The Secret Diaries of Gymnasts

Elaine Dai

Amanda and Elaine Dai are sisters and competitive rhythmic gymnasts who train at Rhythmic Dreams in Newton, Massachusetts. “Rhythmic Diaries” is their account of balancing training and competing in this rigorous sport with being normal high school students.

Amanda Dai

Amanda Dai
Normally during school breaks, our training hours increase in length and frequency. For example, a normal three-hour training would extend to four hours, and there would be training each day of break. Winter break, however, is the exact opposite.

For one week, the gym is closed, no training is scheduled, and we have to practice at home. We are assigned some basic exercises, but to maintain our strength, flexibility and stamina, we have to do more than what is given. During break, our willpower is tested. We are driven by our want to improve and by our own ability to work hard without our coach. It is especially difficult to exercise on our own while on vacation. But the competitive season starts in a few weeks, and the pressure has settled in. The first half of the year has passed, meaning that training is going to become harder. We must be prepared to be pushed beyond our limits. On top of that, we will not be alleviated of homework. Instead, homework will increase in quantity, and juggling academics and gymnastics will be even more challenging. From here on, things only get more difficult. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Rhythmic has taught me that hard work pays off, and that as long as I persist, I will improve. This mindset helped me significantly inside and outside the gym, as sometimes I lost sight of my goals. I recently experienced a phase during which I kept asking, “Why? Why do I train? Why do I continue to work?” Now the answer is obvious. I work to improve. There may not always be tangible rewards for working hard, but regardless, I have to persist. Although it sometimes may not seem worth the effort, working hard is inevitably the only way to improve. The improvements may go unrewarded, but they are just as valuable as any accomplishment that receives an award. These small progressions are what lead to a significant achievement, but the results may not show up immediately. Each day is an opportunity to work and therefore improve, but it’s our choice whether or not we will take advantage of it. If we do not work, we will not improve at the slightest. If we do, the improvement may be so small that we do not notice the difference, but we are one step closer to reaching our goals. And so each day of break, I do the warm-up like I would at the gym. Even without my coach, I put in my maximum effort. Every exercise I do benefits me. I may not see the results now, but I will someday. I just have to keep working.

Elaine Dai

Elaine Dai
I won’t lie — among my teammates, I’m neither the strongest nor the most flexible, and neither the most talented nor the most dexterous. Yet I continue to train despite the workload of junior year and the numerous commitments that demand my attention. I’m also not the most in love with the sport — that’s my coach.

I’m a combination of all of the above, plus a bit more. I train because, quite simply, I love rhythmic.

This was, however, not always the case. I used to dread training, that time when I’d be surrounded by insanely talented girls who could sit in straddle and over-splits — a form of stretching in which you place one ankle on an elevated surface and sit in split from there — in their sleep and still not feel a thing, while I sat struggling to touch the floor in splits. I would sit and memorize the carpet before me, fervently wishing time would flow faster so I could escape my self-simulated oppression. More than once I remember feeling the tears slide down my face, not only from the physical pain but also from the shame I felt for not being flexible.

If only I had raised my eyes back then, I would have seen not the intimidating gym I imagined but the concentrated faces of my teammates. I would have seen the glow in my coach’s eyes, realized her harsh demeanor was one of pure intent to make us stronger, not to only find fault where I had seen none. I would have seen success in its incipient stages, the determination to improve carved on everyone’s visages.

And above all, I would have come to the epiphany I had freshman year — that I truly love the sport — years sooner.

Human perfectibility is the belief that people are capable of infinite improvement. Rhythmic has made me believe in it. I used to think my goal was to become the perfect gymnast, though now I see how parochial an outlook that was.

The nuance between striving for perfection and seeking to improve is the respective focus. Whichever perspective you choose drastically alters your approach to both your training and, in a more general sense, rhythmic itself. I was confused when, at the tender age of 12, my friends quit. Not only them, but also nearly half of those in my level. Years later, I realize they cared more for the result more than for the process, more for that coveted place on the podium than for the years of training it took to get there.

So when I stand in line after a competition during the awards ceremony, sometimes applauding my fellow gymnasts who step onto the podium, sometimes stepping on the podium myself, I know whoever was recognized that day truly deserved the medal she earned.

So when I glance around the gym after a gala and see the shining eyes of the younger gymnasts, their desire to become better and master the art of rhythmic gymnastics, I smile on the inside.

Because I know those eyes, because they used to be mine. Because I was once that little girl.

This syndicated post was originally published at the Huffington Post. Click to see the original article and a slideshow of the gymnasts.


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