BY TAVA HOAG
Gymnastics is an artistic sport that requires both strength and grace. It’s regarded as one of the most difficult sports in the world, but then why don’t we see more of it on television or hear more people talking about it? It’s only during the summer Olympic years that the nation bands together and has a one month long intrigue in gymnastics. They pretend to know what’s going on and what’s at stake for the youngest athletes of the Olympics, but they’ll never have the inside scoop.
Not many people are aware of what gymnastics is really about; they can’t see the intense training that these young girls and boys go through, training that rivals some of America’s most popular sports, like football and hockey. Gymnastics seems to have become a forgotten sport within the last few years. Now it’s time to shed light on the beauty and uniqueness of the sport once again.
Ashlee is a 13-year-old level 8 gymnast. She trains for 4 hours at a time, 4-5 days a week. In terms of ability, Ashlee is incredibly talented, but it’s important to remember that she is not at an elite level, nor a contender for the Olympics. Those who dream big enough to become part of the elite team, typically don’t go to school and they do gymnastics every day, twice a day, to achieve their level of excellence. In the interview below, Ashlee gives readers an inside look at her life in the gym.
Tava: “Ashlee, why do you love gymnastics?”
Ashlee: “I love it because it makes me feel strong. It’s so cool to learn how to flip and twist in the air. I get to do skills that are dangerous but exciting, it’s the best feeling in the world!”
Tava: “Can you tell us a little bit about each event? Which one is your favorite, and why?”
Ashlee: “Sure, that’s easy. Vault, is the event where you run really hard and fast and jump over the table, doing flips and twists in the air. My vault it called a Tsuke. Uneven bars is my least favorite. You have to perform a routine with certain skills on this event, and go between the high bar and low bar. It’s really important to keep your elbows straight. Beam is the hardest, because it is 4 inches wide and 4 ½ feet of the ground. Again, we have to do a routine with different skills, I do back tucks and back walkover back handsprings. Floor, is the event that most people know about, and it’s my favorite. I like it so much because you get to pick out your own music and do a routine that shows off your individual personality. The floor is bouncy compared to normal floors, there are springs underneath, and that’s how we get so high in our tumbling.”
Tava: “What’s the hardest part about this sport? What do you want people to know?
Ashlee: “I want them to know that it’s just as much mental toughness as physical. I have to be able to climb the rope in under 15 seconds and do suicides across the floor under a minute for 5 sets. My body is definitely strong enough, but sometimes my mind isn’t. I cry and want to give up, but then my coaches push me and I keep going, because to be great you have to keep going through the frustration and pain.”
Tava: “Do you ever feel afraid, Ashlee?”
Ashlee: “Every day. There isn’t one practice where my stomach doesn’t tie itself into knots. What I do is scary, the tricks are big and if I don’t pay attention for a second I could get hurt. I’m not really afraid of the fall though, it’s more that I’m afraid that any injury I get will keep me from doing the sport I love.”
Every gymnast will tell you that they have blocked something and been too afraid to do it. What makes a true gymnast are the girls that can put that fear aside in their minds and go for the skill anyway. Getting over that wall of fear, is the best feeling in the sport, you become invincible.
Tava: “You mentioned being afraid of injury, what injuries have you had from the sport?”
Ashlee: “I have actually been pretty lucky. So far I haven’t had a major fall or injury. Just little things from overuse. My ankles sometimes hurt, especially when you land something short and they bend forward too much. My biggest pain is in my back though, it hurts from lack of flexibility. A lot of the time I have to take a break from doing big skills, so that my back won’t hurt too bad. Sometimes I cry because it hurts, but mostly I push past the pain. My teammates and I get other little injuries as well, like beam burns and rips.”
Beam burns happen when you miss one or two feet on beam. Every gymnast splits at least once. The result is usually a huge red welt/scrape or a bruise. It scares you more than it hurts you because you are never expecting to fall off the beam. Rips happen on bars from time to time, we have been taught that they mean you are working hard. Layers of skin peel off your hand, sometimes the size of quarters, exposing the raw skin below. They sting really bad, some bleed but not always. It takes a few days for it to feel like normal again, that’s why gymnasts have so many callouses on their hands.
The lower back injury that Ashlee mentioned is typical for most gymnasts. It comes from lack of flexibility in the shoulder region and lack of muscle strength in the lower abdominals. Sometimes, if not treated properly, a stress fracture or herniated disk can develop in the L-4/L-5 region of the spine, which can end a gymnast’s career. Many young gymnasts have injuries that doctors would typically see in older adults, the sport is so taxing on the body at such a young age. The career span of women gymnasts typically ranges from age 3-22, after that your body is ready for a break.
Tava: “What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from this sport?”
Ashlee: “Honestly, it’s hard to just pick one because I have learned so much from the sport and my coaches. From the sport I learned self-motivation and discipline. I know how to get work done in and out of the gym. I have learned how to set goals and achieve those goals. I have learned to push myself to my limits in all aspects of my life, this allows me to be the best me there is. My coaches however, have taught me the most important lesson and that’s to never give up. Even when I fall a million times or don’t stick a landing or have a bad competition, my coaches tell me to keep going, to get up and try again. That’s the whole point of being a gymnast, because the ones that never give up are the ones that achieve their dreams both on and off the mat.
Tava: “Ashlee, what are you plans for the future, I know you are only 13, but have you thought about it?”
Ashlee: “Oh yea, of course I have. I want to keep doing gymnastics and hopefully compete on a high school team. Then, my ultimate goal is to compete in college for either the UCLA Bruins or LSU Tigers. They are both incredible teams and I hope someday I can represent them.”
Gymnastics teaches life lessons to these girls that they will carry with them forever and it builds a great foundation to take to any other sport. These young girls deserve more credit; they can do things that the average human can’t even fathom, and at such a young age. If you ever meet a gymnast, don’t ask them if they can do a flip-of course they can- ask them how much this sport has changed their lives.