The dream is always the same.

I am sitting in the stands in Penn’s Hutchinson Gymnasium watching a women’s gymnastics meet when suddenly my coach accosts me and tells me I’m next to compete on uneven bars.  I try to resist because I am more than forty years old and can no longer touch my toes, let alone chalk up, swing for my life, and stick the landing.  I protest, but to no avail.  The next thing I know, I am clad in a leotard and ready to mount the equipment.  I begin to go through my routine, flinging myself wildly around the bars.  I fall, again and again.  I try to tell the spectators that I told them so, while at the same time reassuring them that at one time I was capable of nailing this routine.  No one believes me.  I wake up and my heart is racing, thankful it was indeed just a dream.  As I get up out of bed, the pain in my back and knees suggest otherwise.

Reality lies somewhere in between.  I haven’t been asked to compete on uneven bars for more than 20 years.  Yet, every day it gets harder and harder for even me to to believe that at one time I was a competitive gymnast, one of very few people who could throw their body around with confidence and skill.  Most days it never crosses my mind, but yesterday I was awash in memories when I went back to the Palestra to watch my alma mater compete at the Ivy League Gymnastics Championships.

In the last few years my connection to gymnastics has dwindled, replaced by other obligatory interests such as parenting and work.  I almost didn’t make it to yesterday’s competition due to competing priorities.  But having not been to a meet all year, I felt compelled to support the team and make an inconvenient appearance.  Still, I was completely underwhelmed by the prospects for my afternoon.

Yet, something happened on the way to the event.

I parked my car and began to make my way towards the gym, traversing the path I must have taken thousands of times before.  Past David Rittenhouse Labs where I suffered through two semesters of calculus, adjacent to the tennis courts where my then boyfriend played on the team, and up the walk to where a three hour workout awaited me every day while I was at Penn.  And suddenly my pace involuntarily quickened.  In an inexplicable reversal of attitude, I wanted to get there as fast as my boots would take me.  I wanted to run.

I wanted to run and see my former teammates, many who made a similar pilgrimage to our old stomping grounds, so that we could reminisce about how hard we worked, how flat our stomachs were, and how much wussy muscle pain we are in today.  I wanted to scrutinize the routines on a technical level; discuss degrees of difficulty and problems with the new point system.  I wanted to criticize the judging, not so secretly jinx the other team into falling off the beam, and let the gymnastics jargon flow.  I wanted to be a part of something I no longer am but once was in every sense. I wanted my old identity back, or a least a piece of it.

I did not, however, want to compete on bars.

I hypothesize those most former athletes of, ahem, a certain age wouldn’t return to their sport even if they had the chance.  Not one of my teammates yesterday expressed a desire to go back and “do it all over again.”  Competitive sports hurt.  Competitive sports are scary.  Competitive sports suck years out of your young life.   We don’t want to experience that again any time soon.  But we desperately want to maintain our bragging rights.

I was a part of something that can not be re-created in my adult life.  There was a time when I had the strength, the ability, the time and the commitment to be a gymnast.  But it was an identity I lost the day I stopped competing.  Since that time, my identity evolved to include such illustrious titles of wife and  mother, but the universal nature of those monikers will never be able to compete with “gymnast.”


Some of “The Team” 20+ Years Later

So yesterday I didn’t become a “gymnast” again – but I was a damn good “former gymnast” and I must say, it was a lot more fun and a lot less painful than the original identity.  I’ll take it — along with all that remains of my former self including the memories, the pride and the occasional crazy dream.

My dear friend Kim and her daugher Abby joined me at the competition yesterday.  For a different and insightful perspective about women’s athletics from a self described non-athlete, visit her post Awe Struck  at her blog Freakin Angels today.
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