined even attempting, that I could find friends who understood me in a way I never thought I would find in this lifetime. Thank God, or who knows what would have become of me?
And you prepared us well for this — for this assault now — and probably for almost any attack on our integrity physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.
I didn’t know that the toughness you gave me would be needed long after I gave up my tiny leos, grips, and all those rolls of trainer’s tape. (So many rolls.) Or at least not as urgently or acutely as it was this past year for myself and so many other women like me.
Did you call us to you just to show us how strong we could be?
That little girls could not only fly — but could rise?
That we could stand tall in our wisdom and integrity while remaining physically small?
As my body grew tired and worn down, I never stopped loving you, Gymnastics. I tried to keep going as long as I could. Though I fell short of my Olympic dream, I want you to know how grateful I am and how much I miss you.
And how much I’m cheering you on for the next generation of girls who will need you like I did before, during, and after the storm.
Courage. Pride. Strength. That’s what big girls are made of.
May you lift them up as you’ve done for me. Until then, I’ll see you in my dreams.