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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