Making peace with the past, and seeing it for what it really is, is both a painful and liberating process. I had no idea how much grief comes with liberation.
I asked Jake yesterday (July 9, 2020) if I should get rid of these books. Now I feel the argument coming: You are erasing history!
Sigh. Right now I am keeping them, but like statues of oppressive people, they are coming down from my display. They are going into the museum at the top of my closet.
Also, look at my computer closely, Ellysia Banks, you are cheering me on to do this, my dear sister.
I am going to include Facebook posts I have already written that will be included at the bottom of the post. It is hard to keep rewriting what hurts. I am trying to move forward and heal, but I need to write this so I can.
I want to talk about the terrible things I knew coaches were saying, but adults did nothing about it, because they thought it was appropriate for the win. The way men and women coaches talked about the weight of young girls is so sinful it makes me cry thinking back on it. My mom did care though, and she took me to listen to Cathy Rigby talk about her eating disorders. I also did a book report on Tracy Talavera in middle school, and read about her eating disorder and how terrible her coaches were to her. I still remember all of this after all of these years. I was aware too many gymnasts had eating disorders, but I was too young to understand it was the system of gymnastics, and not just a few bad-apple coaches, that was the problem.
I held a trophy on the beam and was told to jump as high as I could with it. After I completed the task, I was told I would go higher if I weighed less. We also were weighed every week. I was often told I weighed too much. I remember telling one of my friends: I wish I knew how to eat just enough to survive. (Writing this is so hard). After I quit gymnastics, I got really sick and missed two full weeks of school. I went down to 88 lbs. My thought wasn’t I need to get healthy again when I saw this, it was this: Why couldn’t this have happened when I was a gymnast? I wanted my coach to see I finally lost the weight-even though it happened because I had a horrible case of the flu.
I want to lift up my mom again, because when I was really young (seven years old) in gymnastics-the age gymnastics wants to scope out talent- she listened to my tears and let me quit. When I returned at eleven, and did really well because I wanted it now, but the gym was way less interested in me because of my age and I had gone through puberty; I would cry to her and ask her why she let me quit. The one person that listened to me I turned on because of the damn gymnastics system that was harming young girls.
Here are statements I would hear from the “elite” coaches: Shannon Miller’s coach, Steve Nunno: Kim Zmeskal weighs too much now; I will let Shannon eat an Arby’s sandwich every now and then because she does so well with her weight. Then in the 1993 Worlds, Shannon Miller was really sick and fell off the beam three times. He was so angry with her. She was sick, and her mom had to sneak her bananas so she could eat, because he was starving her.
Bela Karolyi, I learned in his book, did not see the gymnasts as humans. He looked at what tigers would eat, and fed the gymnasts the same diet (steak) so they would perform like…tigers? Geez. How did we not see this sooner?
Every nationalized competition in the 1990s would show the gymnasts height and weight on the screen. We all knew. I started learning that other countries would not feed their gymnasts unless they won. I was really concerned about this. So much so, I did not want the US to win because I was afraid gymnasts from other countries would not eat. I had no idea the US was doing this too. Shame on all of us.
I watched the history of gymnastics and learned world history. I saw Vera Caslavska from Czechoslovaki, one of the most decorated gymnasts in the world, turn her head slightly in 1968 Olympics medal ceremony when the Soviet national anthem played, in protest. The Soviets had invaded her country, and she went home and was exiled for her protest. Anthem protests seem to be the way to get people’s attention. I like her more for this than any of the medals she won. She was someone I could see that wasn’t taking crap. But at the same time, she wasn’t as young either. The move towards babies and stunted growth happened after the darling Nadia Comaneci came on the scene with coach Bela Karolyi. She got the elusive perfect 10 – that displayed as a 1.0 because whoever created the board did not foresee anyone ever getting a 10. She was young and petite, and a new era entered gymnastics.
Bela and Nadia were also victims of a horrible regime in Romania. Nadia talks about her feelings when Bela left the hotel at one of their meets, and defected to the USA. He brought his philosophy and mentality to USA Gymnastics, and we all applauded. Eventually, Nadia defects to the USA too. I was at the gym when she came to Norman because she found her friend, and now husband, Bart Conner who took her in. It is weird knowing I have held Bart Conner’s gold medal, and I was at the gym when Nadia came to America. She had a stop before Norman, but it was a big deal when she made it to Norman. Life at our gym as we knew it changed.
I wrote about my story.
Here are some Facebook posts I have written recently, because I watched Athlete A. Seeing history for what it is, and not what I thought, is jarring. It is both liberating and a time to grieve.
Rethinking history is hard- even with current issues. I think about Bela Karolyi and almost every single US coach from US gymnastics-and coaches from other countries too. Despite “winning”, they never should have had access to children.
It is strange seeing the story for what it is, but it has to be done to heal and sin no more.
I also thought about this today as I’m learning to see myself differently:
What if the fact I was just okay at gymnastics, even though I worked really hard, but I enjoyed it with everything I had in me, was the whole point. If the system valued the hardworking joyful person- how different would our world look? Mental health too?
(This also applies to my children who were sit out by soccer.
made the path for Kimbo, bc this system would not).
What if I’m just an okay theologian, but the system lets me through bc I love this with everything I have inside me? I know I love well. I know what I’ve got, and I don’t take it for granted – ever.
Afternoon reflection: What if ordinary is extraordinary?
I haven’t revisited gymnastics like this in years. It’s like God is revealing the story I never told myself. All these years I felt I was too late and not good enough. Sure, I knew I was mistreated in a lot of ways, but I felt it was bc I wasn’t mentally tough enough to handle it. No one is. Winning doesn’t equal handling it.
I’ve never been this tender with myself about gymnastics. I’ve never stood up for the girl I was before until now. It’s healing me to write this story.
Abuse – even if you win with it is wrong. It’s never okay to abuse a child and say terrible things to toughen them up. We shouldn’t make the system so accessible to abusers bc of our love of winning at all costs.
I was a tiny tot at the Gymnastics Chalet, owned by Bart Conner and his coach Paul Ziert. The focus was mostly on the men’s side of the gym, but women’s gymnastics was a huge money-maker, so they had women’s gymnastics as well. There was OU gymnastics, so I guess that might be why they wanted to focus on boys and let the girls be more for fun, initially. But that changed quickly.
A fun thing I got to do, and had no idea how unique it was b/c I was so young, I got to hold Bart Conner’s gold medal from the ’84 Olympics. I knew it was a big deal, but I did not really know why. I just wanted to do gymnastics. I did not really care to sit and hold someone’s medal. I was 7 – I think this might be normal thinking.
I was pushed pretty hard b/c I was tiny and young. I got frustrated that my mom would tell me we were coming again the next day b/c they want me there again. I only wanted two days a week, and this was turning into 4 days. I had friends to play with outside, and I did not like this. I cried everyday b/c I kept having to go to gymnastics. Eventually, my mom listened to my tears and let me quit.
When I was eleven, I was ready to go back and be serious. The problem: they were much less interested in my now. I worked really hard. We bought a trampoline, and I taught myself how to do a back hand spring and a back flip. I conditioned at home. I watched gymnastics nonstop wanting to learn their moves, and I made the team in a year.
here was a lot of joy in this success, but that joy halted almost as fast as it came. My coach was either fired, or he quit, and someone else came back–and we were going back to the basics. All of the fun I had been having was over, and my body developed. This was the time gymnasts were supposed to have their puberty delayed. My body did what it was supposed to, and I felt shame. Women’s bodies have so many unnecessary and toxic expectations from society, and as a child I had the added pressure of puberty coming at the right time-and I felt ashamed. It is an awkward time anyway, but when you know your sport wants to keep you a child-my shame wasn’t just normal awkwardness. The shaming signals I received were real.
I yelled at my mom for letting me quit when I was younger and they cared. She asked me what she was supposed to do when I was crying everyday.
I was barely encouraged. I found myself hating being on the team. I wanted to go back to pre-team where the pressure was lower, but I wouldn’t be able to do the skills I loved doing on team. I had no path to enjoy the sport and still compete high level. Both were not an option. I had to pick one.
The horrible treatment kept increasing. We were trying to compete with Dynamo gymnastics where Shannon Miller trained. They hired Romanian coaches, who were in the 84 Olympics, to train us Olympic style. They had Karolyi-style methods. It was a brother/sister combo, and they would speak in their own language when mad, and we could hear our names being yelled as they talked in a way we could not understand.
I was miserable. I felt used up and old (in 8th freaking grade) They did not love me. My back injury coming and taking me out was a welcome gift.
There was one coach though-in my second year-who watched me from afar. She never was my coach. She was a black woman who worked with the babies. She told me this: I have been watching you. Your fast progress has really impressed me.
I will never forget these words. Someone was watching, and she saw, and she cared. I was so sad she worked with the littles. I wanted her as my coach so badly
USA Gymnastics was once my whole life. I don’t talk about it often, bc I finally left it behind and intended to move on and not think much of it anymore. But now I’m going to start sharing things I saw living it as a mediocre gymnast. I used to think I lacked talent, now I know the system shut me out bc I didn’t want it when I was 5. I wanted it when I was 11, and that was too late.
They gave me a shot bc I trained myself at home, and I’ll talk more about that later.
I have friends on here who know how obsessive I was about gymnastics. Even after I quit, I would sit and watch Super Stars of gymnastics over and over-this took me throughout time-50s to current. I’d record every competition and watch it repeatedly until the next one. But what was happening, beyond my obsession of the sport, is I was learning world history, and that was fascinating to me. I cared about how these girls (throughout time) were treated, and I wasn’t ok with it. Yes, there were bad governments, but the sport of gymnastics is just badly set up, and kids suffer all over the world – including the USA. The way of mammon is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The only time I felt truly validated as a team gymnast was when I got a rip so badly on my hand and it hurt so much I couldn’t bend my hand. My coach looked at it and said this: Now you are a real gymnast. And then I had to keep going, even though it hurt so badly I cried through the whole bar session. Watching the Olympians talk about their injuries and coaches not caring brought back memories.
We all applauded Kerri Strug taking a second vault after she tore two ligaments in her ankle on the first one. We see Bela saying: You can do it! And she did. Was that sheroic? She didn’t have a choice. Turns out the vault wasn’t even needed, but even so, was that good news. Other gymnasts from the past who had gone through their abuse asked why we were clapping. Good question.
Soccer world – same thing. Be tough on my kids and make them strong. Strong for what? So they’ll hate the sport?
We hand our kids over to abusers and praise the abuser for wins. And we wonder why abusers and pedophiles are drawn to youth sports.
I’m not ready to write my story completely yet, but this part wants to come out.
It wasn’t unknown that Bela Karolyi and his wife Marta were abusive. We all knew it, but culturally it was accepted. Even I thought it was just the way it was. I have his book “Feel no Fear” with Kim Zmeskal on the cover, America’s Darling. There’s so much more to this story. I have Martas autograph in this book, and I got it on his Ranch that is now closed.
Gymnasts tried to warn us earlier, but they weren’t winners. Even Mary Lou Retton said: you don’t hear winners complaining. (If you read Mary Lou’s book, even she ran away. He had to get her back).
What makes me want to write this tonight – Maggie Nichols. She made a report in 2015 and was one if the top US gymnasts who was suddenly cut out of the picture , and gymnastics said – injury. Her mom couldn’t stay silent on Larry Nassar. He abused her and so many more. Her mom didn’t ignore, and it cost Maggie a 2016 Olympic spot.
This is when our soccer
travesty happened. I wouldn’t let it slide and it cost us.
Therapist: How did you feel when you saw Maggie’s mom and what she did?
USA Gymnastics story has broken my heart, but so much of it I knew deep in my heart. When I’m in a better place I will share more. Something my therapist said when I told her I would feel guilty when USA (as a kid) won bc I was worried Russian children and the Chinese children wouldn’t get to eat bc they didn’t win. she said this: you saw at a young age a system not protecting children. Then you got in the soccer world and saw the same thing. You took on the role of protecting the children bc the system wasn’t going to.
(Little did I know USA was doing the same thing).
I got on here to show I’ve been a protestor most of my life. This is a letter I wrote to Gymnast magazine in 1992 after Shannon Miller got the silver medal and Kim zmeskal was 10th- which only by American standards would we shame a teen for 10th in the Olympics. Anyone tired of winning now? I am.
Anyway, Newsweek put Kim Z on the cover in tears with the Title: It Hurts. They could have put Shannon Miller’s silver on the cover and mentioned 10th being great too. But no, Kim had been hyped up as America’s darling set to bring home the gold bc she was our first World Champ. Silver and wasn’t good enough for the cover. Look at the response.