The only way for me to catch my breath at practice was to put my grips on slowly before we began our final event: bars. I was lucky enough to have brand new, two-buckle grips that had a lot of breaking-in to do. After eight years of wear and tear, my old pair had given up, leading me to new wristbands, buckles, stiff leather, and smooth surfaces. All of that had to change, and it had to change in one practice.
I grabbed each wrist and cracked it before sliding a red wristband onto each. Both my wrists and their new protectors were too tight, so I leaned my hands hard against the low bar and looked out over the gym. The sport had chosen me at four years old and hadn’t let me go since. I was now twelve years old and living a dual life. I had a home, my place of residence, and a family who all shared my last name. I also had a second home, where I grew up and found myself, with about a hundred sisters and a few coaches, or gym-moms as we call them. Across from me, the floor took on a new appearance. It was old. I thought about its layers, first springs, then wood, foam, and finally the blue carpet and white tape. Stains discolored the carpet, brownish splatters that reminded a few scarred gymnasts of landings gone wrong. They definitely didn’t clean it enough.
I pushed myself off the low bar and started to buckle my grips around now-swollen wrists. Buckle one, in the loop, pull to tighten, close. Repeat on buckle two. Go back to one; tighten. Go back to two; tighten. Repeat on left hand. The process became so automatic that I found my focus drifting again. To my right, Janis piked a Yurchenko on vault. In other words, our nationally ranked pride and joy did a really cool trick. She flew through the air, a blur of ponytail and limbs, and stuck a landing on one of our many blue eight inch mats. Each gymnast stopped during her practice at one point or another to watch Janis throw a vault or stick a beam routine. She was our own little inspiration board, a perfection to work towards, a level of achievement the rest of us only accomplished in our dreams.
Janis outnumbered all of us on the famous 9.0 wall. Painted red and blue at the back of the gym, a competitor’s name was added after every meet for every score she received of a 9.0 or greater. There was something elitist about being added to the 9.0 wall; it was a recognition, a spot with the greats, or even just physical evidence of your hard work. I held it above any medal, ribbon, or trophy I had ever received. I have never met a gymnast who forgets the day she was added to the wall. Seeing Jen, the Janis of the past generation, and her white paint marker at the wall and knowing you were on the list made the little gymnast inside of you bounce about your body. It was almost like having butterflies in your stomach, except with muscles instead of wings and pointed toes instead of antennae. I smiled reading my name. This was my home, and there was “Emma Suleski” on display for both residents and company to see.
The new white leather of my grips was stiff against my palm and I balled my hand up into a tight fist. I didn’t want stiff leather, it was uncomfortable and would slow me down and frankly do the opposite of what I needed, which was to grip the bar. I clenched and unclenched fists until creases appeared like lines in the snow. My middle and ring fingers slid into their respective holes, which rested a little too tightly just below my first knuckles. I pumped my fingers and clenched my fists again, trying to find a comfortable place in my hands’ new prison. My head jerked around to the beam as I heard a slip and a bang. Judging by the beam-shaped reddish purple burn down her thigh, Jess had just missed her feet on a back-handspring, one of the most daunting skills to throw on beam. Though the friction the suede beams provide is imperative for limiting slippage, it’s a very unforgiving material to slide on any skin softer than the calloused feet of a seasoned gymnast. I watched as Jess stood up and hopped back onto the beam. I cringed with her as she stood tall on the beam, body and pride both aching. Two summers ago, I was working round-offs on the beam. Similar to your average cartwheel, but with a much harder landing; a judge doesn’t give the skill credit unless you are entirely airborne at one point. After enough pounding of my dainty feet on a metal-cored beam, the swelling on my left foot stopped healing overnight, stabbing me with pain worse and worse every day. It was sprained and my doctor said two weeks off. My coach said, “Just tape it for support.” They say fall down six times, stand up seven, but in the gym we say get beam burn six times; get back on and stick your skill eight.
I rubbed tired hands together and felt the smoothness of new leather. The uneven bars in front of me were a tangle of steel posts, fiberglass coverings, and taut metal wires, standing ominously in a cloud of chalk like mountains in the mist. I rubbed my slick palms against the ridged metal wire, roughing up their surface, stopping every few seconds to pull off shredded leather. Around me my team bustled about, running drills, perfecting routines, and nursing ripped callouses. Sometimes they weren’t people, they were messy ponytails, faces a mix of chalk and sweat, bodies hard with muscle contrasted by the shimmer and sparkle of a leotard. They were athletes driven by personal goals, set back by nothing. These girls weren’t invincible; they were taped ankles, knee braces, back supports, and Band-Aids. Ripping skin the size of quarters off of their hands didn’t bother them, dripping blood down their palms as they finished their bar routines. Landing skills on unhealed fractures, powering through pulls in muscles most people don’t even know exist. They could even do it with an infectious smile during a floor routine. They were fighters; they were modern-day warriors. They were climbers, intending to reach every peak with the grace of a ballerina. They were tough. But they were also genuine smiles, hugs, and support. They were my thirteen adoptive sisters.
I flipped my hands and observed my grips. Creased and torn up, they almost looked like I had owned them forever, minus a couple of those inevitable bloodstains. I pivoted my feet and took two steps toward the chalk bucket. I was passed the community spray bottle, which always seemed to be held together by some form of medical tape. I sprayed each grip until water dripped down my arms and stuck my arms and head in the chalk bucket in order to reach the valuable fine dust at the bottom. The chalk seemed to hold all the scents of the gym, making the bucket smell like a combination of sweat and feet that vaguely felt like home.
“What do you guys do, eat the chalk? I don’t get it.” laughed Coach Lee as she dropped another block into the bucket. I smiled at the opportunity to be the first to use the fresh cut. I rubbed sharp corners onto my dusty grips, caking on thick layers in a methodical fashion. I dropped the block back into the bucket and proceeded to do one of the most famous moves in gymnastics history: the post-chalk clap. Yes, it’s necessary to clap off the excess chalk, but the dramatic ritual is more than physicality. It’s a beginning. Chalking up before every routine is necessary. If I took a bad fall, it only mattered until I chalked up again. Then I clapped the excess chalk off and it was time for a new routine. I put myself in a cloud of dust, a cloud that smelled like home and made it hard to breathe. I stepped out of it, this time a monster emerging from the mist.
I approached the low bar and rolled ankles over toes, cracking them. You can’t point your toes into oblivion if they need to crack. I took a deep breath and jumped. My new hands gripped bars instinctively and I began my routine. It was a mess of friction, hands sliding, body gliding, hips smacking on the bar in the same place they always do. Right above the elastic of the famous “GK” leotard resided two permanent purple-green bruises, resting on top of my hipbones that jutted out like discuses. I paused on top of the high bar, a monster on top of her mountain, a queen atop her throne. I leaned on those bruises and picked my hands up, sliding the grips down my wrists just a little bit. Dismounts were always the hardest part of a routine for me, the free jump off of the mountain I was never really ready to take. The timing had to be perfect, the execution flawless, or I risked ankles smashing into the bar for yet another sprain, tear, or bruise. I looked over my kingdom one more time, tens of girls working at the same time, dancing on blue-carpeted floor, power-thirsty running down the vault runway, focused on beam. Then there was me, observing my home from my balcony of the bar.
Lee called up to me, “Today, Miss Emma-Loo” and I looked over and laughed. Break time was over, my breather was up; it was time to simply face my fear and get a grip.
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