I have a picture of Rose when she was 4 or maybe 5, in her tiny leo. Leo, that’s what gymnasts call a leotard.
I know that now, like I know what a kip and a giant and a layout are, because gymnastics has woven itself into the very fabric of who my daughter is.
Rose had to give up her sport a few weeks ago. Her back pain had come back the previous week but she didn’t tell me, because she knew what it meant.
Her body is telling her to stop. She had an L5 vertebrae stress fracture at the end of last summer. Some kids recover, and some kids just keep having back trouble over and over. For Rose, it seems to be the latter.
I always thought I might be relieved if she ever stopped. I barely remember the time before I spent my weeknights driving back and forth to the gym. Before I spent winter weekends sitting in bleachers with an elevated heart rate, watching incredible girls do seemingly impossible things.
Instead of feeling relieved, I feel grief.
I didn’t anticipate the way my stomach would drop when I went to put one of her leotards in the washer, and the feeling in my chest when I zipped up her gym bag and realized we won’t be needing it anymore.
When she was injured the first time, people asked why I didn’t insist she quit. “A back is forever,” they said. A point well taken, until you see your 11-year-old with a broken heart, because she can’t do the thing she feels defines her.
She can barely remember life before gymnastics.
This thing that has become such a huge part of who she is, is no longer part of her life. The community she has at the gym, her teammates and coaches, who worked so hard together, for so many hours every damn week, year-round, year after year—it’s gone now.
In seven years, there were maybe three times when she said she didn’t feel like going. She was okay with progressing at her own pace even when her teammates surpassed her. She was okay with not winning. She just wanted to be in that gym, where she was so comfortable, among her people, doing the thing she loved the most. She was tenacious and resilient.
I’ve heard the expression “once a gymnast, always a gymnast” and I’m kind of starting to get that now. Gymnastics is not a long-term sport (unless you’re Oksana Chusovitina), but it teaches some forever life-skills.
Rose has learned to be tough and resilient. To be part of a team and a community. To train harder than most adults. To manage time, expectations, and nerves. To face defeat and keep going. To succeed with grace. To push herself out of her comfort zone and overcome fear.
Though she’ll no longer be tumbling, balancing, and swinging, because of gymnastics she’s already got more coping skills than your average adult.
It’s been a couple of weeks since Rose officially stopped, and she is doing okay. She says she might want to join a rock climbing team. She does NOT want to do dance.
For now, she’s enjoying being a normal 11-year-old and relishing the first summer she’s had “free” for as long as she can remember.
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