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The Gymnast

A short but true story.

It’s far too early, on a cold, Autumn, Saturday morning. My wife and I are perched precariously on uncomfortable chairs in a sweaty gymnasium, waiting anxiously for our six year old daughter, Tali, to perform in a gymnastics competition that she had been desperate to enter.

Our anxiety is high because for the last month our daughter has been frantically trying to perform a backwards roll, and up until now she has failed to complete even a single one. I hadn’t known what a backwards roll was myself until a few weeks before the competition, but in just the last few days alone I had witnessed well over ten thousand of them. A backwards roll is a key move in this specific gymnastics competition. I would really like to sugar coat it to Tali and pass it off as just an insignificant move, but she already knows how important it is largely thanks to her coaches who have built this move up to disproportionate stakes.

Backwards rolls are all that she thinks about, all that she talks about, and all she does when she’s awake and not in school. I’m quite certain that she is probably rolling her way across the hard, concrete playground each day; the state of her tights, coat, shoes and indeed knees seem to confirm this. She has practised backwards rolls tirelessly at home, in the garden, in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bathroom, in her bedroom, in our bedroom. Friends and family that have innocently visited over recent weeks have been roped into private one on one tutorials with her, each one hoping to be the one to finally make the breakthrough with her. One of our good friends has put his back out attempting to demonstrate a backwards roll in the garden, and rolled a bit too far down the hill, stopping just short of the wall and a two feet drop down to the patio. This injury will cause him weeks and weeks of unnecessary pain and discomfort.

A backwards roll has become a taboo word in the house. It’s not just the elephant in the room, it’s the elephant in every room. Our house is an unsanctioned elephant sanctuary. Tali has threatened to quit her beloved gymnastics just because she can’t perform the backwards roll. I have had to offer her hours of daddy psychology coaching to get her through this, and convince her that practice makes perfect; but she doesn’t even want perfect, she just wants to complete one, even if it’s a little bit wonky.

Tali is good at almost anything she turns her mind to, but the backwards roll is close to breaking her. We try to gently talk her out of the competition, convincing her to take part in the next one, but her pride and determination make her adamant she is going to compete.

She looks nervous as she waits in line for her turn. The other girls before her have performed well, faultless even. She looks over at us, and we send her in return an array of over excited, supportive hand gesticulations and facial expressions. We are fast becoming those embarrassing parents that we have previously been so quick to mock and condemn.

The judges call her name and she steps forward. My heart is pounding. My mouth is dry. She looks over at us one more time. I give her the thumbs up, and manage to stop myself just short of shouting something out loud.

She performs her first few moves well, she seems confident. The judges watch intently, scribbling notes between each move. Next up is the backwards roll. I put my hand over my eyes, I look to my wife and she is looking at the floor. Tali stands tall and straight, her back to the judges. She holds this for an eternity. I’m thinking ‘go on girl you can do it, you can do it’. She throws herself down to sitting position on the floor, pulls her knees into her chest and then jerks herself quickly backwards, launching her legs over her head at the same time. The world goes into slow motion. Her legs fly over her head, her bottom follows. It’s looking good. Her feet land on the floor, she just needs to stand up straight, she pushes herself upwards using her hands, she’s halfway up and then her left knee buckles and she wobbles off to the left, landing in a heap by the side of the mat. She gets up quickly though and stands up tall and proud; perhaps hoping the judges hadn’t seen.

The judges look at each other and then scribble away as Tali returns to the back of the line, her face red and crestfallen. I look at my wife, she stifles a nervous laugh but tears form in her eyes. I look at Tali, her head is down, her face in her hands. I think she is crying and my heart breaks into a thousand little pieces. I sigh heavily, my wife sighs heavily. Tali looks at us both and we immediately break out into huge smiles, waves and thumbs up signs. We are miming the words ‘well done’ and ‘amazing’ to her with far too much enthusiasm.

We don’t even notice the other three children compete after Tali because my wife and I are too busy discussing the best way to pick our broken child up off the floor and rebuild her confidence. We aren’t really paying much attention when the judges start to name the winners because we are worrying whether this could do lasting damage to her. When they announce third place and it isn’t Tali our last hope of salvaging anything from the morning is gone. Now we are considering whether this could be one of those incidents she will recall in a psychiatrists chair in thirty years time, as the key downward turning point in her life. We are talking about what terrible parents we are and how we should have stood our ground and talked her out of this competition this time around. We are so busy worrying about the damage we’ve done to our child that we don’t notice the judges have just called out her name and she’s won the competition.

My wife and I do an actual double take. Our mouths are wide open. We are in total and utter disbelief. We look to Tali and she is already striding towards the judges to pick up her trophy. They hand the trophy to her and she lifts the trophy up above her head, naturally, as if she somehow knows that’s what champions do. She is beaming from ear to ear, literally. Her smile is the greatest smile I have ever seen, still to this day I can picture it now. The judge puts a medal around her neck and she races over to see us, elated and jubilant.

My wife and I lift her up and bounce her about. We tell her how proud we are of her and she just smiles and smiles and smiles. She looks at me and says’ “I messed up my backwards roll too daddy.”

I look at her and smile and I say, “Sweetheart, that just shows you how it’s not about being perfect it’s about trying hard. All that hard work you put in paid off. I’m so proud of you.”

We all skip back to the car triumphantly, to drive our gymnastic champion back home for a celebratory lunch.

Later that day, in the living room, she performs an absolutely perfect backwards roll.

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