Courtesy of MCT
I was 7 years old when I quit gymnastics.
I had been taking lessons for years before one of the gym directors approached my parents about me joining the travel team. The opportunity would have elevated the competition significantly – and the time commitment. My parents both worked, and my Mom mostly on the weekends. There was no way they could commit to driving me around the state for this or that meet every weekend.
We had recently moved, and the gym had become an extra 20 minutes away. All things considered, they decided it was best if I quit the sport before I became too attached.
From what I’ve been told since then, I wasn’t too disappointed about it. Sure, I missed the big foam pit standard at any gym that accommodates little kids, but I was preoccupied with my new school, new friends and my new soccer team, which conveniently met in the field behind my house.
For all of my childhood, I hardly gave the sport a thought, but as I grew older and started paying attention to the Olympics, my short few years of gymnastics lessons became a glamorous exaggeration of what they really were.
I joke that every four years I get the opportunity to resent my parents for taking me out of gymnastics, because it’s my favorite sport to watch on TV. The girls have always seemed so normal, and about my age, which made them more fascinating in every way.
I love watching them fly through the air on the uneven bars, perform seemingly impossible tricks on the balance beam and cheer each other on through the ups and downs. I like to imagine what I would do in their place.
When the 1996 Olympics were going on, and the Magnificent Seven were dominating the TV screens, I remember playing with the Olympic Barbie doll my Mom got me, the one I couldn’t tell my brother about because it was a special toy I got when he wasn’t with us. I remember thinking that I wanted to be in the Olympics someday.
All kids have dreams like this. The dream to be an astronaut, a famous pop star, an Olympian. For one reason or another, most of us abandon them. We either grow out of them, that “phase” passes or we eventually realize that they just aren’t going to happen.
I think that we love to watch the Olympics because those athletes represent all the childhood dreams we look back on with nostalgia, the ones that make us say “what if.”
These teenage gymnasts will never look back on their childhood and ask themselves what if they had stuck with the first dreams they ever had. Michael Phelps doesn’t have to look back at his kiddie swim league and wonder how good he could have been if he’d stuck it out.
These athletes never changed course, they kept on pushing for something so improbable, so impractical, and to me, everything about that is admirable.
My Olympic dream was exchanged for a normal childhood and less hectic weekends for my parents. It’s fun to think about what could have been, but I am happy for the opportunities I’ve had that these Olympians have not.
The opportunity to have sleepovers with friends, eat anything I want, and endless summers playing outside with neighborhood kids are things that were denied to these athletes in order to train and prepare for their respective sports. We only see them every four years when they’re thrown into the national spotlight for winning gold medals and breaking world records, it’s easy to forget about all those pesky years of behind-the-scenes training and dedication.
From what my Mom has told me, by the time I was being pulled out of gymnastics my heart wasn’t in it, and my interests had moved on. Thirteen years of fondly looking back on the experience has fogged some of the more gritty details, leaving only the wide-eyed effect a gigantic jungle gym can have on a little kid.
I will never compete in the Olympics – that’s for sure. But I like to think that every four years, I have the opportunity to think about whether that little girl clutching a Barbie behind her back so her brother can’t see would be proud of the person I turned out to be anyway.
Gold medal or not.