The US National Championship


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The year was 2017. I entered the same brick gymnastics studio in Aurora, Illinois I’d been going to since the ripe age of two… if you do anything for ten years, you’re bound to be good at it, if not great. Isn’t that what Malcolm Gladwell says? 10,000 hours… Well in my case, my parents made sure I was great. “This is your calling” they would always say. And who was I to question it? I hadn’t put blood, sweat, and tears into the sport just to quit… I wasn’t a quitter. And don’t forget the strict caloric intake of chicken or fish, greens, and healthy carbs. I don’t think my body fat has ever been above 13%, which I’ve learned is about 20% lower than average. My heart rate tripled every time I snuck out of my dainty bedroom to steal a cookie from the pantry at 2 in the morning, but my feet would take me there every two weeks without fail, like I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Those chocolate chips would melt in my mouth and it took everything in me not to devour the whole box, which would inevitably put me in the torture chamber. Okay, calm down, we didn’t have a torture chamber, but still… my parents would’ve freaked if they caught me.

The girls I trained with at the gym were my best friends; I spent more time with them than my actual family, which one might find disheartening, but I didn’t. We were working towards something special, and I was taught very early on that without extreme dedication, greatness would elude me. I think my dad heard the word ‘elude’ one day, and ever since, it’s been a staple in his vocabulary, which means it’s now reoccurring in mine.

I had just returned from the US Classic in Chicago where I placed sixth all around, second on floor, seventh on vault and beam, and fifth on uneven bars. I expected to finish first across the board. I’d been training all my life for this and the National Team Coordinator was there scouting prospects for the US Junior National Team. My mom made a shit attempt at trying to comfort me… “just means you need to practice more,” she said. My dad didn’t say anything at all, which I actually appreciated; there was nothing he could’ve offered that would sit well. I felt like I had destroyed what I’d been working so hard for. “That was the time you chose to wobble?” kept sounding off in my head like a sadistic laugh that I couldn’t escape.

“The US National Championships are in June. You have plenty of time to perfect everything by then. Seriously, Jessa, you’re a shoo in,” Tory tried. Her black hair was perfectly slicked back into a short pony and her turquoise GK Elite leotard looked new. Tory was the team’s biggest cheerleader. She was a level eight and that’s where she felt comfortable staying. She loved gymnastics like the rest of us, but she didn’t feel tethered to the sport the same way I did. She wasn’t tied to an insane eating regimen that would make her want to rip her stomach out some days. Every once in a while, when I felt like soaking in a pool of martyrdom, I would wish for her life. And when it would get really bad, I’d wish for a life like Cara’s… a girl from school who cared about nothing more than her fashionable clothes and the cutest boys.

Before you start judging my parents, though, I want to be clear… my pity parties are not because my parents shame me. I want to be an Olympian. I want to make the necessary sacrifices to be great… no, ELITE. Not everyone has natural drive and talent, so I feel I would be wasting a ready opportunity if I decided to stop pushing myself. So, I continued. Four months until I’d be in Missouri. Four months until I could show everyone, I was born to be an Olympian. Four months until I’d get the call to be on the US Junior National Team.

I woke up an hour earlier every day to run. I ate the exact proportions at the exact times my nutritionist advised. I spent the last 25 minutes before bed working on my balance, squeezing my glutes and my core which would forbid me from wobbling. I had memorized the veiny grooves covering my sand-colored wall from how frequently I stood staring at it, with my foot planted firm against the ground, while my other would come up like a flamingo and rest against my knee. And by rest, I mean point my entire foot so hard it would start cramping.

Once a week, I would allow myself a free morning, which meant I didn’t have to wake up at four and run, but since my body was used to waking up that early, there was no sense in trying to fall back asleep to get another hour… despite how heavenly my Purple mattress felt. So, I would thumb open my mom’s old Mac Book and watch YouTube videos of Nastia Liukin competing at the Olympics, knowing in my bones I would follow in her footsteps.

I felt the burning desire to indulge in a comforting pastime by tip toeing to the kitchen for a Chips Ahoy cookie, but I refrained. I wouldn’t let a glob of cane sugar be my demise, and plus, Missouri now was only three days away.

“Okay, hun. This is your last practice before we fly out. Make the most of it, yeah?” my mom sounded nervous as we walked into the oversized red bricked gym. Her rich brown hair framed her defined cheek bones as if Michelangelo sculpted her.

“I know, mom,” is all I could offer. I knew I had to nail these next few hours, otherwise my confidence would be shot.

I put my sweats in a cubby and left the lobby behind me. I felt a rush of adrenaline as my feet met the padded blue floor. I let my head drop to my knees and felt my chocolate colored hair graze my toes… damn it, I really wanted that cookie. My arms wrapped around my legs and I took in three deep breaths before moving down to a pike, followed by all three splits. My teammates stretched next to me for the next ten minutes before Anna led our warm up.

“Alright everyone. Grab a jump rope. Three minutes on, thirty second rest, followed by another two minutes! We’re about to dominate this practice so you better all be ready!” Anna shouted. There were eight of us going to Missouri the next day and we knew no one could prepare us like Anna. A proven champion with a bronze Olympic medal to her name.

After five minutes of jump rope, we did shoulder circles, v-ups, trunk twists, backward runs, butt kicks, knee lifts, roll ups, tuck jumps, and fire hydrants. I welcomed each bead of sweat like it was further proof of my dedication… my drive. Once we finished our warm up, Holland pulled five of the girls to the uneven bars, while Anna worked with me, Taylor, and Westyn. The three of us were vying for top spots, so we needed extra attention. Sure, Taylor and Westyn were amazing gymnasts, but did they wake up at 4am and train? Did they maintain a strict diet over the last four months with zero cheating? I think not.

“Alright, Jessa, hop up and show us what you’re bringing to the competition!” Anna lifted her arm, gesturing towards the beam. The beam… where I placed seventh. I would not let that happen again. I placed my hand on the tan suede, while the lean muscles in my left leg were pronounced as I pointed my toes. I put my weight down and swept my right hand through the air, watching my thumbs align perfectly on the beam, feeling my leg swing over top. I consciously squeezed my core and felt my body move as it was trained. I executed my low triple turn flawlessly, my walk overs felt like I sliced through butter, and my leaps were steady. But those were never the problem. What was coming next had haunted my dreams over the last four months. My dismount. My back handsprings into a full twisting double. I took a deep breath, squeezed every muscle I had and let my mind go into auto pilot. Within moments, I felt my bare feet touch the vinyl mat; I extended my legs and sliced my arms up into a V with purpose. I knew immediately I nailed it, and Anna’s reaction sealed the deal. She ran to me with tears in her eyes and spun me around like a doll.

“JESSA! YOU DID IT! You were perfect!” she wiped her face with the back of her hand. I looked out in the waiting room to see my mom raising her arms as if she were holding pom poms. The imaginary cheer routine turned into two thumbs up and I let myself feel the emotional weight I’d been carrying around week after week. I wrapped my arms around Anna and cried. I knew nothing would stop me from securing that coveted gold medal.

The rest of the night at the gym went as well as it could have, and my confidence was exactly where I needed it to be. We called dad on the way home and his words of affirmation were the sprinkles on top… honestly, who likes cherries? Damn it… dessert.

I woke up at four the next morning and got my three-mile run in before showering. I placed my toothbrush, toothpaste, and moisturizer in my pink toiletries bag, which snuggled in nicely against my white converse. I zipped up my gray Tumi and set it by the front door before returning back to my room. I let my head fall into the familiar position against my knees and slumped into a stretch; I’d come to love the muscle strain I felt when I walked my hands farther behind my feet. I held them there for at least two minutes before I came up to stare ahead at the small protrusions on my wall. The beige carpet settled in between my toes as I lifted my left foot to press against the side of my knee. My hands were in front of me as if I were holding an invisible beach ball and I felt a sense of gratitude for what my body was capable of.

“Jessa, you ready to go?” I heard my dad call from the kitchen.

Oh, was I ready.

The flight was a short hour and five minutes and we landed in Missouri at 8:45AM. We gathered our luggage from baggage claim and walked to the car rental area… my parents always used Avis. It was a perfect 75 degrees which briefly made me yearn for a day at the pool. Maybe if this all goes to plan, we can stay an extra day to celebrate, I thought. And I could workout in the pool – that’s a good way to use all your muscles, right? I let the desire float by like a bubble and allowed it to disintegrate just as quickly. There was no time to think about anything other than gymnastics.

We checked into the new Marriott at 10 and met the coaches in Anna’s suite. The room was modern with gray furnishings and square fixtures. After discussing what the next 24 hours would look like, we headed to the convention center together in a bus to scope out the space, as well as our competition. There would be 1,600 other gymnasts competing, which only fueled my drive for success. I told the group I’d meet up with them and took a solo trip to the bathroom.

I didn’t have to pee, I just needed a minute. I entered the just-cleaned restroom which overpowered my nose with a bleach smell; I walked across the patterned gray tile to stand in front of the wide mirror. I stood still for a moment before running my fingers through my hair; it was so often in a pony, I forgot what I looked like with it down. I noticed the beauty mark above my right eyebrow and my thick lashes that would be even more dense tomorrow with the addition of falsies. My skin color could only be described as fair, so I always wore blush to add some warmth. The natural hue of my lips most closely resembled that of a watermelon; as far as size, they certainly weren’t Angelina Jolie lips, but they weren’t as thin as Kristin Stewart’s either.

Once I finished analyzing myself, I washed my hands out of habit. I grabbed the door handle to leave just as Kelsey Sexton was entering. Kelsey had been competing just as long as I had and was one of my biggest threats in this competition. I smiled without my teeth and felt a spark of nerves in my stomach.

I knew I’d need an extra sleepy tea in order to clock a full eight hours tonight, as the next 24 hours would be life changing.

Comment if you’d like Chapter 2

-Devon Herrera

Committed To Curiosity

IG: @Coffee_With_A_Question