Every four years the world turns its focus on the Olympics and gymnastics is put at center stage. No one thinks that being a gymnast is easy. How many people can even conceive of flipping and tumbling and throwing their bodies in the air the way these young girls do? But knowing that being a gymnast is hard isn’t the same as understanding what these girls give up in order to be the best.
There are whispers of abuse and danger. Books like Little Girls In Pretty Boxes reveal some of this world but until 1986 US Champion Jennifer Sey’s Chalked Up it was only a distant, impersonal reality. With Sey’s autobiography we get a chance to really delve into the world of gymnastics and understand what it means to be the best.
Chalked Up shows the abusive coaches, the stage parents, the injuries, but what’s more, it shows the gymnasts. This isn’t simply a tale of finger pointing and accusation. While the coaches can certainly be faulted (for pushing unhealthy weight loss and pushing athletes to compete when not fully healed from injuries) and parents can be blamed (for pushing their kids further and not protecting them from verbal abuse), the girls push themselves just as hard. Kerri Strug is the perfect example. In the 1996 Olympics she competed on vault despite and injured foot, ensuring Team USA’s gold medal. Where most Americans view Kerri Strug’s as an amazing feat for her team, in that competitive world, few gymnasts would not have done the same.
Sey accepts much of the responsibility for her stressful childhood. She emphasizes her own competitive nature, repeating more than once that had it not manifested itself in gymnastics, it would have found its way to something else. “One cannot endure the intensity of the practices, the physical demands, the injuries and the stress of high level competitions unless there is an innate and fiery drive inside.” (California Literary Review, June 2, 2008)
Being a competitive gymnast means dedicating your life, your childhood to the sport, at a very young age. (Bela Karolyi discovered and began to mold Nadia Commenici at age 6.) And rarely with any pay off. Training is expensive and unless you earn medals in the Olympics, you won’t likely earn any money to make up for the deficit. What starts as parents trying to give their children the best, what their children want, suddenly becomes a sacrifice for the whole family. And once you’ve sacrificed so much, how can you risk ending it all? Reading Sey’s portrayal of her family is perhaps as, if not more, fascinating than what she has to say about the coaches.
For anyone who is interested in gymnastics, in what it takes to achieve excellence, this is a book worth reading. It’s honest and shocking, exposing a side of the sport that is often ignored.
What I find most fascinating is that despite everything she’s gone through, Sey says that it was all worth it.
Interested in reading? Buy the book: Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics