Elite Gymnastics Not All It's 'Chalked Up' to Be

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After breaking her femur in a fall from the uneven bars, Jennifer Sey came back to win the 1986 National Championships. It was a remarkable recovery, but it took a tremendous emotional and physical toll. hide caption

See a gallery of Jennifer Sey's gymnastics career.
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Every four years, viewers at home are awed by the grace, athleticism and artistry of Olympic gymnastics. But Jennifer Sey, the 1986 National Gymnastics Champion, says the road to this high level of achievement is paved with unhealthy perfectionism and pressure.

In her new memoir, Chalked Up, she exposes the merciless coaching and aggressive parenting that can push young athletes far beyond their physical and emotional limits.

"My entire life was plagued by thoughts of subparness," Sey writes. "I never felt good enough. Just one notch shy of perfection, one slot shy of number one."

Sey's memoir chronicles the drastic measures she and her teenage teammates took to maintain their childlike frames. Competing as an adolescent at the highest levels, Sey says it was a race against time "to beat the menacing development of my own body... before puberty and curves and weight made it nearly impossible for me to fly through the air, attempting flips meant for younger, lighter girls."

Excerpt: 'Chalked Up'

Chalked Up Book Cover
Author and former gymnast Jennifer Sey

Author and former gymnast Jennifer Sey. Jillian Bisinger hide caption

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Part I: 1986

I'm waiting for the judge to raise her arm and nod her head, signaling to me that it's my turn. Her polyester royal blue suit with the crest makes her appear pathetically regal, like a homeless woman who used to be a traffic cop, still wearing her uniform with faded pride. Glory days.

I whip my head around when the audience gasps. Hope Spivey has fallen from the balance beam. The unthinkable has happened. Opportunity. She was the only true challenger left, and now she's on the ground, no longer perched high on the beam. She stands on the blue chalky mat, both hands on the plank, surely wondering how in the hell she ended up there. Her face is set with determination, but she is fighting tears. Her mouth is tightly pursed to control the tremor, which, if allowed to erupt, I know only too well would lead to hysteria. Tears have not yet spilled, but they are there. They pool behind her eyes, wet with disappointment, kept at bay with the sharp prick of her teeth into her lower lip. She must finish, despite the impossibility of winning. Despite the shame of falling, she must climb back up and continue. But for the moment, she wonders how she ended up on the ground.

I return my attention to the uneven bars in front of me. Almost time to go. The judge, head bowed, finishes calculating the score for the girl before me. She adds up all the deductions.

There are always deductions. The elusive 10 has been driven to near extinction since Nadia hoarded them in 1976. Judges require audacious levels of difficulty to even start a routine at a 10. I am starting this routine at a 9.9, a tenth taken away before I've even begun.

I fold my toes under, jamming them into the bright blue mat, cracking them. Crunch. Both feet. I run my tongue across the self-inflicted canker, smooth and hot, on the inside of my lip. I check the chalk on my hands. Make sure it's just the right consistency: smooth but pasty, sticky enough to last the duration of my bar routine. I don't wear handgrips like most of the girls. I prefer hands to bars. No leather separating me from the feel of the smooth fiberglass. I don't trust that the bar is still there if the sensation is dulled by a leather barrier. Because of this, the skin on my palms rips more frequently. Whole calluses are torn away from my hand, leaving red, bloody holes. I trim the jagged remaining skin with a razor blade beneath my desk during math class, drawing stares from the boy next to me. I have a rip now. I've sanded and smoothed it with a nail file and covered it with extra chalky paste to dull the heat and pain of friction.

I take a deep breath. Exhale. Calm my breathing. Slow. Slow down. This is it. She raises her hand. I salute, one arm raised high above my head, chin up. "Go, Jen!" I hear my mother's squeaky voice from the stands.

I know I've won. It's my last event. All the challengers have fallen. I will win this meet. I'm in first place. I've never been so certain of anything. My blood is throbbing, pouring, crashing through my veins. The way water falls, without constraint, with limitless power. With certitude.

My heart pounds but not with fear or speculation. This is not the usual preevent "This is it, this is everything I've worked for and it all comes down to right now and I'll never get another chance if I screw this up." Not the usual "Everyone will be so disappointed but no one more than me because I've given everything for this and I can't see anything else, can't see past it, there's only this in my life." This time, my blood races and it roots me, tethers me to my true self. Gives me clairvoyance. This is not nerves. It is the opposite. My chest pounds with knowing. With the absolute utter certainty of knowing. With the strength and power and confidence of knowing that I've won. Of knowing exactly who I am. Deep in my chest, I've never felt so certain of anything, so sure of my existence. I am the next champion. It means everything to me.

I will not miss. I will win.

I am the 1986 USA national gymnastics champion.

It's over.

Chapter 1: 1972–1979

I learned to turn a cartwheel when I was three years old. We lived in a white stucco ranch house on an air force base in Turkey that was connected to the neighbors' by a carport. Stephanie Manning, a strawberry blond hippie-haired thirteen-year-old, lived next door. She babysat while my mom visited with the other wives on the base. She taught me to turn my body into a wheel, my arms and legs the spokes, in between our Fiat and her family's station wagon. I felt unfettered and invincible. Special. Other kids my age could barely run, and I was turning perfect cartwheels on the cement without ever suffering so much as a scraped knee.

We went to Turkey in the fall of 1972, during the waning days of the Vietnam War. My father was sent there on the Berry Plan, which required that after completing his residency, he serve two years as a physician in the service, thus avoiding combat. He requested a remote assignment that allowed him to take his family. He was appointed as the pediatrician in the infirmary on the air force base near Istanbul, tending to the children of the families stationed there.

We moved halfway around the world, an adventurous prospect for my mother, who had envisioned a more traditional life as an upper- middle- class doctor's wife. They'd been high school sweethearts, and she'd put him through medical school, drawing blood from rabbits' hearts in a biology lab. A comfortable suburban existence was the least she could expect. But she embarked on the adventure, seven months' pregnant with her second child. Upon arrival, we lived in a trailer until being assigned housing. I liked the trailer because everything was miniature, perfectly tailored for me.

In December, after we moved into our base housing, my mother was airlifted by helicopter to the nearest birthing hospital, in Ankara. When she came home just before my first white Christmas, she brought my brother, Christopher. We had no long-distance telephone ser vice. The phones only allowed us to call the other houses on the base. My parents sent audiotapes back home to my grandmother in Atlantic City, New Jersey, laughing about how fat and ugly this new baby was. They also sent pictures of me. My grandmother wrote a letter back scolding my Jewish parents for illicitly naming my brother after Christ while praising her first grandchild as a Joey Heatherton look-alike. I didn't know who Joey Heatherton was, but I assumed she was pretty.

When the snow cleared in the spring, my single cartwheel turned cautiously on the asphalt between the automobiles transformed into endless rows down the steep hill in our backyard. I loved the feel of whirling so fast that I was on the brink of losing control. I'd lose my bearings, spinning from bodily memory and sheer gravity, landing in a heap at the bottom of the dell. I'd tear back up the hill and do it again, audacious and exhilarated. When I'd yell for my mom, she'd come to the back window and watch me spin myself into giggly, dizzy fits. But mostly she left me alone, free to play without parental interference. I'd pass whole afternoons turning down that hill, invigorated by pure speed and in dependence.

I'd return home at dusk, ready for dinner. I'd make my famous pretzel-and-cheese salad. Not very saladlike, this concoction consisted of torn-up yellow processed cheese and pretzel sticks. My parents indulged me and served this with our meal every night. They even pretended to eat it.

I was permitted to make many of my own decisions. And live with the consequences. My parents were committed to not overprotecting their children, to teaching us lessons by allowing us to make mistakes. They did this in small ways, not dangerous ones. When I chose to wear my red raincoat in twenty-below-zero weather, I was cold. When I refused to go to sleep until they did, I was tired and grumpy in preschool the next day and the teachers were short-tempered with me. When I said I wanted more broccoli with dinner—all the broccoli in the bowl on the table—I was forced to eat it all and became sick with an unbearable stomachache.

Heavily influenced by the popularity of Dr. Benjamin Spock and his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, my parents were avid practitioners of his philosophy: treat your child as a person, an individual, rather than a thing to be trained and disciplined. By the time I was four, I was the embodiment of Spock-fashioned, parental-inspired spirited individualism.

In 1974 we returned to the States and bunked with my maternal grandmother in Atlantic City. Nannie, as we called her, was hesitant to take us in, compulsive about the cleanliness of her home and particular about the designation of knickknacks in her living room. She kept plastic runners on the lime-green carpet at all times to prevent wear-out. She covered her white vinyl couch with green piping (it matched the rug) with even more plastic to avoid stains on the stainproof fabric. She followed drink-wielding guests (her family in this case) around with a can of Pledge and a damp dishrag, wiping up tables to prevent glass rings.

When I demanded a fruit-adorned decorative plate for my postdinner cookies, my grandmother was flattered. I'd taken note of the carefully-thought-through details of her decorating scheme. Though the plate was perched high on a frieze adorning the kitchen's molding, she obliged me, pulling a stepladder from the laundry room to fetch the dish for her only granddaughter. At sixty, she was agile as she climbed the steps on her tiptoes in glamorous heeled house slippers. I was smug even as my mother urged me to let my grandmother off the hook, tell her I didn't really want the plate with purple plums on it. But I did want it. And I didn't see why she shouldn't go to any lengths to get me what I required. When Nannie pulled it triumphantly from the shelf, I smiled a self-satisfied smile and ate my cookies like the Joey Heatherton–like star of the family that I knew myself to be.

As I was integrating into life in the United States, television fascinated me. In Turkey, I entertained myself with tumbling in the backyard, helping my mom prepare the meals, and tormenting my baby brother. In Atlantic City, I sat in front of my grandmother's cabinet-style TV watching Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore interview the stars of the mid-seventies—the Osmonds, Diana Ross, Donna Summer. Each of these guests sang upon introduction, usually accompanied by the host. Then they'd sit down in a living room type of setup and casually discuss their latest career endeavors. I was most intrigued by their disco-era outfits, which were always nighttime sparkly, despite the afternoon time slots for these programs.

I watched with my uncle Bobby, my mom's younger brother. Bobby was born with Down's syndrome in 1952, when my mom was ten and my aunt Jill was five. From that moment he became my grandmother's sole focus, her entire life. Growing up, the girls were afterthoughts in the house as all attention and concern were dedicated to Bobby. A normal childhood for my mom and her sister was out of the question. Friends were not permitted to come over; in the 1950s it was an embarrassment to have a disabled child. The girls were left to fend for themselves while my grandmother devoted her life to caring for a child that would stay a child forever.

After just a few short weeks at my grandmother's, she asked us to leave. The chaos that two small children created was just too much for her. She preferred things neat and quiet, and we made that impossible. Calm consistency was critical in maintaining Bobby's daily care. She needed to implement an unvarying routine for Bobby to avert temper tantrums, and I often got in the way of that. He reserved a worn spot on the carpet for sitting cross-legged and watching television just inches from the set. He liked to bang two mangled white combs together while he enjoyed his shows. If I occupied that spot, his spot, even when he wasn't about to plunk himself down for an afternoon of Merv Griffin, he threw a tantrum. He screamed and pounded himself in the head, sometimes even wet his pants. His despair was agonizing for my grandmother. It was time for us to go.

We moved into a modest ranch house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. My dad did a short stint in endocrinology at Saint Christopher's Hospital for children in Philadelphia before starting up his own office in Northeast Philly. A burgeoning practice, hospital moonlighting, and an hourlong commute across the Delaware River each day kept him very busy. Though he wasn't home much, my mother was happy, finally settling into her role as a doctor's wife. She had her own home, a brand-new car—a white Camaro with red-leather interior and an eight-track tape player—and the good fortune to give her children all the attention and opportunity that she had been denied.

I was happy, too. Our ample front lawn provided plenty of room for turning cartwheels. And now that we had a television of our own, I was free to watch the shows I wanted. I often tuned in to ABC's Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons; Olga Korbut quickly became my hero. I loved all the Russian gymnasts—Nellie Kim, Ludmilla Tourischeva—but the Belarus san pixie who won three gold medals at the 1972 Olympics was my favorite. She not only dominated those Munich Games, she charmed the world with her daring originality, charismatic smile, and lopsided pigtails. She singlehandedly popularized the sport, turning it over to the little girls of the 1970s. Prior to Korbut's reign, gymnastics had been dominated by grown women. Larissa Latynina, holder of eighteen Olympic medals, had even competed while pregnant in the late 1950s and returned to the sport after giving birth to a daughter.

Olga was fearless. She was the first to perform a no-handed back flip on the balance beam. She also threw herself through the air, originating the Korbut Flip, a graceful backward- flying somersault on the uneven bars, caught midair. It was the first release move ever performed by a female gymnast on bars. Documentary footage, shown before the televised competitions, detailed Korbut's 1973 tour of the United States. The pigtailed sprite in the white leotard with red trim around the neck, adorned with a CCCP patch at the V, had little girls lined up to see her all across the country. Despite cold war tensions, President Nixon greeted her at the White House; he was "impressed with her ability to always land on her feet." She was a cultural phenomenon.

All the little girls of the 1970s wanted to be Olga Korbut. Until Nadia Comaneci came along with her fourteen-year-old, Romanian, 10.0 perfection. She was younger, cuter, and even more courageous than Olga. Her leotard with the yellow-and-red stripes down the sides appeared unthinkably technical and modern. She was the future. Her back arched effortlessly, her toes pointed beyond what seemed possible, her ponytail was uncommonly smooth, and her dark hair ultra-shiny.

In 1976 I was glued to the TV set for the Montreal Olympics. Nadia was the first gymnast to score a perfect 10.0 in the Games. It had been done before but never during the Olympics. She was perfect. Seven times over, she was perfect. Olga competed that year also, winning only a single team gold this time. No individual medals, Olga was already over the hill. The commentators shook their heads sadly as they announced Olga past her prime. What she had started four years earlier—making gymnastics a sport for young girls—Nadia continued in '76. Comaneci was only fourteen when she dominated, winning the all-around (the total scores of all the events), uneven bars, and balance beam. I watched Nadia with all the other little girls across the nation, convinced that this little girl's game was one I wanted to be a part of. I was seven years old already. I needed to hurry up and get going if fourteen was the magic age that brought champions to life.

I was already enrolled in hourlong weekly classes at The Gymnastics Academy in Cherry Hill, a local gym with an appropriately official-sounding name for parents interested in herding their girls toward Olympic stardom. My Nadia discovery prompted increased intensity. I demanded a three-day-a-week class schedule and my mother obeyed, submitting to the attending fees and chauffeuring requirements.

All of the parents, like the girls, were enamored of Olga and Nadia as well as the American darling, Cathy Rigby. Though Rigby hadn't collected the piles of 10.0s and medals that her Russian and Romanian counterparts had, she was the first American gymnast to medal in world competition. Posters of her adorned the walls of the academy. In one she smiled, legs splayed in a perfect 180-degree straddle position on the beam, blond pigtails crooked and adorned with white yarn ribbons; in another, she was accepting the silver balance beam medal at the 1970 World Championships. She was homegrown proof that democracy and capitalism could produce world-class athletes. And her post- gymnastics success in show business, playing Peter Pan on Broadway, was all the more evidence that America was better than Communist Eastern Europe.

Having studied the myriad television specials and Wide World of Sports segments dedicated to Nadia, I decided I also needed to take ballet classes. Dance was a critical part of Nadia's schooling at the training center in Onesti, Romania, as grace was considered a requirement in the balance beam and floor exercise. While the girls in Russia and Romania were shipped off to factorylike sports academies, their families' wellbeing provided for if they succeeded in bringing glory to their countries with international medals, I signed up for gymnastics and ballet in the name of recreation. For the most part.

Of course I had fanciful dreams of glory, but there was no substance behind those idealized notions. I had no real understanding of the work, sweat, and sacrifice that would need to go into something like that. Neither did my parents. Of course, they thought I was special, as all parents think their kids are. But special in a contained kind of way. Maybe I'd make the high school gymnastics team, compete in state competitions, learn a little something about hard work and sacrifice. But all within reason. Nadia was enchanting, but Olympic medals were a dream for other people, for Eastern Europeans who needed a champion to ensure that their families had food on the dinner table.

My parents signed me up for gymnastics and supplemental ballet classes, hoping I'd have a little fun, get some exercise, get out of the house for a few hours. Pigtails and tutus, leotards and pincurls. It began with such innocent promise. How could anything bad come of this?

By the first grade, I was caught up in the frenzy of opportunity that is afforded to American youth of middle class standing. At the same time, I developed an accompanying sense of inadequacy. It began with a single art class right after we returned to the States. My mom signed me up for my first activity at the Jewish community center when we first moved to Cherry Hill. It wasn't that I'd shown any particular aptitude or liking for art. But it was something to do. All I know is that when we were supposed to draw a dog on that very first Saturday morning, mine appeared disjointed, flat, undimensional. Practically deformed compared with the elaborate depictions the other children in the class whipped up. The teacher hovered over my shoulder. "Huh," she said before moving on to the next child. Strike that one off the list. Art was not going to be my thing. The next Saturday, I cried, pleading with my mom to let me off the hook. It was such a small thing, but the lack of praise from the teacher had shamed me. I never went back to class.

Later, on a visit to Washington, D.C., as I walked with my dad to the Lincoln Memorial, I confidently informed him that I was quite good at math. First-grade addition and subtraction came easily to me. Perhaps I should consider a future in mathematics, I pondered aloud. "Girls aren't good at math," my father asserted. "Girls are better in the language arts." My dad was not a backward-thinking antifeminist. As a doctor, he believed what he said to be scientific and factual. But, again, this lack of praise disheartened me. The absence of encouragement felt like ridicule.

Then there was my greatest weakness. Music. Singing. I couldn't (and still can't) carry a tune. I couldn't hit a note. But how I enjoyed belting out Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia," one of my favorite songs from my parents' record collection.

One summer day, while practicing cartwheels on the sprawling Cherry Hill front lawn, I sang: "you're breakin' my heart, you're shakin' my confidence daily." Amidst the cacophony of my own voice, I heard my aunt Jill say, "God, Merle, can you hear that? She can't sing a note. It's horrendous." My mom laughed. Then Aunt Jill turned to me. "I wouldn't take up music if I were you."

Why was everyone so anxious to tell me that I sucked?

When I stood out in gymnastics classes and was instantly acknowledged by the teacher as the "best one," I was joyous. Each time I was called upon to demonstrate handstand forward rolls, back walkovers, and back bends for the other kids, I was elated. And ballet was no different. Physical activity that required precision and technique was my forte. My ballet teacher often asked me to exhibit my pliés and my jetés. I did so with a smug grin, pleased with myself but aware that I shouldn't gloat too much, lest I make the other girls feel bad about themselves and resent me. And that would defeat the purpose of being good at something—to make people like me. To be admired. I just wanted everyone to be impressed. Being me was not going to be enough. I knew that. I had to exhibit some special skill to invoke this kind of affection.

I heaved a great sigh of relief. Finally, I thought, something I'm good at. One year back in the States, barely through my first year of elementary school, and I was already impatiently desperate to be the best at something.

Excerpted from Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams by Jennifer Sey. Copyright © 2008 by Jennifer Sey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins.

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Chalked Up

Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams

by Jennifer Sey

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Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams
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