This is my final blog in a series of four to celebrate the countdown to the Rio Olympic Games… ONE MONTH TO GO!!! As well as being quite a cathartic process to reflect on the past to understand some of the present, I also hope my blogs have provided some insight into the life of an elite gymnast. This blog will detail the Afterlife (i.e. what’s gone down since retiring).
1996 – 2000
As with a lot of elite athletes, I could say I have two afterlife’s to chat about given I boomeranged back into training in 1998 after a 2 year ‘hello life’ lay-off. My decision to retire after the ‘96 Olympics was predominantly to do with injuries (I had a further two operations [knee & wrist] within 4 months of returning home), but also because I hadn’t set any goals post ‘96 since it had been my focus for 9 years. So after the excitement of the post-Olympic celebrations died down, I tried to adjust to life without 6.5 hours a day training and having to watch what I eat and weigh in (although I couldn’t quite get out of the habit for many years). My parents stayed true to their promise and we got a dog, but I didn’t see the need to consult them about my Olympic rings tramp stamp!
In 1997 I changed schools and actually went to classes for the first time since primary school (completed Distance Education from Grades 8 – 11) and had ‘normal’ friends. I sucked at Phys Ed as I had never played any other sports, I had my first awkward kiss (yes, first kiss in Year 12) and had my first experiences of being drunk (4 UDLs at the After Ball), smoking cigarettes and getting stoned (which resulted in vomiting in someone’s pool… starting with a bucket was perhaps too ambitious). Year 12 was a steep learning curve.
I stumbled through my year 12 exams and snuck into Phys Ed Teaching at Edith Cowan. After my first semester I had a shift in motivation and decided I wanted to study abroad via an Athletic (Gymnastics) Scholarship. I started training again, sat exams, submitted old training videos and underwent a bunch of phone interviews. I was offered scholarships at Iowa State, Arizona State and Cal State Universities. I always wonder what would have happened if I had accepted and gone. But there was a road block once I started training again… 2000 Olympics were only 2 years away and training started going pretty well.
In 1999 and 2000 I earned my place back onto the Australian team and competed in several international competitions, including the 1999 World Championships as a vault specialist. Our team finished in fifth place, one of the best placings of an Australian gymnastics team. One fond memory from this competition was getting absolutely blasted by the coaches for talking to the Australian male gymnasts and the team physio in their room – yelling at a 19 year old for talking to boys and asking if my parents would approve was priceless. I certainly hope my parents were okay with me chatting to members of the opposite sex by that age. The only time I can remember really rebelling as a gymnast (aside from sneaking out to get food) was at the 2000 World University Games in Mallorca. Myself, two other gymnasts and the National Coach were all bunking in the same room. Our coach went out one day and didn’t come back for ages so we ventured out with the soccer boys, partied until 4am and I puked in my bed which was directly above where the National Coach was sleeping. She completely punished me in training the next day, to the point where I blacked out on beam. Absolutely worth it.
All of this was leading to the 2000 Olympic Trials. The plan was for me to contribute to the team score on vault and bars at Olympics, but unfortunately I injured myself on vault at trials so my journey was over. Done. Time to be ‘normal’. Again.
2001 – 2010
So what’s gone down post gymnastics retirement V2? I completed my undergrad in Health Promotion in 2004, Postgrad in Public Health in 2006, PhD in adolescent sexual behaviour in 2010 and got a bunch of publications under my belt. During my Postgrad studies I worked as a research associate and lecturer, so I guess I was well on my way towards becoming a geeky academic. I used to find it amusing seeing the students ‘WTF’ expressions when they found out I was the lecturer and not a fellow student. In 2010 I jumped ship and went Govie for a couple of years at the Drug and Alcohol Office before bouncing back to lecturing.
Throughout my studies and work, the one constant was always my training and coaching / instructing. I was a personal trainer and fitness instructor from 1998 and struggled to get out of the gymnast programmed state of training twice a day. I got involved in boxing in 2006 and over the next 4 years had 11 fights, dropped three weight divisions and qualified for the 2010 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Barbados in the light flyweight division (48kg). I won my first fight and then got beaten up by the five time world champion in the second round. I had no idea what was hitting me – she was southpaw, had over 100 fights and I’d had a fairly poor prep leading in with my PhD thesis submission and a decent stress fracture in my rib. I retired after this tournament. Done. Time to be ‘normal’. Again.
2011 – Present
My introduction to CrossFit happened only a few months after retiring from boxing post Worlds. I was told about it, Googled it and booked my intro at Southern CrossFit in January 2011. Despite having absolutely no intention or interest in getting involved in another sport competitively, I remember a coach asking if I was going to register for the Opens, which I had never heard of at the time. I said “no”, got called “a pussy” and that was that. I went to a wedding that night and those words kept repeating in my head so I signed up the following week. I came 31st in the Opens, went to Sectionals with the Southern Team and we qualified for the CrossFit Games; absolutely one of my sporting highlights.
My CrossFit journey has been fairly erratic. As with many areas of my life, I’m either all in, balls to wall, or all out. But in 2013, an opportunity to chassè on board the CrossFit Gymnastics Coaching Team won me over. I started travelling with the Seminars, opened up Niche in 2014 and learned to love gymnastics again. I have seen the past few years as pay back for all the training and the ups and downs back in the gymnastics days.
REFLECTION AND THE FUTURE
Has my gymnastics past influenced who I am today? Absolutely; in good ways and ways I’d like to eventually shake off… it has after all only been 20 years since the Olympics!! I do wonder what I’d be like today if I hadn’t done gymnastics – What would I be doing? What would I look like? Would I care so much about everything and what others think – two consequences of gymnastics given the perfectionistic environment it is. If I have a moment of rationality, I know that if I achieved nothing else I would have still achieved a lot: Olympic athlete, PhD, world-ranked amateur boxer, CrossFit Games team competitor, own a successful business and have a fabulous family and friends. But like most of us, I have many layers and if you crack below the surface some ‘stuff’ will appear, many of which I relate back to the gymnast days (we all need something to blame right?)
Yes I am an over-achiever, whatever that actually means. The extent to which this is beneficial or detrimental is a fine line. I actually think I could reframe it as having an over-riding fear of failure. One of my goals is to find that magic life balance; to learn to simply float for a while, to not feel lazy for having a day or two off and to not worry so much what others think about me. I thought it was funny that I caught myself Googling jobs at Woolworths a few weeks back whilst away for coaching. I’m certainly not saying that environment would be a piece of cake to work in or void of stress, but having a job that doesn’t follow you home is a personal goal. I also realise that’s more about personal change than changing the job or work environment itself.
Related to this is my history (that somewhat continues to the present) of compulsive tendencies around food and exercise. I am by no means an exception in terms of the impact gymnastics has had on behaviours and thought patterns that still require some unwiring. Realistically, many of the sporting and academic / professional paths I’ve gone down have probably facilitated these traits. For example, going into another weight-oriented sport such as boxing certainly got me on the obsessive wagon again. I remember one period in 2009 when I was in my final year of my PhD candidature (predominantly writing my thesis from home), training twice a day, weighing myself after every meal, throwing up if I ate too much and using ice on an almost weekly basis to release my mind enough to actually get some writing done. My weight dropped to 45.8kg one day, which was the first time I didn’t have a positive reaction from dropping weight and realised perhaps I was a little vulnerable.
Today I am much more balanced, with just a sprinkling of the past to deal with. More often than not now I choose not to get into the competitive side of CrossFit despite knowing I could have achieved more. I think it’s more my head that’s tired of pushing – training religiously since 1988 has caught up. My eating habits are ‘relatively’ balanced these days. Occasionally I still feel compelled to buy food that was deemed ‘bad’ and was withheld as a child and then don’t even eat it. Sometimes I do eat it and have purging thoughts/desires or occasionally still actions, whether it be exercise or other means. These are long-term engrained behaviours and responses that are just ridiculously stubborn and no amount of awareness or education has been able to completely rid me of it. Yes, I have seen a Psych in the past. My substances of choice these days are Stilnox and anxiety meds (and peanut butter… my number one addiction!!), this being a work in progress.
I have spilled my guts throughout these Blogs more than ever before, to the extent that I have never even told my parents some of who I am. It’s a lot easier to admit things about yourself when typing it onto a computer screen; we’ll see if it follows with any regret once it floats into the world. So what was the purpose of my Blogs? Self-therapy?? It might seem like that, but really I just wanted to provide insight into the life of an elite gymnast, the good, bad and ugly. I’m sure there have been changes in the gymnastics culture from when I was competing. Am I glad I did gymnastics? Absolutely. It has provided me with valuable life skills; I am resilient, committed and do whatever it takes to achieve my goals. I work hard and respect whoever I am working with, for or being coached by. It has afforded me some amazing opportunities of late within the CrossFit community. Finally, I can still do cool handstands. Would I do it again? Perhaps not.
One month to the Rio Olympics kick off. I can’t wait. I am looking forward to watching many sports and I know I will watch and be in awe of the gymnasts… and thank god my time was 20 years ago when the skills and requirements weren’t nearly as crazy as they are today. When watching, I know I will also reflect on my time as a gymnast and wonder what else lies behind their sparkly leotards and scrunchies.