Darn You, MaryLou: The Disenchantment of a Gymnastics Mom


In 1984, there was nothing I wanted more than that iconic American flag leotard of Mary Lou Retton… that and a dose of accompanying talent. I yearned to float through the air in powerful twists and turns, and a VHS recording of Nadia Comaneci’s life story kept permanent residence in our family VCR. My mother, to her credit, enrolled my sister and me in gymnastics classes in the basement of the Presbyterian church – the only option in rural Indiana in the early ’80s. Eventually, the world’s attention turned toward gymnastics, and even Podunk, Indiana joined the craze. A real gymnastics gymnasium was built 20 miles north of my hometown. No more homemade 4×4 wooden beams or carpet-covered vaulting horses. This was big time, and I was a part of it! I tumbled on the floor, kipped up onto the bars, and jumped on a trampoline for the first time in my life. But, by middle school, the glory ended for me… well, until 15 years later when I had daughters, of course.

Fast forward circa 2003. I sat in suburban Americana, trying desperately to keep up with the Joneses (who had, coincidentally, enrolled their sure-to-be-Olympian daughter in gymnastics). Never one to doubt the inevitable future stardom of my own children, I enrolled my three-year-old daughter in gymnastics with visions of tight top-knots, medals, and the inevitable ensuing Wheaties box debut. She was fearless and strong, and though we continued to introduce other sports – flag football, softball, basketball, and track, gymnastics stuck. A twice-a-week-class evolved into an invitation to the team. Of course, there were warning signs: $400 Swarovski-crystal-laden leotards, the haggard silence of older team girls, and tuition payments that rivaled a small mortgage. But, dreams had a cost, right? Onward we plunged. We moved gyms when it was apparent the one across town was more effective at producing sparkling little champions. We sold pastries for the parent club, spent weekends in hotels, drove all over the midwest, and spent multiple evenings a week driving across town on our quest to greatness. A new gym opened and was immediately heralded as the IT place. Our daughter was ready for more, and we called for an interview. No writing a check and signing a waiver here. This was selective. After her acceptance, we traveled 45 minutes (each direction) to her gym, where she practiced four hours an evening, after a full day of elementary school. Owned by a former Olympian, we never questioned the rigorous training. We were getting results, after all. What began as 16-hour training weeks became 30 at its height. We watched our car’s odometer log 25,000 miles in just one year. By fifth grade, it became necessary for my daughter to homeschool. We began two-a-day practices, driving out early in the morning for the first practice of the day, doing school over an afternoon break, and then plowing through a second practice. Nutrition regimens. Preventative appointments. Recovery appointments. Our months were defined by cysts in joints, over-use injuries managed by silence, avoidance, and tons of anti-inflammatories, and dozens of missed birthday parties, vacations, and holidays. To miss practice, after all, was forbidden. In middle school, we welcomed another gymnast into our home, as she lived too far away for the daily commute. We monitored weight, we planned meals, we bought expensive supplements. Our car was covered in chalk dust, kinesio tape clippings, and dripping ice bags secured with Saran Wrap. A broken knee seemed a setback until, at the age of 14, our hard-working girl earned a full-ride scholarship to a Power 6 college. Plane rides. Camps. Pressure to perform.

And then, it happened. Father’s Day, 2015. My husband flew to pick up our daughter from camp at her future college. Sitting in the practice arena bleachers, he watched her float through the air high above the uneven parallel bars… and catch them… with her face. Her limp body fell into the foam pit below. She finally emerged bloody and clutching her jaw. In the whirlwind that followed, she was whisked to the university hospital where emergency personnel did all they could to stop the prolific bleeding. It soon became evident that her jaw was broken, her teeth were severely misplaced, and she had bitten completely through her tongue. Unable to numb her for fear she would suffocate on her own blood, a physician tied a loop of thread through the tip of her tongue to hold it taut while another stitched the remaining pieces back together. Stitch, scream, breathe, stitch, scream, breathe. My husband sweat through his clothes and vomited as he held her in place. Once she was stable enough to fly, they boarded a plane where she hovered over a tub to catch whatever fell from her face on the 1000-mile trek home. I met them at the airport, and we rushed straight to Riley Hospital where an expert physician was waiting. More screaming. Her jaw was wired shut and her teeth set in place. Her head wrapped in gauze and ice, our sweet girl spent days in a codeine-induced haze… at the gym. Napping on the mats, she stretched, and she trained. A few months later, she rescinded her scholarship acceptance and got back on the bars.

These were the dark days. Our daughter conquered the lingering fear, but that was only the beginning of the pain. You see, gymnastics is not just a sport; it’s a culture, a fake-it-until-you-make-it culture. A sport where injuries are hidden or ignored. It’s the only sport where points are taken away, not awarded. A sport where the goal is perfection and hours and hours of training boil down to one. single. try. Our girl is now a junior in college… where she is a scholarship gymnast. But seventeen years of living in a gym have taken a devastating toll. Not only is her body in almost constant pain, but she continues to endure in a sport dominated by constant personal scrutiny. Don’t get me wrong. My girl is strong. Dang, is she strong! She is primed and ready for anything the world has in store for her, but it has come at a cost: a physical cost, a mental cost, a financial cost, a social cost. Listen, I encourage everyone to DO gymnastics. It builds strength and flexibility and body awareness. But, I caution all you mamas aspiring to raise the next Simone, that BEING a gymnast is something altogether different. So, easy does it. Read your daughters carefully, and move forward with your eyes wide open; it’s the only way to stick the landing.