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Trigger Warning - The subject of eating disorders and depression are mentioned. Specific behaviors are not.
When I was a kid, like a lot of you, gymnastics was my favoritest thing in the world. It was my stress relief, my social circle, my outlet, my passion, and what I most looked forward to. I didn't start until I was 10 and even at that young age wondered where gymnastics had been all my life!
As I moved through high school it became increasingly apparent that I might not have what it takes for NCAA college gymnastics, which had been my goal. Nonetheless, I wasn’t going down without a fight. I poured through the code of points looking for any higher level skills I could work on that matched my abilities. I conditioned obsessively both in and out of the gym. I stretched at home. I ate as healthy as I could. I was a nervous and shy kid and the thought of moving far from home scared me, so I decided to take a shot at UNH, which was within driving distance if I needed to visit home frequently.
To my delight, after learning my skill level the UNH coaches assured me that walk ons were welcomed and they would not cut anyone from the program who wanted to take part.
Unfortunately, once I showed up for unofficial practice, things had changed. Three athletes including myself were cut just a couple of weeks into the program. I felt lost, angry, confused, shocked, and depressed. Very, very depressed. I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, no other form of social support in place, and little in the way of family support. I also had developed an eating disorder by this point, partly in my mind as a way to get "the edge" and probably even more so to help me just generally cope with life. I was engaging in more and more generally reckless behavior. It was a very dark time. Admittedly, in high school it often felt like gymnastics was the only thing that I lived for. Although I knew there was something wrong with that, I didn't have the tools to dig myself out of that situation at the time.
As the light began to clear after the news and I was forced to face the reality of not being part of the UNH gymnastics team, I tried to accept a gymnastics-less life. Try as I might, it just wasn’t working for me as the months went by. I was growing increasingly depressed and losing interest in life altogether, to be honest. It was extremely scary and I didn't know where to turn for help. Looking back, a counselor or therapist would have been a great idea, but at the time I was concerned what my parents would think if they found out and I also kept thinking I could figure my way out on my own.
Out of desperation, I found myself coming up with some ideas that I had never entertained before. I had never seen or heard of a college age athlete training with their USAG team, but the thought popped into my head anyway. I began thinking to myself, “What if I return to my old childhood gym, train really hard, and try out for the UNH team again next year?”
It was almost January at that point, which would have left me with 8 solid months to train. However, deep down in the back of my mind I knew I wouldn’t make it next year, either. I knew there would be younger, better gymnasts coming along to contend with. I was too far behind and my coach wasn’t really equipped to teach me what I needed to learn. I also was coming to grips that my talent level and the late age that I started the sport put me at a severe handicap. My eating issues were not helping either.
I was finally starting to forgive myself for all that I could not be in the sport (not that any of it was my fault) which was a relief. My whole childhood I felt like I had been disappointing for my parents because I was not the most successful gymnast. My dad harbored innocent but persistant fantasies that I would be an Olympian, or at the very least a college athlete, and my mother loved to compare me to other kids and harp on how much it all cost. I am tremendously grateful for all they did for me to help me participate in gymnastics, which is a lot! The emotional side was not their forte however, which I can forgive now as an adult admittedly with many flaws myself!
Now that I was a young adult and still interested in gymnastics I was starting to move past those expectations from parents and coaches and think about what I wanted for once. And I knew that I just needed to do something once again that made me feel like me again, which was training - and especially training without unrealistic expectations piled on.
I knew that my life depended on me finding a way back to gymnastics, although I couldn’t explain why this sport felt so darn important to me.
So I was 18 and in college and I would be looking to train with a group of high school and middle school girls again. I would have preferred an adult group to work out with, but no such thing existed, I thought (more on this later). Sure I looked similar enough to them still, but everyone there knew very well that I was college age. Would the kids and parents think I was a failure for having not making the UNH team? Would they think I was weird, or pathetic, or crazy for doing a “kids” sport? Was I actually crazy?? I was not sure, but I knew the crushing depression I felt as well as the unhealthy coping mechanisms I had fallen into along the way were not sustainable and that I had to do something, anything different. I asked my coach if I could come back to train with the goal of competing for his team once again and, to my surprise, he said yes!
I was very happy to have an outlet again in the sport. Unfortunately, I was hit with the reality that things had changed there, too. After what I had been through I didn’t feel like I fit in there at all anymore. My depression did not go away – it may have even worsened, since I now theoretically had what I had wanted and it still hadn’t helped.
I think a big part of the problem was the fact that I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere at all anymore. I didn’t belong with the other college freshman as a regular college kid (I still attended classes mind you, but I had switched to commuting because I didn’t belong with my roommates either, which they pointed out one night through fits of laugher while they thought I was asleep). The roommate thing could have been worked through in time if I was emotionally healthy, most likely, but I was not. I didn’t belong at the gym as everyone there suddenly seemed to be living this basic, charmed life I couldn’t relate to. I missed the simple days of a parent driving me to the gym, taking care of all my needs, and paying all the bills.
My family didn’t seem to understand my drive to train and thought I should just move on and experience a “normal” life, a life which did not interest me. I had had only a couple of brief stints with dating by that point and that whole scene didn’t interest me much, which always disappointed my relatives when they asked if I was dating. Whenever I was in a room filled with people I felt like I didn’t belong and it was a painful and sad way to live. Being older now, I get that a lot of people feel that way, particularly at those young adult ages. However, in my mind at the time it was only me that was suffering so.
Fast forward to a few years later. The dream of competing NCAA was long gone and I had come to terms with that (I was unaware of NAIGC by the way, but that would have been an amazing fit for me, and part of why I have adult-gymnastics.com – so that others know of all the options out there – visits Naigc.org to learn more about them). I had taken a few years off from the sport basically out of necessity because my body felt like it had broken down to the point of no repair, but slowly the aches healed and once again my heart drew me back to the sport.
This time, I was in a much better place mentally. I had gotten engaged, moved into an apartment, and launched my own business all as I was finishing up school. The depression was lifting. The one thing that seemed to be missing in my life was fun, and I decided gymnastics would be the perfect activity for that. I once again resumed training at my childhood gym, an opportunity for which I am forever grateful. After I got my old skills back I decided to switch to training at a club that had better facilities and better coaching. That was a tough bandaid to rip off and my old coach was crushed, which was another painful experience to work through.
I had matured quite a bit by that point and at 25 was OK with working out with another new group of kids, who happened to be the only ones training at the same intensity level as me, this time knowing that I would not completely belong with them either, but that what united us was a shared goal of the love of the sport. The gym welcomed me like family and the coaches were all great which helped me feel a sense of belonging. Helping out when the gym ran meets or had social events was a great way to fuel those connections. It wasn’t quite like having a team full of adults, but it was better than what I had before and I was grateful. I also occasionally utilized the adult class if I needed to take a break from team for one reason or another. That was a great place to meet people closer to my age.
As I mentioned before, along the way I had met my future husband and we had gotten married. That really helped solidify my feeling of belonging somewhere, and because of that there was less pressure in my mind with the gymnastics and that made it all the more fun and enjoyable to get back into competing again. My husband was always a 100% supporter of my passion and that came with no judgement and unconditional love, something that meant the world to me and was a new feeling to be able to enjoy as I did my sport.
My ultimate goal with creating the Just Like Fine Wine…Adult Gymnastics Facebook Group as well as adult-gymnastics.com and The Original Adult Gymnastics Camp is for no other adult gymnast to ever again have the feeling that they don’t belong.
Back when I was pursing the sport as an adult not as part of
a college team in the late 90s, I didn’t know of anyone else doing it,
aside from the twentysomething Olympians that competed in 2004. But that was
elite, and I was most certainly not an elite. “There had to be others like me
who just loved the sport,” I thought. “Where were they?”
I met a few of them at AAU meets and figured I would start a Facebook Group to see if we could connect that way. The group took off. Finally, there was a place to post that skill you got, even if it’s into the pit, and for people to share in your excitement. Finally there was a place where you could post your vent and have people get it. Finally there was a way to find other adults gymnasts in your area where you could build in person relationships with, as well as find other adults who you could connect with online that understood just what you were going through.
As I built the group and had some great help along the way with other Facebook Groups that merged with mine (Thanks, Katy!) I got handed an opportunity to take over some adult gymnastics blogs and Social Media from Jessica O’Beirne of the famed Gymcastic Podcast and took that on, knowing that the more exposure adult gymnasts could have in the media and online, the more class and team opportunities at gym clubs would arise. I also knew that this exposure would mean more and more adult gymnasts would no longer feel alone in their continuation of wanting to do their favorite sport, just like runners, swimmers, basketball players and all other kinds of masters athletes get to do.
I committed to doing my best to gain media coverage for adult gymnastics and keep the class list up to date. I found some wonderful volunteers to help me with some tasks and they deserve all the credit in the world. You can see their pictures on the cover photo of the Facebook Group. I am always amazed at the level of passion, dedication and effort gymnastics lovers can put into something – but then again, I’m not really surprised! The sport fosters that. And we are doing a great job - there are many times more clubs offering training for adults than there were even back in 2014 when I started the Facebook Group.
I took it all to another in person level opening up my NH Adult Gymnastics Camp back in 2015 that welcomed anyone who wanted to do gymnastics, no matter the age or level. Belonging should not be a matter of achievement, ability or age. Rather, it should have everything to do with character, passion, shared interests, mutual respect, and shared love. If you have that, you belong, regardless of if you have those people around you yet every single day or not. You already belong. Think about that. It feels really good, doesn’t it?
I am not participating in gymnastics right now due to medical reasons, but I am grateful that I belong here, in this community, as I hold more of a coach and ambassador role in the sport. I also have found a way to broaden my sense of belonging outside of sport and my stellar husband – I have developed a diverse group of awesome friends, something that I struggled to do at times when I was an athlete due to the time contraints and the shyness I experienced. Again, nothing unusual, but when it's happening to you it's easy to feel alone. If you're reading this and you do feel alone or that you don't belong, know that it gets better!! I'm happy to report as well that depression and eating issues are a thing of the past. Whatever you are going through now, realize things you are dealing with now don't have to last forever and that there is hope.
No matter where you wish to belong, I hope that you find or have already found that connection, because it’s very powerful and very healing. Community is key, and I thank you for being part of it by being here in this corner of the world with me.
Article by Gina Paulhus. You can read more about her here.
Disclaimer: Adult gymnasts and coaches give advice and suggestions on this page. By reading and implementing the information, you assume all liability for injury. The advice given is for educational purposes only. Please check with your in-person coach and ensure that you have the proper pit, mats and/or spot available before trying any suggestions. If you don't agree to these terms, do not attempt anything that you see on this page.
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