I started gymnastics when I was 3 years old. According to my mom, she signed me and my twin sister up for classes because she had always wanted to be a gymnast. We started off eager and ready to learn with our bull haircuts and bossy attitudes. I grew up with gymnastics. During the week, I would get home from school, change into my leotard, and head to practice. Any gymnast will tell you she had a love-hate relationship with the sport growing up, and that's the case for me. Learning how to defy gravity was both terrifying and truly amazing; it was limitless. You were limitless. When you landed that new skill you'd been working on for weeks, that's when you knew the calluses, the commitment, the containers of Icy Hot, and hairspray were all worth it.
Unfortunately, I'm the one on the left with my underwear sticking out the sides.
Here's what being a gymnast all those years taught me:
1. You can overcome fear
Gymnastics really is 90 percent mental. You wouldn't believe how terrifying it is to do the tricks gymnasts do; it can drive you insane just thinking about how dangerous the sport is. Sometimes you get mental blocks out of the blue, scared to do skills you've done since you were little. Sometimes all you have to do is fight through it and find your strength amidst the self doubt.
2. Learn to accept failure
No one is perfect, not even the most prestigious Olympic gymnast.
3. Gravity can't stop you from flying
4. Shake it off
Having to compete four events at a meet is hard. If you fall during your beam routine (and trust me, 9 times out of 10 you will fall and when you do it's because you messed up a move you can do in your sleep like a full turn), you have to pick up the pieces once the next event comes. The truth is, it’s really difficult to push failure aside and focus on a new routine. All you can think about is how much you wish you’d done better. But sometimes that disappointment will fuel your determination. Ultimately, gymnastics taught me how to move on from the bad parts of life. Because just around the corner will be another opportunity for success.
5. Step out of your own way
When it comes to gymnastics, you are your own heaviest, most daunting roadblock. The best advice I ever got from a coach was to get out of my own head and just "do it" to just let myself go.
6. Be comfortable in your own skin
Trust me, that's what being in a leotard in front of strangers forces you to learn.
7. How you're judged does not define who you are
Yes, it’s inevitable that you'll be judged when you compete. A gymnast will not only get a score for her routine, but she will also be judged in others ways by who her coach is, who her teammates are, and what gym she’s from. What I learned growing up was not to let any of that effect me. Getting a low score, at the time, seems like an attack on everything you've worked for, but it's just a number. At the end of the day, we all go home, peel off our leotards, wipe away the glitter, and we’re regular people. Maybe just with larger biceps.
8. You have a family away from home
Your teammates are the people who will pick you up when you fall, literally. They've seen you at your worst and know how to piece you back together when you feel like you're breaking. That's just what we do for each other -- it comes with the sport.
9. Quitting doesn't make you a failure
I did it -- I quit gymnastics. My freshmen year at Ithaca College I had the opportunity to join the DIII gymnastics team, but quite frankly, I was done. Sometimes you just know when your body has had enough. Quitting doesn’t make you any less of a person, and it’s OK to move on. At first, I was terrified that I would feel useless because being a gymnast had defined who I was for such a long time. I wasn't just Samantha; I was Samantha the gymnast. I wasn't just giving up the leotards and medals, I was giving up the whole lifestyle of dedicating endless hours every week to this one sport. But I got through it. With more spare time, I started going to the gym (like a normal person who doesn't do strength training before, during, and after practices). I had more time to focus on my passions and enjoy college. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Doing gymnastics for over 14 years was a roller coaster experience, and it taught me lessons about myself that no other sport could have taught me. In short, I regret nothing. I would end this with that cliché, “Once a gymnast, always a gymnast,” but I'm not a gymnast anymore. It’s that simple. I may still have my splits down and remember the choreography to every floor routine I've ever had, but I am no longer a gymnast. And that’s OK with me. Because I’m able to face failure, conquer my fears, and have confidence in myself, and I have gymnastics to thank for that.
I’ll leave you with this instead: “Once a gymnast, forever the person it has shaped me to be.”