When I was a girl, I turned cartwheels. Everywhere. Constantly. I was in a state of perpetual motion. When my mother cooked, I would kick up into a handstand against the wall behind her and tell her about my day.
I wanted to be Nadia. Later, I wanted to be Mary Lou. Her muscular body resembled mine more than the skinny Eastern Bloc girls. I trained at the Parkettes. I was not an elite, or even a junior elite. I competed in one competition. I couldn't progress beyond a certain point, because I had the fear. To be a gymnast, you can't have the fear. You have to have a sense of your body, and trust yourself. Not your coaches. Not your parents. You had to trust yourself. So much of it all is knowing the beam will be behind you when you arch your back, or flip. You practiced it. You are good. You will do it. In your mind's eye, you feel your body twisting.You see yourself flipping, landing, and sticking it. You can't doubt. Your feet will land on the beam. If they don't, you do it until they do. Your last memory will be sticking it.
My first experience in gymnastics was in the third grade at the Y. My first run at the vault was a full speed run, jump on the springboard, slide, ribs into the horse. I heard a crack. I couldn't run for an entire year without a piercing pain shooting through the whole of my body. I never told anyone. I couldn't bear failing at jumping over the horse. I was determined to be better.
I still feel that rib. That rib gave me the fear.
I wasn't just a gymnast. I played a lot of sports growing up. Softball. Basketball. I spent the summer at the local pool diving. One summer afternoon, somewhere around seventh grade, I came lumbering into the garage where my father was building something. Kicking a rock, pouting. "Why are you a mope? Go play something."
"No one is around."
"What do you mean there is no one around? Go shoot some hoops."
"Everyone is trying out for football today."
"Oh, so no one can play ball with you...So, do you want to go?"
"To try out for football."
"I'm a girl, Dad. I'm not allowed to go."
"Why? You have a better arm than any of the boys in this neighborhood."
"You can't play football if you are a girl. That's what Joey said."
"No one is going to tell my girl she can't play football."
"It's against the rules, Dad."
"Sure to shit is not. Get your cleats. Let's go."
And he took me down to the field and signed me up for football. My mother was not pleased. The ladies kept saying. "No, you mean cheering, right?" And I would turn and walk back to my father, who would spin me around and make me walk back. He would not bail me out. He would not talk to them for me. He made me say it. "I want to sign up for football." The ladies said, "But we've been trying to convince your mom to get you to come out for cheerleading. We need gymnasts. You want to be a cheerleader, right?"
"No. I want to play football." They said they would have to talk to the coach.
Coach came in. Looked at me. And said, "You aren't the first girl to play football, you know. Louise Steckler played in 1956 for this team. Couple of the boys say you have a good arm. What do you want to play?"
"Wherever I will be the best."
"Suit up, and let's run."
And I did.
I wore bobby socks that day. I didn't mean to, but it just so happened that I had some frilly white socks on, and all the parents pointed and laughed. I didn't much mind. I knew everyone. I grew up in a small town. I didn't get teased about playing football, not in a way that an outsider gets teased. I was teased like a member of the team. I had already played with all these guys before. When I walked onto the field, I was greeted by a dozen boys who all knew my name, and with whom I had just finished throwing football a few hours earlier. It just wasn't that big of a deal. Second day of practice, two more girls signed up.
But I came home more exhausted than I ever had working out. I worked out, ate, then slept. Every night for a month. The coach asked my father to talk to me. I was hitting the boys too hard. He thought I was overcompensating for my gender. "She just works really hard. She is going to burn out." I just thought I had to hit hard. It was football after all. No one told me that practice and games were different.
In the end, my mother told me I had to choose either football or gymnastics. She wasn't driving me to both. Truth is, she just couldn't handle the football. She told me even if I was a boy, she would not allow me to play such a dangerous sport. "I won't let you box either." She already drove me to Girl Scouts, Junior Achievement, Gymnastics, Art School, not to mention my sister's dance classes. She didn't want to drive me to a sport where boys hit me as hard as they can. I always thought gymnastics was a much more dangerous sport for girls. Broken bones. Delayed puberty. Eating disorders. Concussions.
Still, my father gave me a great gift that summer. He believed in me, and gave me the power to believe in myself. He didn't let me continue that ridiculous line of thought that being a girl could ever hold me back. He wasn't a feminist, or an intellectual. My father drove a forklift, but he believed that his girls were strong, and conversely I believed it too. I actually sometimes wish I would have defied my mother's choice and would have stuck out the season. Just to see what would have happened. I was a good running back.
As it turned out, I became a better gymnast because of football. I worked out harder than I did before. I trusted my body more. I focused more. Doing gymnastics meant more to me, because I gave up something I loved for gymnastics. And so I loved gymnastics more. Football gave me an internal voice that said, "You can do it, Angie." Even when the fear said I couldn't.
When I hit puberty, I quit gymnastics, and most of the sports I played. I got boobs. I have a hate-hate relationship with my boobs. They hate me, and I hate them. Both. I have had constant doctor probing of my uncooperative boobies. Surgeries. Biopsies. Mammograms. They eff up my basketball game, and my dress size. Whatever confidence football gave me, my boobs took it away. I guess it was the beginning of not believing in my body. Getting boobs betrayed my sense of self. I never wanted them, even when the other girls were chanting, "I must, I must, I must increase my bust."
I'm not sure how to be believe in my body anymore. My body disappoints me. I starve it, and no change. I feed it, and I get lumpy. I work out, and it breaks. I make a baby, and she dies. I don't look anything like an athlete anymore, except for having some linebacker shoulders. I hardly believe it myself, except for the pains I still have because of sports, and the joy I get sweating.
Sometimes I just want to arch back into a back bend, kick over, and end arms raised beside my ears. I feel the motion. I dream that motion. I see myself making that trick, however pathetic my thirteen year old self would have thought of my thirty-five year old self's ability, or lack thereof, to do a simple back walkover. I know I would pull something, or tear a muscle in this old back of mine. That is the only confidence I have in that trick. That someone or something would get hurt.
"The beam is there, right under your feet, and your feet, Angie, you know where they are."
I am all spent and used, old and broken, fat and tired. I woke up yesterday unable to walk on my right foot. I somehow injured it, though I have no conscious memory of it. I seem plagued by ridiculous injuries and complaints right now. My stomach. My arm. My foot. My boobs. My knees. Is this really pain, or am I just losing touch with reality?
I once had a lovely boyfriend who played basketball. He would look me straight in my introvert eyes and say before we went out to dinner, "You can do it, Kenna. You are the best. You are money, kid." When I can't find my voice in there, I sometimes try to find his voice. Or I try to summon my inner bobby socks...All I know is that I want to be a better me right now. I want to work through my pain. I want to be someone who is strong and capable, who doesn't self-consciously tug on clothing. I want to run on my aching foot through the pain. I want to forgive my body. I want to turn cartwheels with both of my little girls and giggle until I cannot breathe.