Practice Makes Champions: A Memoir

November 12, 2008
By Carolyn Calder, Cary, NC

I am a gymnast. That’s what I am. That’s what I’ll always be. And yes, I am quite good. But I wasn’t always. In fact, there was a time when I couldn’t do a back handspring.

I was nine years old, and it was my first day at Kenney’s Gymnastics Academy. Walking into the gym, I smelled the familiar smells and saw the familiar sights. The bars, beam, floor, and vault all stood, luring me, inviting me to try, just once. I began to walk over towards them, transfixed, like a child in a candy shop. My mother grabbed my arm and dragged me back into the lobby, back into the boredom of the everyday office work, back into the world outside of a gym.

I sighed to myself and walked over to one of the cold metal chairs that were strewn around the lobby. Putting my elbows on my knees and cupping my chin in my hands, I looked through the clear window separating cool from boring, exciting from dreary, the gym from the rest of the world, and listened to my mother talk with Mr. Kenney.

“Sweetie!” My mom came over and picked me up out of my seat. She pulled me over to Mr. Kenney, a friendly man in his late forty’s who runs Kenney’s with his wife. He looked down at me and smiled his great big smile. I now catch that smile nearly every day of my life and I smile right back at him. But not that first day. As a little girl, I was always shy of everyone who happened to be bigger than me (which, at the time, was just about everyone). So when that big, tall, strong man smiled at me, my eyes grew wide as dinner plates as I ran behind my mom.

“I’m sorry,” I heard her saying somewhere in the clouds up there; she had to have been in the clouds to be talking to that monster of a man. “She’s just a little bit shy, that’s all.”

“It’s alright,” he replied, looking down at me again. I looked away from him and up at my mom with pleading eyes. The gym that had seemed so enticing now seemed frightening, what with all these huge men running the place. She gently unclasped my hands from around her leg and pulled me off her. She leaned down, gave me a hug and whispered in my ear,” It’s all right. You’re going to have lots of fun! I promise!” And with that she swept from the building.

I looked around for somewhere else to hide from him, but there was nowhere to run. He was offering his hand to me, and I gingerly took it. He walked with me out into the gym when suddenly… BOOM! I looked over to the floor where a girl had sprung back to earth from a trick and realized that’s what must have made that astonishing noise. She simply flounced her way off the floor and ran to her coach who high-fived her.

I looked up and saw that Mr. Kenney was watching me and laughing. I stared at him for a long moment before realizing that I was shaking from the noise.

“Did that surprise you?” he laughed. I solemnly nodded once and he laughed again. “Don’t worry,” he said,” that was just Becca. She was doing her round off, double back handspring.” I stared up at him, begging him to speak English. Round off double back huh?

He sat me down next to a spot and told me I was in the pink group. I waited for ten minutes, watching Becca and several of the other girls do their tricks on floor. Front handsprings, back walkovers, tucks, fulls-- if it’s a trick, they did it. I stared at those girls, and I knew that one day, I would be able to do that.

“Okay, pink group, let’s go!” A coach came up to me and the five or six other girls that were in my group. Ironically I don’t remember the name of my coach, but to this day I still remember the other girls in the group (well, I guess that’s because I compete with four of the five now). It was Kendal, Faith, Alex, Abby, and Katherine. Faith and I were the same age, nine, and I hated her from the beginning. She had to have been one of the most annoying people I had ever laid eyes on. She’s now one of my best friends. Alex was seven, and also annoying, and a bit of a braggart. She’ll be competing with me in my next meet and is my favorite ten-year-old on our team. Abby was (and still is) the cutest little girl in the world. Katherine is crazy and is one of the nicest people I have ever met. Kendal doesn’t go to our gym anymore, but she was my best friend for two years until her mom made her quit.
Trailing behind our coach, I took the rear behind the other girls, who were dancing and giggling in front of me. My coach sat us down on the floor and told us to stay there while she set up a circuit. I quietly watched the bigger girls, now on bars, too scared to strike up a conversation with the others in my group.

Placing a triangle mat on the floor, the coach unfolded it and got us together in a line. Triangle mats are taller at the front and get shorter at the bottom. One stands at the top of a triangle mat to practice back walkovers, back extension rolls, and, as I now know, back handsprings.

She placed me upon the mat, put her hands behind me and told me to do a backhand spring. I stared at her for a long time and then, oh so quietly, so the other girls wouldn’t hear, asked her,” What’s a back handspring?”

She laughed and said simply, “Jump!”

I had jumped loads of times. On trampolines and beds and couches! I knew this was going to be easy. Though the mat wasn’t nearly as bouncy as a trampoline, I could easily imagine it was.

I did as she said and jumped as hard as I could. I was flying, I was soaring, I was… face first on the ground? How did I get here? I looked up and realized that I hadn’t placed my hands on the ground hard enough, which wasn’t really my fault, because all she really had told me was to jump. I saw her and several other people laughing and realized I look pretty dumb sitting here on the ground. I bit my lip, got up, and tried again. This time was better, but I still couldn’t do a round off double backhand spring.
I only had to come to the gym two days a week, but several weeks after my back handspring incident, I began to come three times. I got better and better. We began to try backhand springs on trampoline and I got that really quick. As I improved I was finally able to do them on the triangle mat and then, eventually on the floor. Now I, just like Becca, can do my round off double backhand spring as easily as jumping on a trampoline.

Gymnastics has taught me many things, but the most important thing it has taught me is that practice makes perfect, practice makes champions.

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