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Until a month ago, if you had asked who I was, I would have told you proudly, “I’m Kayla, and I’m a gymnast.” Gymnastics was my life, the core of my being, my identity. And I gave it up.
Gymnastics clubs have a certain atmosphere about them. Chalk dust reigns supreme, floating in the air, coming to rest on skin and in lungs. I can still remember the sensation of the air: dusty, dry, and tasting a bit like, well, chalk. But it’s more than that. Gyms have an air of intensity. Gymnasts know what they’re doing, they know how much work they’ll have to put in, and are willing to offer themselves body and mind to it. This mentality permeates the sport. Even the sound that fills gyms is intense: the rhythmic thump-thump of tumbling, punctuated by the occasional dismount from beam or bars. The sound is like music to me, a rhythm and melody all its own.
I love gymnastics. I love the feeling of flying through the air, of seeing the world from upside down, of knowing the awe that you poor ground-bound people feel when you watch. I love the emotions - the thrill of trying something new and scary, the joy when I hit a move perfectly, even the pain when I miss a skill but don’t give up. And most of all, I love knowing that I alone can do it, that, while I may not be the best (not even close), it is my mind, my body, my willpower that is behind whatever I accomplish.
From the moment I saw the amazing U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in 1996, I knew gymnastics was what I wanted to do. Working up from once-a-week gymnastics classes at the age of five, I made it to the level of an optional gymnast, spending as many as 20 hours a week in the gym. Needless to say, I didn’t have much spare time. Yet when I came home from gym every day, chalk dusting my hair and skin, I was happy. True, I would almost always be hurting, but I would be sleepily proud of myself.
And gymnastics does hurt. I was always in pain, whether from the rigors of the repetitive impact on my body, blisters and rips on my hands from the chalky wooden bars, or sore, screaming muscles. But gymnastics is about learning to ignore pain, and I had become an expert at it.
At least, I thought I was. Then my back began to hurt. I didn’t give it a second thought, at first, because pain was something I expected. But it continued, got worse, until one day I was unable to tumble and could barely stand up without crying. My team was due to leave the following day for a competition, and my coach pressed, “Can’t you do just one routine?”
I shook my head, holding back tears.
“Do you want to compete tomorrow?”
I nodded slowly. I knew what was coming.
“Then you are going to do this
Gymnastics coaches are not known for sympathy, so I did the routine, biting my lip to try to ignore the throbbing in my back. At the end of the music, and thus my routine, I fell to the floor and burst into tears. I had to be carried out of the gym - in too much pain to walk. Knowing what back injuries can mean, I thought my gymnastics career might be over forever.
I spent a year in physical therapy and out of competition. Finally pain-free, I jumped back into full workouts, trying to make up for lost time. I managed to catch up with my teammates and compete that season. But gymnastics didn’t make me as happy as it once had. I rubbed under the rein of my strict coaches, and gym just didn’t seem to be worth quite as much time as it once had. But I still loved gymnastics, and it was the focus of my life. The next summer I was training for the next level, hoping by gaining new skills to be able to advance, when my back started to hurt again. I went back to therapy, not backing off gymnastics, not wanting to lose ground. While my friends were basking in the summer sun, I spent my time in the chalk haze of the gym. By the end of vacation, I was asking myself, Is this really worth it? As much as I loved gymnastics, I had other interests and gymnastics didn’t leave any time.
With the start of school came homework, increased gym workouts, and exhaustion. On the first day of school, I reminded myself that gym was my life, my home, my passion. But I was ready to stop ignoring my pain and doing damage to my body. I didn’t want to hurt at the end of every day. Trying to find the balance between workouts, homework, and sleep, I realized I wanted to do everything other high school students do because they don’t spend four hours a day at the gym.
I wanted to have other passions.
That day, I stopped going to gymnastics.
I can’t pretend I won’t miss it: my home, my life, my obsession. I can’t pretend I won’t miss my teammates, or my skills, or my ability to fly. But it’s time for me to let go.
I’m Kayla Sheridan, and I’m a
Can I really give up my identity?
I’m Kayla, and I am me.