I focused on the mat in front of me. Dark blue lines, evenly spaced on the light blue surface, showed the path of my tumbling pass. Loud thumps on the mats let me know that others around me were honing the skill we all loved.
“Warm up all tumbling! We’ll be running the routine full out!” Coach Mike yelled, and the squad of almost 30 cheerleaders groaned at the thought of yet another practice run. But we did as we were told and went to our corners for tumbling.
“We need to warm up our stunt too,” Kenzie said. I turned to look at the small 11-year-old, my “flyer,” whose weight I’d help support as I lifted her high above the mats. “I’m not very confident with the switch-up.”
She rubbed her palms together and chewed her lip. I nodded and tried to give her a reassuring smile before I turned back to face the blue mat. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do, so I didn’t hesitate. I shifted my weight to the right foot, went through a simple eight count in my head, ran two steps, and hurdled.
As my hands fell to the mat, my body went into autopilot. First the roundoff, then the back handspring, then, finally, a tuck. I threw my arms out and leaped off the mat. My body turned in the air and, as I always do during a tumbling pass, I closed my eyes. I fell from almost five feet up, my feet landing on the mat with a loud thud. Adrenaline rushed through me, and I felt the familiar craving to do it again.
After Kenzie warmed up her tumbling, she dragged me and her other bases – Kelsey and Haley – to a corner to practice our stunt. Everyone in our group had a job. I was the main base, so I would hold most of Kenzie’s weight and keep her foot steady as we held her up. After running through the sequence and going over counts, Coach had us line up and get ready to run the full routine.
The practice was a boring one, and we were all growing tired. The cheer squad started moping through the countless, tiring run-throughs. My feet skidded across the mat as my body became more and more fatigued. We lined up for yet another run-through, but all I wanted to do was lie down and give my overworked muscles a break.
Before I was ready, the music for the routine blared from the speakers. Our routine was not hard, but it’s easy to get lost when there are 30 other girls on the mats with you. Still, I’d learned to zero in on one spot on the wall and focus on what I needed to do. As we finished, Kenzie did a full down and we cradled her in our arms. We let her down gently, then transitioned to tumbling.
My very first pass was only a roundoff to a tuck. Not hard at all. Once I landed, I had to move quickly to the corner. I watched as Lacy did her pass, then Riley and Kenzie, then, finally, Louran.
My pass was next. I shifted my weight to my right foot and took my first step. My roundoff felt fine, but when I went into the back handspring, I could feel that something was wrong. My body felt loose, as though I didn’t have control over my muscles. I had to pull it together; if I messed up I would get the whole team push-ups. As soon as I set into the tuck I knew that it was a mistake. I wasn’t tight, I threw my head back, but I didn’t have enough rotation.
Upside down, I felt myself start to fall. My face hit the mat first. Then my body landed with a loud thud and the wind was knocked out of my lungs. A sharp pain registered in my nose as I peeled myself off the floor. The skin on the bridge of my nose, my upper lip, and my chin felt stretched beyond limits. The music stopped and I was buried in the shadows of my teammates as they gathered around me.
“She’s bleeding!” Kelsey whispered to the coach.
The realization finally hit: I had fallen in my tuck. I’d never fallen this badly before. My stomach twisted and turned as I got to my feet. Coach Mike told me to go clean myself up in the bathroom.
When I glanced in the mirror my stomach did its own tumbling pass. A steady flow of warm blood streamed from my nose and chin. I spit into the sink and scrambled to get a paper towel for my nose. After what felt like forever, I finally stopped the bleeding. I cleaned my face with warm water, exposing my mat burns, which throbbed. The parts of my face that stung were rubbed raw, cracked, and still bleeding. I could feel my pulse in my head. The stinging was unbearable!
That week was a long and agonizing experience. My face scabbed up, and I had to tell the story a million times. That weekend we had a competition, but I now had a mental block. Every time I tried to do my tuck, my brain screamed to stop. The competition was even worse than the practice! I fell on my knees on the stage! I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. I wanted to do my tuck so much, but my body just wouldn’t let me. Every time I tried, I got sweaty, my heart raced, and I felt extremely discouraged. When I faced the long drives to the gym, I knew I’d only leave feeling worse. I decided to stop competitive cheerleading.
I quit, feeling discouraged and unsatisfied. But soon after, I felt amazing relief. Suddenly a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I no longer had to pressure myself with tumbling. I no longer had to face my teammates every day feeling as though I would let them down again.
The only thing that had me nervous now was high school cheer tryouts. I was bombarded with the cheers and dances to memorize. The pressure was nothing, though, compared to what I had experienced. At least now I could do whatever tumbling pass I wanted.
After long hours of practicing the cheers and dance routines, tryouts finally arrived. My nerves made me shake and sweat as I waited to be called into the gym for my individual tryout. I spirited in and forced a smile as I faced the five judges. I performed my cheer and chants; then it was time for my jumps and tumbling.
The tumbling went great: an easy and well-executed roundoff back handspring. But as I spirited out of the gym, I started to beat myself up about how horrid I did. I thought I wasn’t loud enough, my motions were not tight, and I messed up on my cheer. In my mind, everything that could have gone wrong did.
When my mom picked me up, I had lost hope that I would make varsity, which I had wanted since fifth grade. That night everyone who’d tried out would receive a phone call telling us whether we made the squad or got cut. The wait was agonizing. My phone sat on my lap, and I kept stealing glances at the black screen. It was 11 when I finally heard my ringtone. I answered and was greeted by the coach, Mrs. Carey.
“Congratulations! You made varsity,” she said. I felt as light as air at that moment.
That summer we started practicing, and the practices included tumbling classes. I was excited to tumble on a spring mat again, but terrified to do my tuck. As we walked through the door, my head filled with memories; some were good, but others made my face hurt. We were introduced to our new coach, Clark, who was from Alaska and supposed to be amazing. I had high hopes he would help me get over my mental block.
I explained my fear to Clark, and he didn’t seem fazed. “You’ll get over it,” he said. Then we began tumbling. As we went through simple tumbles like cartwheels, handstands, rolls, and round-offs, the humidity was thick, making it hard to take steady breaths. My skin started to get sticky with sweat as we lined up to start corner tumbling.
When Clark told me he would spot me, I thought that I would feel scared, but I only felt more confident in myself. If the coach thinks I can do it, then I must be able to, I thought. I shifted my weight to my right foot and took a deep breath. Don’t overthink this.
I took my first step into it and cleared my head. My next thought didn’t register until my feet hit the ground at the end of my pass. I opened my eyes and released the fists I hadn’t realized I was squeezing. I looked up to see the smiling faces of my friends running toward me.
“You did it!” Emma shouted.
“That was so pretty!” Sam squealed
“I’m so proud of you!” Kenzie cheered.
I felt an incredible rush of excitement as I hugged my teammates. After six months of stress and sorrow whenever I thought about tumbling, I finally felt fulfilled, excited, and incredibly proud.
As the cheer season began, my tumbling was put into the routine. I tumbled at our first varsity game and cheered with a new happiness. Tumbling no longer felt like an unbearable task.
Wednesday is now my favorite day of the week because I get to go to the gym and tumble with the coach who helped me conquer my mental block. Now that I can tumble without freaking myself out, I carry myself differently and interact with people in a new way that reflects my positive attitude. Now that my tucks are no longer an obstacle, I can work on other skills and become a better tumbler.
Thinking back on my mental block, I know that without the support and the confidence that my friends gave me, I would never have gotten over it. Clark’s coaching helped me fix my technique. I know I won’t fall like that again.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.