At the gym the other day, I saw a news story about a young gymnast by the name of Shawn Johnson.
It was one of those “athlete overcomes great obstacles” stories, complete with resplendent American flags and violins. I usually don’t fall for this sort of thing, but I have to say that Shawn is a spark plug.
This 20-year-old just dropped out of this summer’s Olympics, leaving everything she has worked for behind. She began training when many of us were still figuring out how to tie our shoes. Her entire life has been early mornings and muscle rubs and laundry loads of leotards. On top of that, she knows what it’s like to hear an entire stadium roar for her—roar for the sight of her body in perfected motion.
She was forced into this decision due to an old skiing injury to her knee. She’d been on a ski trip with friends, not training or pursuing the gold. She could be bitter. She could be doing PSA’s about the dangers of skiing. But she bowed out with dignity and a smile. She knew, she said, that her ride was over.
This girl struck me because I was a girl gymnast, too.
I was never elite, unless you count attendance. I could bound and cartwheel and back handspring with gusto, but I had the grace of a Clydesdale and the timing of an unwound coo-coo clock. I had dedication—I was almost religious about the whole thing. As much as I believed in it, as much as I prayed to St. Mary Lou Retton, I still hit the ground mid-ariel.
I was a faulty elevator, a kite on a still day, a broke-down el Camino. And as I moved into adolescence it only got worse. I became severely clumsy, tripping over myself constantly. Breasts floored me, literally. I had to relearn how to walk and sit, how to hold my hands in front of my chest so that boys wouldn’t stare. Leotards and cartwheels became a thing of the past. The feeling of flying through the air with abandon was an impulse I put on absolute lock down. I strapped my breasts down and grew my hair so it covered the army of acne invading my poor face. I wore all black all the time. Even my hair was black.
When I saw the news story on Shawna Johnson, it pushed me into a state of mourning for the girl I’d hoped to be.
When I look at someone like Shawn Johnson, I see a focused, bubbly, confident young woman. A woman who had so much faith in herself that she believed she could be in the Olympics. She set up her entire life to make that happen, and it did. She not only believes in the fairy tale, but gave up the slumber parties and leisurely Saturday mornings that most kids enjoy to make that fairy tale happen.
She worked hard, true. But hard work could never have gotten me to a gold. Hell, a lifetime of practice couldn’t have even gotten me a tin medal. I was born to fail, to fall, to flounder, to say f**k it. I was born to be the girl who skipped pep rallies to read Thomas Wolfe behind the school, to be the reigning queen of mix tapes and the 20-minute mile.
It was a role I came to as a default. If I could have been competitive in gymnastics, had my overenthusiastic mother seen even a shred of talent, I would have given it everything. I loved it that much. But my body betrayed me. That’s how I interpreted my evolution into a plump, unwieldy mess then.
I see it differently now. When I look at these young girls who have made it to the top of the gymnastics ladder, I understand now much they had to give up. How they had to always have their game faces handy, along with a smile. Sometimes they smiled through intense pain. Sometimes through intense periods. With their ponytails pulled back tight, these girls had to shove their heartbreaks and fears down to pursue their goals. Those medals should come with Oscars when you think about it.
I got to revel in my disappointments and celebrate my small triumphs until all hours of the night. I got to hang out in my best friend’s parent’s basement and discover PJ Harvey and Dinosaur Jr., the Sex Pistols and the Pixies. I got to smoke pot and read Burroughs and fall in love with the world while hating it at the same time.
It’s no Olympics, but it’s a ride I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. Nobody hands out medals for being the most melancholy 15-year-old on the East Coast, but I do have a really good record collection as a consolation prize.
On that ride I found yoga, a way to fly through the air without a rank or a panel of judges. I rediscovered those moments of grace and freedom in warrior three. I wept when I found crow pose and wheel. Yoga reignited my love of play—the ease and joy I took in contorting my body and falling (always) to the ground.
I admire the good-natured approach Shawn Johnson has to the end of all she knows, all she’s worked for. It could be an act, but there seems to be a bit of the Buddha nature in that girl. She seems to accept that the skiing accident, a fluke really, will lead to a new, more normal life. No more medals or fire-engine red blush.
That accident, dear Shawn, made you like the rest of us.
We wake up late, drink too much wine, fall in love, skip the gym, eat lots and lots of cake, and do yoga to thank the body for what it gave us and what it took away. Namaste.
Editor: Brianna Bemel
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