When I was in 7th grade, I was eligible to join the gymnastics team. I have been blessed with incredible flexibility from a young age, and loved to watch Kim Zmeskal kick butt in the Olympics. I think it was safe to say that at 12, with my diet comprising mostly Dominoes pizza and Little Debbie Cookies, I was not 4 inspiration-filled years away from my shot in the Olympic spotlight.
I could do a round-off and once did a back handspring with a spotter helping me flip my stout little legs over my head. I seriously had 35 pounds on the star gymnast on the 7th/8th grade team. (In the small world of Facebook, I have had the chance to reconnect with her, and she is an awesome mom and inspired, gourmet Food-network-quality mommy-chef.)
Most of our meets were right after school, and, not surprisingly, very poorly attended. Graced with the ability to spot natural talent, it was determined that I best stick to the apparatuses that offered the greatest opportunity to work independently for the duration of practice, leaving our coaches free to assist our more gifted athletes. The floor and vault it was.
In the smack dab center of my level 5 routine was a quick paced floor pass that had a front handspring as the most athletic move in it. Basically, I was faking it by doing a handstand that had a kind of controlled fall-over that ended with me standing up from a bridge, hoping no one noticed there wasn’t much springing involved.
The last meet of the season my whole family came to watch me. This time, I was determined to have a little more courage than normal, and decided that I was going to pull a Mighty Ducks victory scene, using my intestinal fortitude and love of gymnastics to do the springing part of the move. As I worked my way through the artsy part of the routine, I knew everyone was watching me. I knew everyone was laughing at me. I was about to make them go “wow.”
I can still remember the little pattern I told myself: “Kick, run, run, leap, chasse, step, fuente, step, SPRING!” My heart racing (and not just from the physical endurance), I went for it full-speed: chasse, step, fuente, step, SMACK!” I had completely wiped out. Flat on my back, gasping for breath. I heard my sister’s voice about the collective groan of the crowd, a distinctive, heart-dropping “OHWWW!”
And it was. The kind of smack that knocks the wind right out of you and makes you wonder if you might be dead. But there’s no such grace for a girl wearing size 10 in the 7th grade. Face red, not crying yet, I pushed myself up and did the next move, a measure behind in the music. It was my best move. A modified cartwheel that ended with a split second of airtime before both feet landed at the same time. My trusty friend the round-off. I did it perfectly, for me. The really awesome girls did a back handspring right after, but that was never on my radar.
I think there was another few seconds of mostly spinning in circles artsy moves–it’s kind of a blur, but I know the routine ended with this dramatic pose, sitting cross-legged with a hand in the air. It was humiliating. It was probably just as painful to watch. But when I stood up, I did that whole gymnastics victory salute thing. The hero’s salute.
My sister teased me about this day relentlessly for the next 15 years, and it still comes up from time to time. The abject humiliation. The chubby girl in the leotard wipes out. The deafening sound of the smack heard ’round the gym. I could say that I was proud I had at least tried my best, but honestly, I wasn’t. I was a failure who didn’t know the definition of the word impossible. In the worst way.
Today a friend shared the link to this brief sermon, and I have to say, I think I learned something.
I had always thought that the girls at the end of their routines were saluting the judges as a final flourish on their perfected work. The salute meant “stop judging now.” The better the routine, the better the salute. But today, I had an idea. In the context of the believer clinging on to safety for dear life, the salute at the end of our lives as people of faith isn’t about how great our results were. The pride of a life well-lived isn’t about achieving perfection in the performance–every effort yielding the desired results.
It’s about whether we trusted that The Judge was real. About believing His commands to go farther, be in the world but not of it, become His hands and feet…to the ridicule of the people we hold dear some times.
In some ways, I think my life was all foreshadowed in that horrible gymnastics routine. I attempt a lot of things without the skill or resources to perform them, often publicly, or at least in ways that ensure people feel they need to intervene. But, even in that hideous moment, sprawled flat on my back in a room of strangers, I still got up and did the rest of the routine. I was ashamed, my back hurt like heck, and my pride hurt worse. But, there was a round-off next that I knew I could do. And in the end, I stood and saluted the judge, and took the 1.4 that routine deserved.
20 years later, I call it a win.
Now, the time I joined the diving team and biffed on a failed one and a half in front of 200 people in a silent natatorium…that’s a different story.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a little gymnastics and diving fundraising fun. The paperwork for Libby has begun!