Biographies & Memoirs

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Chapter 2

Missteps

I wiped the sweat from my brow and stared at the parallel bars (or p-bars, as we called them). Even though the gym was about a thousand degrees, I was wearing long pants. Normally, we worked out in shorts, but for certain pieces of equipment, like p-bars, we wore pants to protect ourselves.

“Come on, Alex,” said Coach. “Again! I’ll spot you.”

Coach had a thick, aggressive European accent, so pretty much everything he said sounded stern. Then again, pretty much everything he said was stern. Some students disliked him for it, but I appreciated how much he pushed us. I hate it when adults assume I can’t take something seriously just because I’m young, or when they lie to “protect” me. I’d always rather know the truth, and Coach never held back. . . .

To prepare for getting back on the p-bars, I rubbed fresh chalk onto my hands, which were already sore from an intense workout. Our training sessions were three to four hours long. From the moment we walked in the door to the second we ran gratefully out into the cold night air, Coach worked us. If we were even a minute late, he would make us climb the rope ten times. The ceiling was a good fifty feet up. By the time we were done climbing, our arms and abs burned. And that was before we started warming up, which included push-ups, running, and hundreds of sit-ups. Only then would we actually practice our events!

Even though it was only February, I was already contacting special summer programs for Olympic hopefuls, because that’s how seriously I took gymnastics. Coach and I were working on a double pirouette, which is when you do a handstand on the bar and then spin around in a circle, shifting your weight carefully so you stay absolutely straight the entire time. The one little complication? You do it all one-handed. I was determined to get it right.

“Up!” Coach said, and clapped his burly hands. I positioned myself between the bars and piked up to a handstand. Tiny drops of sweat covered my chest and mixed with the chalk dust to form a layer of slick gray mud all over my body.

Maybe it was the sweat that did it. Maybe my hands were slippery or my arms were just tired from the workout. But as I put all my weight onto my right side and began my pirouette, my arm buckled. I tried to straighten out, to keep my bones stacked neatly so that I wasn’t depending on just my muscles to hold me up, but it was no use.

“Alex!” I heard Coach yell as I tumbled on top of him. His hands grabbed me, trying to guide me gently to the ground, but I was moving too fast. I careened into the equipment. My right leg slammed hard into the p-bars, and I yelled.

This wasn’t the first time I’d fallen off a piece of equipment. Accidents are a part of life for any athlete, and I’d even broken a finger once before. But right away I could tell this was different. It hurt like my leg had been immersed in boiling water.

“Are you okay?” Coach asked. We were sitting on the ground, though I didn’t remember getting there.

I gritted my teeth and nodded. “I’m fine, Coach.”

“Training isn’t over!” Coach snapped, sending everyone running back to their equipment. He peeled away the bottom part of my pant leg to reveal a bloody, bruised mess where my right shin used to be. It felt inflamed, like there was a hot-water balloon right beneath my skin. Coach sent an assistant for an ice pack and carefully helped me clean the cut.

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “It’s good for you to get through this. Gymnastics is all about working through the pain.”

That might sound crazy to some people, but pain is part of the game. Coach always reminded us about Kerri Strug, who tore two ligaments while vaulting at the ’96 Olympics but continued competing until she literally collapsed. Her team won a Gold Medal thanks to her dedication. Endurance was a virtue we had drilled into us—and one that would come back to haunt me as a dancer years from now.

So I told Coach I was fine, and he let me sit out the last few minutes of the session. I spent it holding the ice pack to my leg, trying to will the swelling to go down.

And that’s when I made a big mistake.

Instead of calling my mom and going to the doctor immediately, I tried to hide it. While everyone else headed to the lockers, I squinted my eyes, looked at my leg, and decided it wasn’t that bad.

“Work through the pain,” I whispered.

Even though gymnastics was my main focus, I was still dancing pretty regularly. I wanted to be an Olympian, but dance . . . dance made my soul sing. I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I had to fit it in around my training schedule, though, so I often went right from one workout to another. By the end of the day, I was always exhausted, but I told myself that doing one helped the other. Dancing worked my rhythm, endurance, and balance, while gymnastics pushed my strength and flexibility. Everyone told me I had to focus on something, but I wanted to do it all.

The next day, dance class was a mess. My teacher could tell instantly that I was injured and called my mom. By the time I got home, my shin looked like it had a giant purple football attached to it.

“You’re not going to the Invitational,” Mom said. The Invitational was our next big meet, the one I’d been training for all month. I knew the look on her face. It was the one that said arguing would get me nowhere.

“But—” I couldn’t help it. My team was depending on me.

“No,” said Mom, and I knew there was no way I was going.

Or at least, there was no way I was competing. But because Matt and I were on the same team, I begged her to let me go watch.

“It’ll boost morale to have Alex there,” Coach told my mom. “And we won’t put him up.”

The doctor said I had a fracture, but that it would heal normally if I took care of it and didn’t do anything. I was frustrated. Just walking on my leg hurt! And I didn’t want my career as a gymnast to end before I was even in my teens. So I gritted my teeth, took the doctor’s advice, and did nothing.

It was the worst week ever.

By the time we got to Minnesota, I was totally psyched to win. There was a good chance that we might walk away with individual and team awards.

I had to keep reminding myself that I’d only be cheering this time. I tried not to worry about my injury, or how not competing would look to the Olympic training programs. I needed time to heal. Worrying about things beyond my control was a quick road to crazy town. This was an important lesson my parents and my church had taught me: take care of the things you can take care of. Leave the rest to God.

I just hoped that God wanted me to go to the Olympics too.

“Good luck!” Mom said as we entered the gym. She gave Matt a big hug, then turned to me. “You sure you don’t want to sit with me?”

I shook my head. I wanted to be as close to the action as possible. She headed up to find her seat in the bleachers, while Matt and I went down to the floor.

“Race you!” Matt said, when he spotted our teammates. I pointed to my leg.

“Guess I win!” He smiled.

As soon as I’m better . . . I thought.

It was just one more reminder that I wasn’t competing. Talk about a total bummer. Thankfully, the entire team was in a great mood, and they kept my spirits up as the day went on.

“Next time, I get to sit on the bench and relax,” joked Matt as he went to do his pommel-horse routine. I smiled, but I would have given anything to switch places with him.

In event after event, our team did really well. It was clear that we were one of the ones to watch.

Why did I have to be injured for this competition, of all competitions? I thought. It was so unfair. God has a reason for everything, but sometimes those reasons are really hard to understand.

The competition was down to the last few events when I noticed Coach staring at me. As I watched, he waved the meet director over. They whispered to each other for a few seconds. Coach looked down at his score sheet. Then he came over to me.

“Warm up,” he said.

“But, Coach, I’m not—” I protested.

“The team needs you,” he said firmly. “The vault. Get ready.”

Then he walked away.

It would be an understatement to say that I had no idea what to do. I desperately wanted to compete, and if I scored well, there was a chance our team could take first place. Plus, in gymnastics, you do what your coach says. But the doctor had told me to lay off my leg completely, and I knew Mom would go through the roof when she saw me compete.

“Alex!” called out Coach. “Hurry up.”

What could I do? I knew it was wrong, but I started stretching.

The swelling in my leg had gone down, but there was still a big purple lump on my shin, and it hurt when I did too much. But the team was depending on me.

“Work through the pain,” I told myself as I practiced my splits. “Work through the pain.”

The vault was my best event, hands down. I was little for my age, and I could flip over the vaulting table like I’d been launched from a slingshot. And, I told myself, it wasn’t like I was doing floor work, which was really tough on my shin.

But what about your landing? a little voice whispered in my head. How’s your leg gonna handle that?

I was planning a front handspring vault, a move with which I was very familiar. It was difficult, but I could land it. I felt the excitement rushing through me. By the time I stepped up to the vault, my leg didn’t hurt at all.

At least, I didn’t feel any pain. As I threw myself into my move, my leg didn’t even twitch. I hit my handspring perfectly.

Yes! I thought. I’d made the right decision. Coach and the team would be proud, and Mom and my doctor would understand.

Then I hit the ground.

I had so much adrenaline in my system that I didn’t feel anything other than a weird weakness. For some reason, my right leg wouldn’t hold up, as though it were made of paper. I prided myself on always sticking my landings, but I couldn’t help it. In order to keep from falling over, I had to hop once—a definite deduction from my score. Thankfully, when I landed the second time, my leg didn’t betray me. It was a great vault, not perfect, but my body knew the move well.

Then Coach asked me to do my floor routine—something my leg definitely wasn’t ready for. But it was my second-best event, and I’d done well on the vault, so . . .

I did it.

I started off strong, but my leg couldn’t hold. After I completed my most difficult pass, I couldn’t stop. My leg felt like it would collapse if I tried to stand still, so hop, hop, hop I went. After the third hop, I finally got my leg to hold up. It was far from the best floor routine I’d ever done, but I hoped it would be enough to put my team in first place. Then I looked down at the ground, and my heart sank.

I had crossed the fault line. Automatic deduction for going out of bounds. That had never happened to me—ever. There went our chances of winning.

And that’s when the pain came back. I think I blacked out a little, because the next thing I remember seeing was Mom, who had raced down to the floor. Parents aren’t allowed near the athletes, so she couldn’t get to me, or to any of the coaches on our team.

“Alex!” she yelled. “Are you all right?”

I nodded. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done any real damage, but I was embarrassed and ashamed. I’d wanted to win, and I’d put that before my own health. I was all set for her to yell at me.

But instead, she turned on my coaches. I don’t know if I’d ever seen her that upset or scared. She was always the calm, rational one. But not that day. I almost felt bad for Coach! Then she called Dmitri on his cell. He wasn’t at the meet because he was coaching the big boys (that’s what we called the University of Iowa’s men’s team). Dmitri agreed with her that I shouldn’t have been competing. Though it made him really sad, he understood why she had to do what she did next.

“No more,” she said to me, after the medics had looked at my leg. “You could have been seriously injured—even paralyzed. You’re not doing gymnastics anymore.”

This time, I didn’t argue. I knew it would get me nowhere. And more than that, she was right. Gymnastics was a dangerous sport, and even though I loved Dmitri and my team, I needed to take care of myself.

I don’t fault anyone for what happened (other than myself)—that’s just the way the sport is. You have to love it enough to give it everything. When my leg collapsed beneath me, I realized: I didn’t love gymnastics enough.

Luckily, I’d found something I really did love.

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