How mastering the Vault taught me better advocacy8 min read

Not many people know this about me these days besides my friends, but I was a fairly suc­cessful aspiring artistic gym­nast in my child­hood. I fre­quently com­peted at regional com­pe­ti­tions and often took gold in many if not all of my events back in the day. It was floated by my coach that I might have com­peted for the national team in time had puberty not decided that I’d be too tall, too big boned and too volup­tuous for a gym­nast  — at least according to the fashion of the time which was the early 90’s when Nadia Comăneci was still con­sid­ered the per­fect shape of gym­nast to aspire to.

My dreams of career com­pe­ti­tion were dashed by the per­va­sive soci­etal influ­ence of body-shaming gym coaches (a pre­dom­i­nantly mas­cu­line field pecu­liarly pre­oc­cu­pied with keeping young women the size and shape of little girls) which my female fire-breather of a gym coach could not have over­come, even with her truly badass levels of assertive­ness and kind­ness.

This coach, affec­tion­ately known to all as Auntie Maggie, was the PT teacher at my pri­mary school and uni­ver­sally acknowl­edged as a genius on many levels where sport coaching for young kids was con­cerned.

But it is her qual­i­ties as a human being, which she brought into her coaching, that gave me some­thing far more valu­able than a path to a career in sport that would serve me well for the rest of my life: A model for how to be a coura­geous, humble, ded­i­cated, and hard working human being.

You see, Maggie never made you feel afraid, or like she didn’t believe in you, or that you were not a good person if you couldn’t make that landing or find your feet on the bal­ance beam or fum­bled your grip on the par­allel bars. She just reminded you that nothing worth having was acquired without appli­ca­tion over time of the appro­priate amount of elbow grease to resolve what­ever resis­tance you were facing.

She was the first person to make me believe that any­thing I set my mind to was in my reach if I was willing to do the work, that I was strong and capable of reaching what­ever dream I could catch sight of with my vision, and that suc­cess was often, if not exclu­sively, the domain of those who were willing to take more pun­ish­ment than the next guy over. The mes­sage was clear: A gold medalist is not who you are, it is what you choose to do every day you walk into the gym and finish those drills.

The one thing that kept nailing me was the vault. A short sprint, stick a landing on a piece of spring loaded jumping board, touch down on the vault to pivot your centre of gravity through three hun­dred and sixty degrees to com­plete a full rota­tion through mid air, head over heels and land, roughly in the mid centre of the mat below, planted like a rigid but quiv­ering flag­pole, pos­ture erect.

That was gold.

And my landing was off. Bronze at best. I could do it. But it was off centre, I wob­bled, I missed my landing position…something was not right. I began to wonder if I would ever manage to ace this, the last com­po­nent of what would go on to become a straight-gold-in-all-events streak that got me my provin­cial colours that year.

At that point I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to even show up to the meet. Because missing this landing was dis­aster to me back then. It mat­tered to me a lot and I could not accept that this was not going to work out.

I ran at that vault spring again and again. But in my mind was Maggie, reminding me that there was no gain without pain. That the pain of the burn in your mus­cles and the ache in your ten­dons was the most intense just before the stretch started to become easier. That falling wasn’t the failure — not get­ting back up was.

That of course it hurt to come down hard, but what hurt more was knowing you could have done it if you’d just kept going a little longer on that mat. That the com­pe­ti­tion was never with the mat, or the spring­board, or the gym­nasts beside you but only ever with your­self. Only you knew how much you put in, and whether you blew that landing out of cow­ardice and lack of courage to see the work through to the end, or because you actu­ally just couldn’t do it.

Not doing it wasn’t the shameful thing. Not trying was.

So I ran at that vault spring again. I ran at it over and over for well over four hours in one gym ses­sions, subtly adjusting my hand posi­tion, the turn of my ankle, how many steps I took in my run up, how much I curved my knees on impact, how high I aimed before I tucked my body for the fall. I ran at it until there was nothing else in the uni­verse except me, the vault spring, the vault and the fif­teen square cen­time­tres of mat that was my target landing point.

It took me four hours to finally figure out what a good landing felt like. But the first time I did it it felt better than any recre­ational drug I have ever had the fool­har­di­ness to par­take of. There is nothing like nailing that landing on God’s green earth that could com­pare to my euphoria.

I tell you freely, gym­nas­tics will always be my drug of choice because there is nothing like knowing your body did exactly the thing you told it to do, when you told it to do it, hurtling through space at high veloc­i­ties and not get­ting hurt, but instead moving like a dol­phin flying through a hoop and exe­cuting a per­fect super­hero landing.

That day, and many other days like it changed my way of thinking about dif­fi­cul­ties in my life. I knew then, as now, that I could ace the landing if I wanted to, and was willing to work for it. But I also knew that before I did it would often hurt, I’d fall short and bash my face against the vault, or twist my wrist wrong and be in blazing agony for the rest of the workout.

I’d twist my ankle on the dis­mount, or over­es­ti­mate my speed and not buckle my knees enough, sending a bone jar­ring impact res­onating through my entire skeletal frame which would ache and throb. I knew I’d land squarely on my ass if my foot slipped, or even squarely on my shoulder or midriff if my hands were not pow­dered enough or placed squarely on the vault cen­tre­line.

The ways I could fail were more numerous than the ways I could suc­ceed by so many orders of mag­ni­tude that it was laugh­able, for you see there was only one right landing, and every landing that wasn’t right was wrong…and in four hours of run­ning at that vault I only had that one per­fect landing. You do the math.

You see, when you’re learning to do it right, doing it wrong is sort of assumed. You will fall, and you will fall HARD. It is going to hurt, that is expected. And while your mom or even your coach may look at you askance or express con­cern about whether you should call it a day, only you and your own body knew if that last missed dis­mount injured you enough to call it quits for this day, or if you could still keep going and it was up to you to keep working until you ran out of chances to try because that’s what made you the Gold medalist: Trying more and better than everyone else, so that you could do it better when the com­pe­ti­tion came.

You were the only judge of your best effort, and in a world where Nadia Comaneci and her olympic per­fect ten existed I knew that some­times my best effort was not going to be enough to win the gold if I met someone who had put in more time than me or just had the knack I might not have, but I could not pos­sibly even com­pete with the best if I didn’t absolutely give my best effort all the time.

This leads me back to advo­cacy. One of the MOST impor­tant things I think advo­cates today need to work on isn’t their ability to study new trends in changing lan­guage, or their capacity to show up for marches or speak truth to power.

I think the thing we need to work on is our rela­tion­ship to failure, both in our­selves and in others. How we speak about failure, both in our groups and inside our own minds is going to deter­mine how likely it is that we suc­ceed.

What my expe­ri­ence on the vault should teach us about advo­cacy isn’t that we need to be more dis­ci­plined, or to put in more hours, or apply more elbow grease, though those things can be impor­tant. It doesn’t speak to me about grit or deter­mi­na­tion or courage or tenacity either, though for some it might. For me it speaks about the impor­tance of under­standing that suc­cess con­sists of living, some­times for exces­sively tedious amounts of time in a pre­dom­i­nant state of failure.

Failure is the norm.

Just like the nature of human life on our planet is freak­ishly improb­able, the path to our little bipedal selves lit­tered with the lit­eral dusty bones of 4.5 bil­lion years worth of fos­sils who didn’t make it, suc­cess is some­thing you clutch from the straws of defeat. But to even make a run at that per­fect landing, we need to give people a way to fall and get back up again for another run.

Every vault has a landing mat. And if you land on your ass your team­mates don’t laugh or heckle you or bully you off the team for landing badly (lest Auntie Maggie clip their wings for mis­con­duct). They stand by qui­etly let­ting you try again.

Perhaps your coach might pull you aside qui­etly and kindly but point­edly cor­rect your form. And nobody is going to make fun of you if you need to spend an extra four hours after everyone else has left the floor working on your landing till you can nail it because you could not keep up with the rest of the class.

They’ll just leave the gym unlocked between classes and tell the jan­itor not to lock you in so you can figure it out for your­self.

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1 Comment

  1. Most kids in the Western world have had all failure pun­ished, shamed, + not allowed, by our school teachers. By which cul­ture, school itself fails, by forcing us to play safe + not grow. Frightens us into not growing, by actions it actu­ally con­tinues to believe will frighten us into growing.

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