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For the Gold

“Li Si, could you come show us all the correct way to land?” Mrs. Yon asked. Her voice was high-pitched and sharp. She leaned against the pole. She wore the standard coach’s outfit, a black jacket and sweatpants.

A perfect, single-file line of eager students in navy blue leotards faced her and watched her every move. Li Si stood at the end of the line. She was a tall, muscular girl and, by far, the best gymnast in the class. She brought her hands over her head to stretch. She resisted the urge to itch her hands, which where irritated from the heavy coat of chalk dust she had put on them this morning. Li Si felt her muscles tighten and relax at the same time and prepared for the jump. When her hands came down, she ran toward the pole, tightened all of her muscles in order to flip around it, and landed on the blue mat with a straight spine, just as Mrs. Yon had asked her to.

“That was perfect, Li Si!” Mrs. Yon exclaimed. She looked back at the rest of the class, squinted her eyes, and pursed her thin lips together. “Now, if only the rest of you could land that well.” Li Si attempted to smile to conceal the contempt she felt for gymnastics. She hated being good.

Li Si had been taken from her parents at the age of three. Her parents had brought her to audition to train for the Chinese gymnastics team, and the judges had seen her talent. They had brought her to the training facility, where she would train with hopes of going to the Olympics, and money was sent back to her family. Even though Li Si knew that she should be happy with the opportunity to earn money for her parents, she wished that she didn’t have to practice a sport that she despised.

“Well now, do all of you want to try?” Mrs. Yon asked. The students nodded eagerly, causing Li Si to feel a pang of guilt for not loving gymnastics as much as they did. She wished she could be eager to go to the Olympics.

She went back to the end of the line as each girl tried to top her land. Most of them made mistakes, and Mrs. Yon corrected them. They were at the age that in a month, they could be picked to go to the Olympics, so everyone wanted to be the best. That is, everyone except Li Si.

Finally, the class was over. As Li Si headed out the door, a shorter girl approached her. She was slightly skinner and less muscular than Li Si, and she had large eyes and thin eyebrows. “What?” Li Si demanded. Most of the girls at the training center just talked to her so that they could suck up to her, so she didn’t enjoy socializing.

The girl stepped back. “Well, if you’re going to be rude, then never mind.” Her voice was low-pitched yet edgy. She turned around and started to walk out the door.

Li Si walked ahead. This girl wasn’t weak: she was actually willing to stand up for herself. “Wait. I apologize,” Li Si called. “I shouldn’t have been so rude. I was, uh, I was stressed out.”

The girl turned around and glared at Li Si. “Yeah, well, I get stressed out too. I don’t get rude, though.”

“I said I’m sorry. What were you going to ask me?”

“I was going to ask you if you’d show me a few things. The Olympics are coming up, and I really want to get chosen. I mean, I know everyone does, but I could really use some help.”

This was a typical question for Li Si. Normally, she refused and explained that she was too busy, but this was the first girl with a backbone she had met. “Well, I guess. Maybe we could use our free time hour before dinner.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking. It sounds great.”

“Okay. Well, see you in the gym tonight.”

“You too. I’m Cristina, by the way,” the girl said. She held out her hand.

“Li Si.” She shook her hand.

Before dinner, the two girls met again in the gym. They stretched for a few minutes before the began. Li Si sat down with her legs out in front of her on the soft, cushy blue mat and tried to touch her toes. The gym smelled pungent, like a wet shower curtain. The chalk dust still irritated her palms. After Li Si and Cristina had stretched out for a few minutes, they decided to begin the lesson.

Li Si gave Cristina tips on flipping over the pole and landing with a straight spine. She honestly didn’t see how Cristina found it so difficult, but she tried her best to explain. At last, Cristina seemed to grasp the skill and landed with a straight spine.

“Excellent,” Li Si said.

“Thanks! I did it!” Cristina exclaimed. “Thanks so much for teaching me how. I really didn’t think I would ever get it. I was kind of getting worried.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied, wistfully. She wished that she could trade places with Cristina.

Before she finished the thought, Cristina said, “Hey, do you want to come to my room? My roommate went to her friend’s room, so we can have it all to ourselves.”

Li Si honestly didn’t feel like socializing, because she had better things to do, but she decided it would be impolite to reject the invitation. She flashed a smile and said, “Sure, that would be great.”

They climbed the stairs up from the gym to the third floor, where Cristina’s room was located. They walked down a hallway, turned right, and Cristina opened the door to the first room on the left side of the hall. They went in.

Cristina’s room was set up just like any other room at the training facility, with two twin beds in the center, a nightstand by each bed, a dresser against the right wall, and a sink against the left wall. The walls were beige, and the floor was wooden.

Cristina immediately hopped onto her bed. Li Si stood near the bed and glanced around the room. Suddenly something caught her eye. It was a copy of The Analects by Confucius. She gasped.

“What is it?” Cristina asked.

“How did you get a copy of that?” she inquired and pointed at the leather-bound book. She had read a few books for her lessons at the training facility, but she had never gotten the chance to read more than what was required.

“Oh, my dad gave it to me before I left. He was actually against letting me go train, because he wanted me to get a good education and everything, but my mom told him to let me go because I wanted to and everything. So he sent me with a bunch of books and told me to read them when I’m older. He still brings some by on visiting weekend.”

Li Si sighed and thought of her parents, who had sent her away without consideration. There was no doubt that she loved them, and part of the reason that she was depressed was because she missed them. But sometimes it hurt that they hadn’t cared about her education. She wanted more than just a two-hour lesson a day.

“You’re so lucky,” she said.

“Why? Do you like reading or something? Because, I mean, you can have these,” Cristina laughed.

“Wait, are you serious?”

“Yeah, of course! I want to learn as much as I can.” She stopped herself and realized that Cristina could easily twist her words around and get her kicked out of the training center, which would anger her parents.

“Wow. You’re so good at gymnastics, but you still want to learn stuff? For lessons and things? But why?”

Li Si shrugged. “It’s interesting.”

“To you it is. I’d much rather be good at gymnastics.”

Cristina handed her The Analects, and before Li Si could stop herself, she exclaimed, “But don’t you ever just want to get out of here? Don’t you ever feel so isolated?” She put a hand to her mouth and realized that what she had just said was bound to lead to her doom. She would be kicked out, and her parents would shun her.

However, to her surprise, Cristina said, “Well, I don’t know. I guess I could see that. Could you teach me something about Confucious, after you’ve learned it?”

“Wait, you’re not going to report me?”

“Report you?” Cristina asked, eyebrows raised. “Why would I even consider reporting you? You just taught me in an hour more than anything anyone has taught me all week. And you’re actually nice to me. You’re my friend.”

The two girls continued to work together for the next month.

“Now, today is a very special day,” Mrs. Yon was saying. It had been a month since Li Si and Cristina had first met, and they were back in the gym in their single file line. “Today is the day when I will announce which of you have been selected to be a part of the Chinese gymnastics team in the Olympics this year. I selected the best eight of this class, and you eight should know that it is quite a responsibility. You will be going to the Olympics to win and make your country proud. You have worked very hard, and you must be the best.”

Li Si crossed her fingers and hoped that she wouldn’t be picked. Although Li Si wanted her parents to be proud of a gold medal, she didn’t want to be known for gymnastics. She didn’t want to have to compete in front of the whole world.

To Li Si’s disappointment, Mrs. Yon called both of the girls’ names. “I want you eight to pack up your things as quickly as possible. As you know, the Olympics are taking place in the United States this year, so the trip will be a long one. We leave here tomorrow morning.”

Li Si bit her lip. She didn’t want this life. She wanted to go to school and learn about Chinese philosophers and about physics. She hated gymnastics.

Suddenly, a plan occurred to her.

She would run away at the United States airport.

She could escape but would never have to face her parents’ disappointment. She would miss them, but she’d have to overcome that. After all, the United States was the land of opportunity.

That night, as Li Si went through her things while she was packing, she took a long look at the picture of her parents. It was a photo from a dinner party fourteen years ago, before she was born. Her mom was a tall woman, and her dad was short. Her mom wore a pink gown; her dad wore a black suit. Her mom was smiling in the picture, and her dad looked serious. The expression on her dad’s face made her angry: he was too busy worrying about money to care about her education.

She clenched the picture in her hands, turned away, and ripped it to shreds.

***

“Come this way, girls,” Mrs. Yon said. The Chinese gymnastics team had just arrived in the United States. Li Si looked all around, not quite over the shock of actually being out in the world, not just in the training facility.

The group was going through a terminal, where people sat in brown leather seats reading newspapers, using their laptops, and eating. Li Si couldn’t get over how many different types of people there were—some fat, some thin, some with blonde hair, some with pink hair. She also couldn’t get over how many people used electronics.

Mrs. Yon turned around to lead the group. Li Si knew that her chance was coming—she could easily sit in one of the leather seats and steal a magazine to hide her face. Sure, Mrs. Yon would look for her for a while, but Li Si was a coordinated and quick person. She could easily escape.

Cristina walked beside her, smiling, without a worry in the world. “I’m leaving,” Li Si whispered to her.

Cristina stopped smiling. “What? What do you mean?”

“I’m going to separate from the group. I’m not coming back to the training center. I’m going to find other opportunities.”

“You’re crazy. What about the Olympics?”

“I’m not going to the Olympics, Cristina.”

She raised her eyebrows, then nodded. “You might be crazy, but you’re right that your place isn’t on our team. You’d be happier somewhere that you can learn.”

Li Si smiled. “Yes. Yes, I think I will be.” She paused and said, “So, you’re coming with me, right?”

Cristina shook her head. “No. My place is at the training center. I love gymnastics.”

Li Si stopped smiling. She couldn’t believe it. All this time she had expected Cristina to say “yes” right away and come with her. She had believed that she had truly convinced Cristina that a life elsewhere than the training center would be better. “I thought you were on my side. I thought you wanted to come with me.”

The group continued to move forward. They were almost at the end of the terminal.

“I am on your side, Li Si. I want us both to reach our dreams. My dream is to do well at the Olympics. Your dream is to become educated and smart. You’ll do great things one day. I know you will.”

“We’ll never see each other again,” Li Si said and reconsidered leaving. She didn’t want to give up her best friend. She had grown to love Cristina like a sister.

“I’ll always remember you,” Cristina replied.

“I don’t want to leave you behind.”

“You have to. You have to follow your dreams.”

“Come with me, please?” Li Si beseeched just one more time. Yet she already knew the answer.

“Goodbye, Li Si. Go for the gold,” Cristina said.

Li Si nodded and realized that there was no choice but to leave Cristina behind. She waved her a quick goodbye and separated from the group. This was the best decision. After all, she was in the United States, the land of opportunity.





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