April 5, 2014.
That is the day my gymnastics career ended. I knew it was coming. I had a finite expiration date for the sport that I had loved since the age of five. On that day, life as I knew it fundamentally shifted, and I have been working to make sense of that ever since.
I never expected it to be this hard. To be honest, I don’t actually know what I expected. My life revolved so entirely around gymnastics that until my time actually came to be done, I could not even begin to realize what life would be like in its absence.
Different. Life is utterly, completely, and entirely different. And yet, not much has changed. I’m mad at my alarm when it goes off in the morning. I eat and sleep, and crack a sarcastic joke that probably gets me in trouble. I obsessively drink my coffee, sometimes too much. Yet, there is a part of me that never made it out of my past life.
I didn’t think I would miss those seven hour practices from hell. But I do.
I didn’t think I would miss hours upon hours of conditioning. But I do.
I didn’t think I would miss early morning practices, when the gym is still cold and no one is awake yet. But I do.
Those long, draining practices? They leave you feeling accomplished.
Those hours on hours of conditioning? They leave you feeling strong.
Those early mornings spent in the gym? You leave knowing that you’ve accomplished more than a lot of people will all day, and before most people are even awake.
Gymnastics looks glamorous. It looks like leotards, glitter, ribbons, flips, and smiles. What it doesn’t look like is bloody hands, aching bodies, tears, frustration, and the thousands of times I have landed on my face over the years. But, these are the things that make gymnasts so damn tough. We learn, at an early age, to smile through injuries. To pretend our bodies aren’t aching. To get up, over and over again, and try it again. Just one more time. We make the impossible look easy, and do it with smiles on our faces.
Most successful gymnasts get that way because of a few certain traits. We are hyper-competitive perfectionists, usually with obsessive personalities. This makes us successful at a sport that demands up to 40 hours a week of practice – in high school. That’s the same as a full-time job. But, that’s an environment we thrive in.
These traits allow us to succeed in a demanding, difficult, unfair sport. A sport that doesn’t take a break for an off-season. A sport where, if you aren’t completely engaged mentally, you could end up paralyzed, or worse. A sport that is judged entirely on appearance. Most of the time, the judging isn’t fair, and this is something we have to learn to swallow at a young age.
My relationship with gymnastics lasted 16 years. But the lessons I learned will last even longer. What did I learn?
To be wholly and completely dedicated to something.
To set goals, and to work my ass off to achieve them.
The importance of making a commitment and staying true to it.
How to be a good teammate.
How to manage my time; being a full-time college student as well as an athlete is no simple task.
Mental toughness. You don’t get up on a beam in front of a few thousand people without this.
Failure. I failed all the time. Every single day. I failed at practice, I failed at meets. I failed to overcome mental blocks.
But I also learned:
How to learn from failure and ultimately put it behind me.
How to be successful as well as humble.
What I am willing to sacrifice. Growing up, I sacrificed any resemblance of a social life because, that’s right, I was at the gym. But, I don’t regret that sacrifice, because ultimately it allowed me to achieve my goal of competing in college.
To be stronger than I ever thought possible. From competing through a stress fracture for nearly an entire season to moving away from home in order to achieve my goals, this sport put me to the test over and over again. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Gymnastics was so rewarding for me. I earned a full-ride scholarship to an amazing college, met my best friends, experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and learned my biggest life lessons. However, its absence has left a part of me empty. Some days, I don’t think about it much. I go about my day, and don’t really notice the emptiness that lies deep down. I spend other days fighting back the tears that threaten to overcome me.
I miss the gym as my sanctuary and happy place. When I walked into the gym, everything else disappeared. Whatever I was worried about, it didn’t exist for those few hours.
Life goes on. This year is a little easier than the last. And I presume next year will be better than this one. But I don’t think the emptiness will ever go away – and I am learning to be okay with that. I am learning to let the emptiness be a part of me – rather than let it consume me entirely. To let it remind me that although that part of my life is over, it will always be a part of who I am. I no longer get to use gymnastics as my only identity, and for better or for worse I have to figure out who I am without it.
Gymnastics was once my whole life. But it’s not anymore.
Thank you, gymnastics, for showing me the highest of highs. Hitting a routine when my team was counting on me most is perhaps the happiest I have ever been. Thank you for teaching me how to stand back up from the lowest of lows. Thank you for showing me what it means to be committed, focused, and invested in something you truly care about. Thank you for teaching me the value of hard work.
And thank you for allowing me to fly.
Featured image via Washington Husky Gymnastics.
This is amazing. I did gymnastics most of my life, until college actually. SO I definitely understand this. If there’s anything I miss, it’s honestly the conditioning. I was in such great shape then and I got to college and I had no idea how to workout without the gymnastics cardio!
Thanks so much for reading! I’m glad I’m not the only crazy one who actually misses conditioning haha
Same! I did gymnastics for about 7 years (not too long I know but still a good portion of life) and once I got to college it was hard to stay in the shape that I was when I did gymnastics. I read this and was like.. whoa.. I really AM hyper-competetive perfectionist haha. I couldn’t agree more about the way gymnastics gives someone the sense of striving for something you care about, having passion, commitment and being a well rounded teammate! GREAT read! Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for this. I was a second year level ten and a junior in highschool when I quit because of and injury that wouldn’t let me do 5 more years of this incredible sport. I never got to fulfill my dream of going to college for gymnastics. It’s been 4 years not and there are still days that I just cry because I know I’ll never be able to do a layout on Beam or a double back on floor, but it was the most amazing time in my life and I’m so glad to know that it would have ended eventually….even if I had done college gymnastics, it wouldn’t have lasted and I would have had to grieve it just like I am now.
I’m so glad that I could help. This sport most definitely stays with you, regardless of when you have to stop. I also feel the same way about not being able to do certain skills anymore. It’s tough, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I’ll bet you wouldn’t either 🙂 Stay strong, girl!
I was the mother of a gymnast. I look back at the same things you write about Aliza. Gymnastics not only affects the gymnast but those close who support them. As her mother I remember the first beginnings at the YMCA when so tiny she started with cartwheels and somersaults. How proud I was when the teacher told me she needed more than they could give her at four. So we found a great gym…and her journey began…level 5 through 10…until her last and final meet where I sat choking back the tears. I remember the good times, the bad and the daily struggles involved. Watching her get over her fears and maturing and becoming the woman she is today. Gymnastics is a tough sport….both mentally and physically. I remember when she finally got her first kip, the first giant…the first double back. I remember the tears when she had terrible warm-ups, her hands so worn with blisters. I remember her soft breathing on the ride home as she slept. There would be no more traveling to meets, buying leotards and grips….no more dance classes, sitting with the mothers that really became more like my sisters. No need for my video camera…or to pay tuition….no more 45-minute drives (one way) in all sorts of weather. I really felt like my heart was breaking. Not only was she moving on, getting older and wiser…I too was moving on and away from the time we spent together. Every memory, moment was precious…and I will cherish them forever.
I can only imagine how she felt. Pride, relief, sadness…I felt them too.
I am blessed. Today I sit with her at a gym…and together we watch my two granddaughters doing the same things she did.
Loved your story….
Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful response. I truly enjoyed reading your story. I have many of those memories as well, and I enjoyed reading your perspective on them. Keep enjoying this great sport!
I, too, was a gymnast’s mother. I experienced the same as Diane (above). Now I am the mother of a gymnastic coach and the grandmother of a future gymnast. My daughter could not leave the gym so she began teaching and coaches the optional levels at a local gym. I look forward to the day my granddaughter (2 yrs old) begins competing. We will have gone full circle.
I definitely understand! I am coaching now as well, and although it is certainly a different sort of challenge, I’m thankful that I still get to be involved with the sport I love.
Thank you for reading and sharing your story as well!
I was not a gymnast but an equine vaulter (which is basically doing gymnastics on a cantering horse). I had to stop because of an injury last year as well and I really felt what you were writing about. When you dedicate your life to a sport you love, it will never really leave you. Because it did teach you great lessons and you will always be able to feel what it was like to fly through the air!
That sounds so incredibly cool! I’m sorry you got injured, but it seems like you have a really healthy attitude about the whole thing. Thanks for reading!
I was at your last meet with my daughter, who does gymnastics! We loved watching you perform and miss you at the meets last year and this year. Good luck in your continued transition. I had to end my dancing early due to injury and it’s very hard to adjust when the terms aren’t your own. Congrats again to a great gymnast and fellow Husky!
No way, that’s awesome! I appreciate the kind words. And thanks for continuing to go to meets and support the program!
Find a way to stay in gymnastics, since the love for this beautiful, tough, amazing sport in life-long 😉 You can be an excellent coach, mentor, inspiration for young gymnasts. All the best!
I was never a gymnast myself, but my sister was and through her I discovered gymnastics and am still obssesed after 30 years.. Now I am a national gymnastic judge an mom of 2 girl and one little boy gymnasts.
I actually do coach right now! It’s most definitely a different sort of challenge, but I’m thankful that I still get to spend time in the gym and share the sport I love with the next generation.
I spent 10 years in the gym, and never anticipated how much I would miss it when I walked away. I really never thought that I would find another “happy place” like that. In my late 20’s, I started running (a lot), rather by accident. It’s not the same, but I find so many parallels – the loss of the rest of the world for a few hours, the chance to fly (albeit differently so), the challenges and failures and the camaraderie with my fellow runners. I hope, in time, you’ll find something else that fills that gap a little, in your new life.
Agree with J. Many of my old gymnastics teammates are still out there working hard, pursuing goals, and competing through running, triathlons or Crossfit. And of course coaching young gymnasts! Thanks, Aliza, for a great article that many former gymnasts can relate to.
Thank you for the kind words, Adela! I’m glad that the gymnastics community is still able to support each other, even in our retirement!
Those are definitely some of the things I miss most about gymnastics. I’m glad that running fills that void for you! I too hope I will find something like that one day. Thanks for reading!
Well said. Well written. l
we all feel the same way. love it all.
Any chance you could send me a pdf (complete w photos) copy so I can print it and hang it in my office ?
family physician and owner
Aliza this is a really wonderfully written tribute to the feelings of moving on from a sport that just takes hold of you and never truly let’s go. I competed internationally in trampoline for the UK for 6 years and even now, 14 years after my last competition I still sometimes feel the urge to fly and feel that perfect moment when a move just links together almost effortlessly. The space that is left is not always going to be a hole. Remember, a hole is the only thing in the world that gets smaller the more you add to it! You will fill up that space with new desires, new adventures and new loves. While the memories never leave they feel less and less like a loss and more like a wonderful experience that brings joy to think of.
Be sure to fly just as high in all your life’s endeavours as you did before in the gym, and good luck!
Wow.. Here I am 6 months after quitting and while trying to write a speech about “who are you” my first thought was well I’m a gymnast. My second thought was how stupid no your not, not anymore. The afternoon after my last competition in Greensboro North Carolina, my dad and I went to a cafe. The cafe had a really cool sign on the outside wall and I did a handstand and said hey take a picture! When posting to Facebook my caption read ” you can’t take a gymnast anywhere” then so many people started to reply with once a gymnast always a gymnast. It wasn’t until that point that I realized that i took gymnastics a such a big part of my identity. And now here 6 months later I still struggle with the idea of who really am I? And what am I doing with my life? When I was little I never thought I would quit gymnastics. It was just like you said my happy place. It didn’t matter what was going on at home, sickness fights, anything, I was safe and secure at the gym. It was my home away from home. My coaches became second parents and my teammates became siblings. As the years passed I realized that I had put an expiration date on my gymnastics career. Somewhere I decided after I graduated high school I would quit. Because there is not currently a college that takes trampoline and tumbling people. During high school I had dreams of going to a university about 2 hours away from home. Getting my degree and then applying to physical therapy school. Well long story short it was going to be very expensive and I could not make it happen. Even with maxed outstudent loans I would have to have a part time job just to live. So I ended up going to a community college. Well I graduated hogh school and I went to my last meet that summer, Nationals. It was so emotional and hard and exciting all at the same time. I would finally have a life, I wouldn’t send all my time with kids 5 years younger than me training gymnastics. I could be a normal teenager. Well i had been coaching since I quit gymnastics and about 3 weeks after nationals I got to work early and was playing on the equipment. (With permission) and doing a Rudy I fractured my femur mid shaft. In other words I broke the top part of my leg in the middle of it. Apparently the hardest bone to break and the hardest place to break it. Well I was to small for my hospital in town so I had to. Be sent to children’s for them to put a rod down my leg. I couldn’t walk without crutches or drive or do pretty much anything on my own for 8 weeks. It was awful. As if not being able to do gymnastics everyday wasn’t enough now I couldn’t workout at all not even walk! To say it was hard would be an understatement it was so painful, and I had to relearn how to walk. It took 3 full months before I could walk normally. Just now at 4 1/2 months I am starting to run again. Even though it is technically gymnastics fault I broke my leg I don’t know that I could have gotten through it without having gymnastics in my past. Gym taught me how to push though, how to make it happen, I had awareness of my body because of it. So in saying that I guess it’s because of gymnastics I am able to do what I can today. But it still just really bothers me that I can’t go and do a standing back tuck when ever I want. So I guess what all my rambling is about is that I just am still trying to figure out what and who I am now, and it took a speech from some dumb community college professor to help me see that. I hope as time goes on I figure it out. I hope that gap that I am missing gets smaller.
To all of you, that feeling never goes away. Nearly 20yrs on I still identify myself as a gymnast. Which is silly really, but the way I stand, walk, hold myself, my physique, my mental strength, resilience and all those other traits you mention in your article, stand out in me – us. People comment on those qualities. You smile, and you know inside where they came from and it gives you immense satisfaction. I would not be the person I am today, physically or mentally, without those wonderful years of training, conditioning and competition. Even though living without gymnastics at 360° gets easier with time, I don’t think anything that has contributed so much to your being is easy to live without. I know my life is not complete without it.
I have been going with gymnastics for 11 years. So, while you think this is just some memorial to gymnastics, it is my motivation hearing all of your thoughts on retirement. About 1 year ago, all my passion and love for the sport left me hollow. This was because of my head coaches, we could hardly remember assistant coaches names before they would get mad enough at the head coaches and leave. Many ex-gymnasts would drop out and it was like they fell of the face of the earth because no one knew where they were. One coach I remember particularly well, left , but the head coaches would not let her say good bye. We would just wait until we didn’t see them. Thank you for reading my problems with gymnastics.
I love this article and the comments! When I left gymnastics my senior year of high school (after being ADDICTED to the sport), I was glad to leave. BUT I knew I would never Truely quit. Not forever. I k we I wanted to be a gymnast forever. Even after I haven’t done it for YEARS. I still know I’m going back. And I do, off and on throughout my life! Gymnastics and ballet! I am not great in either but I am FANTASTIC for me! And I was the only woman in basic trai,ing who pushed out 44 push ups in a 2 minute period before even beginning military training…..most could barely do 5! I have had several cool jobs,a couple careers, I adopted a beautiful child….but I am still going back to gymnastics, when the time is right (actually very soon!)
Jennifer Sinclair (class 3 in 1984,……now I am ???? A level 3! Maybe……and proud of working hard again!)
I started with those thoughts – Let me assure you the things you learned will serve you well outside of the gym for many years. I moved away from home at 13 to train, was briefly on the US team, competed at LSU. Then I blew out my knee. It felt like the end, but I had no idea – That was just the beginning! Life is long, use that experience to make your life amazing. You are so much stronger than others both physically and mentally. I became a news reporter, news anchor, supported dozens of charities, made some amazing kids (great athletic jeans to pass along) becam an executive at a software company, worked to take the company public… It just keeps going. Keep finding hard things to do and do them! Today I am riding my bike 250 miles for Alzhiemers Research and raised a bunch of money for them. Interesting this was on my feed today as I got up. You leave gymnastics with more grit and strength then you know. I highly encourage you to find knew tough things to tackle. You are just getting started and you have all the mental skills you need already!
When I was 8 I broke my leg at my gym. When I got back after about 4 months of being off I was a little rusty but not bad. I could have easily taken the time to catch up with my team mates and started competing again but one day my mom asked one of my coaches “do you think she can do team again?” And he said “Honestly I don’t think so. She’s already behind and it might take her awhile.” So me being so young said “then I guess I should just quit.” So my mom supported me and I quit. 4 years latter I am a coming up on the day I broke my leg and I’m just sitting here crying. I miss it so much and to think I just threw it all away because of one persons opinion. I have done things I would rather not do again but quitting gymnastics is the one thing I whole heartedly regret.
This is a beautiful article! I am about to graduate high school and just recently had my last meet I’ll ever compete in. I’m having a hard time trying to wrap my head around not having gymnastics as one of the biggest parts of my life anymore. This made me feel a little better today, thank you for putting the feelings so perfectly!