A quick disclaimer before I kick off my series of Blog posts leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. My personal accounts are exactly that – personal opinions, thoughts and experiences, therefore shouldn’t be generalised to all past, present or future elite gymnasts (although I know many will relate). My reflections are also based on what I can remember… I started gymnastics almost 30 years ago and this year is this 20 year anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics… it’s been awhile. But I will draw on travel journals and newspaper articles to give my personal accounts some ‘meat’. Finally, I don’t intend to write long drawn out blogs so if you have any questions about anything I write, ask.
LIFE OF AN ELITE GYMNAST
The Beginnings (pre-teens)
I was 7 years old when I trotted off to a local recreation centre with a friend for our first gymnastics class. We were ‘Jollettes’ twice a week for 1 hour each session. Within 6 months, I was selected for the Talent Identification trial at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) based at The Superdrome (now known as Challenge Stadium). I don’t remember much of this process aside from being put through a series of strength, flexibility and ‘body type’ assessments, in which case I almost didn’t get selected because I was going to be too tall. They asked to see my parents and realised my future vertical growth was never a great risk (but I do like mentioning there was a time in my life when I was above average height… 7 years old).
Training at WAIS started at about 15 hours a week and by the time I was 10 years old we were training 30 – 32 hours a week. We still lived in Willetton so it was hectic for the parentals (aka taxi drivers) to do the early morning drop offs and evening pick ups. Most of the ‘gymies’ (as we were referred to by the ‘normal’ kids) jumped on a bus from training to school at 9am and then got picked up again at 2:30pm to take us back to training. Most of us went to Floreat Park Primary to make it easier getting to and from training. This was the daily routine throughout primary school, with just one training session on Saturdays and Sundays being our day off.
We had our first interstate competitions and selection trials from age 10 (1990) and at this time, 20 gymnasts across Australia were pre-selected into the training squad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. So I guess this is when things heated up. I had my first international competition at age 13 and came 2nd overall. This competition was important as it was the Commonwealth Games Showcase in Canada, with the Commonwealth Games being held in the same venue the following year. Ironically I came second to an American Gymnast… Commonwealth Showcase my arse!!
The Daily Grind as a Senior Gymnast (from age 12ish)
At this point in my gymnastics career, most days pretty much looked like:
- 6:45am – 10:00am: Training
- 10:30am – 2:30pm: School
- 3:30pm – 7:00pm: Training
A typical day of training consisted of strength and flexibility at the start of every session (up to 1 – 1.5 hours). We would go to McGilvray Oval three times a week in the morning for running and we did quite a lot of ballet / choreography work. The rest of the time was made up of apparatus specific training – generally beam and bars were done twice a day and floor/tumbling and vault once a day.
We had a mix of local and Russian coaches and it was easy to tell when we walked in the gym if they were in good moods or not. We would weigh-in everyday and had skinfolds every fortnight (back then if we were over 40mm across 8 sites we were not allowed to compete). One memory that has stayed with me is the punishments for being late. We obviously had to rely on our parents for transport and sometimes they didn’t quite understand the urgency to get us there on time, so we would have rope climbs for being late. I blame my anxiety around being late these days on this.
Given my training and travel commitments, I did Distance Education from years 8 – 11, so I just sat in the Time Out room at City Beach High and did my work. Being separated from the social environment of school and restricted in making ‘normal’ friends and socialising I think explains why I am still extremely (too) comfortable being by myself and get over-stimulated if around people too much. But I also see these years of distance education balanced with 36 hours a week training as having a pretty decent influence on my self-motivation and discipline today.
“You must love it”
Between the ages of 12 to 16 years, my life was mapped around competitions and selection trials. By the time I retired the first time at age 16 years, I had had 8 operations, countless numbers of injections (cortisone, facet joint, root sleeve, epidural) and of course racked up many other medical costs that I will forever owe my parents. People would often say, “You must love it”, when trying to understand why a teenager would train that much, or put up with injuries and the ‘gymnast’s diet’ (these topics will be covered in a separate blog post). It was usually easier to just agree. But I think it was more a case of I’d gone too far to quit; not just for me either, but given the family sacrifices also. I look back and see it more as a job. Did I love it? For quite a few years, no. Am I glad I kept training, of course. I achieved my goal of going to the Olympics. And something pulled me back two years later for another crack at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. After a good decade of minimal involvement in anything gymnastics, look where I am now! Back to gymnastics and LOVING my life as a slightly ‘mature’ gymnast!
Would I be a different person if I didn’t do gymnastics? Absolutely. I don’t know if that would be a good or bad thing. I know that I developed some very positive traits or qualities from my gymnastics career that have driven me in other areas of my life. I also know quite a few elite gymnasts who are extremely high achievers in their post-gymnastics lives, which makes sense given the time spent in a sport that demands perfectionism.
My Blog post next month will be on my Olympic experience – the lead up including selection trials, the competition in Atlanta, the Olympic village experience etc. If you have any questions about the Olympics, shoot them through!