Callista and Cassandra Tai, affectionately coined “The Tai Twins” by peers, are currently third-year students at UC Santa Barbara. Callista is studying linguistics with an emphasis in language and speech technologies, while Cassandra is pursuing a completely different path in anthropology. Before their college lives began, the twins were competitive artistic gymnasts, starting the sport at age 8, and retiring at the age of 15. Here is the story of their life as gymnasts, and how they were ultimately able to transition into life after gymnastics.
Before gymnastics, the twins were actually ballerinas. Their mother had always wanted to see her girls involved in something “elegant”, and ballet was just that. Funnily enough, it was through ballet that the twins were exposed to the world of gymnastics. They recall a boy in their ballet class who would do all sorts of tumbling and gymnastics tricks. Seeing the boy perform such cool stunts made the twins want to do the same. So they begged their parents to sign them up for gymnastics classes. Their father was more willing; their mother was less enthused by the idea, but eventually caved in.
Enter, gymnastics. Artistic gymnastics, to be exact. Rightly deemed the most dangerous sport in the world. Intense by nature, where one minor misstep could result in devastating injury. Notorious for the physical, mental, and emotional demand placed on its athletes, who often peak by the age of 17. The sport is about perfection. Precision. And only the most disciplined, resilient, and strong-minded gymnasts can make it to the top.
Of course, Callista and Cassandra knew none of this, going into the sport. At eight years old, all they saw was a sport that would teach them how to do cool tricks, and that was enough to get them hooked.
During their seven years as competitive gymnasts at San Mateo Gymnastics Club, Callista and Cassandra trained hard, 3.5 hours Monday through Friday and 4 hours Saturday, whilst managing an academic life at public school. This student-gymnast double life was not an easy one. The twins sacrificed a social life-- they’d often turn down invitations from classmates to hang out after school-- because of training. Vacation time with family was limited, as gymnasts need to be training consistently to maintain muscle and keep up their skills. Any time away from the gym was highly frowned upon by coaches. Another thing the twins had to sacrifice for their sport was the amount of energy they could devote to schoolwork. Imagine coming home to a pile of homework after a long day at school, followed by an even longer, grueling training session at the gym. Physically and mentally exhausted, the last thing anyone would want to do is homework. But to forgo school was not an option, for these diligent girls. And so, they persisted.
Another challenged Callista and Cassandra faced as gymnasts was the issue of body image. In a sport that emphasizes lean muscle tone with little-to-no body fat, many gymnasts suffer from negative body image, which, when taken to the extreme, manifests as eating disorders. Fortunately, during their time in the sport, the twins did not worry too much about their physiques. Between consistent training and the fast metabolism of their prepubescent bodies, the twins were in the best shape of their lives, during their time as gymnasts. They were able to eat whatever they wanted without worrying about putting on weight. Cassandra notes, however, that one thing she disliked about being a gymnast was “Having a body that didn’t match up to those around me.” Gymnastics training is meant to build incredibly defined muscle tone-- both a blessing and a curse, as illustrated by Callista’s experience changing in the P.E. locker room: “The girls looked at my body, and were like, ‘Oh my gosh, your abs!’ While it was cool being unique, [having a different body] sets you apart, and can make you feel alienated.” The difficulties of living up to the clashing body ideals of society and gymnastics is not an experience unique to the twins. While muscles are glorified inside the gym, once these gymnasts step foot into the real world, many feel self-conscious about appearing more muscular than kids their own age. It’s a different kind of body image struggle, but a struggle, nonetheless.
Callista’s struggle with body image goes a little deeper. “It started in fifth grade,” she said. “It may or may not have stemmed from gymnastics, or just general body insecurity.” Being one of the older girls on her team, Callista was always conscious of her size in comparison to her younger peers. During her freshman year of high school, Callista put on some weight. Her coach noticed, and, at one point, pinched her belly and gave her a knowing glance. No words had to be exchanged-- Callista knew what had to be done. She started restricting calories, packing only one slice of bread for lunch. It was especially difficult for her, because at that point, she not only looked different from her peers at school; she now looked different from her teammates at the gym, many of whom had yet to hit puberty.
In our media-driven society today, body image negativity may have arisen, regardless of whether or not the twins did gymnastics. But gymnastics almost 100% guaranteed the twins to experience hyper-awareness about body image not only during their competitive days, but especially after they retired from gymnastics. More on that, later.
Coaching abuse is another issue common not just in gymnastics, but in competitive sports as a whole. Many coaches view punishment-- be it verbal, like yelling, or physical, like additional sets of conditioning-- as the quickest, most effective way of teaching their athletes how to execute skills properly. Psychological research has shown, however, that positive punishment is in fact not an effective means of teaching new behavior, as doing so can introduce fear conditioning to the equation, which can hinder learning, instead of facilitate it.
When asked whether or not they faced abuse-- physical, verbal, or psychological-- at the hands of their coaches, the twins replied that, while they themselves never experienced extreme abuse, they did witness some other girls at the gym, many of whom were on the elite level, being verbally abused by coaches. The worst thing that coaches would make the twins and their teammates do was “extreme conditioning to punish cheating, or if [we’re] not able to stick a skill.” It is debatable whether or not such coaching methods constitute abuse. As a former gymnast myself, I concede that a big part of what coaches say and do is to strengthen the mind, body, and character of the athlete. There is a difference, however, between being a strict coach who is firm with what they want and punishes fairly and justly, and being an abusive coach who adopts an authoritarian role and punishes their athletes, both physically and mentally, without reason. Topics to be discussed at another time. Now, back to the twins’ story.
Competition pressure was another thing the twins faced while in gymnastics. All athletes must learn to perform with grace and composure while under intense pressure. Cassandra says that while she did get nervous before competitions, she would calm herself down before each routine by reminding herself that it was just like a practice. One competition ritual of hers was putting on extra chalk on her hands and feet, to absorb the sweat. If she was at a competition where there was not enough chalk to use, she would get more nervous. Like her sister, Callista also experienced pre-competition nerves. To cope, Callista liked to have a consistent routine on the day of competition, from eating breakfast, to doing hair and makeup, to putting on her leotard. Everything had to be as planned, or else the nerves would flare up. At the competition, Callista would try to block out external stimuli to get in the right headspace for peak performance.
In spite of all these struggles-- balancing gymnastics and school, dealing with body image issues, and competition pressure-- the twins clearly loved their sport, or they would not have stuck with it for so long. When asked what she liked most about being a gymnast, Cassandra replied, “I liked being strong, fit, and able to do cool tricks. Fitness training in P.E. class was always a breeze!” Callista’s attraction to the sport was less about the physical aspect of it. “I loved the uniqueness of the sport,” she said. “Gymnastics was very much tied to my identity.” Indeed, the sport was what distinguished the twins from many of their peers at school. It was, for many years, their “only” identity.
It was this very fact of their identities being intrinsically “tied” to their sport that made quitting gymnastics at age 15 so difficult. The choice of quitting gymnastics was not their own, and it happened very suddenly. Because of that, the twins were left without closure; they did not have a chance to say goodbye to their teammates and coaches of seven years.
What ensued was a whirlwind of emotions. Initially, there was “bliss”. After gymnastics, the twins had much more free time and no longer had to deal with “dreading” practices. After that initial euphoric period passed, however, the twins fell into a deep depression-- a depression that began at the end of sophomore year of high school, and lasted all the way until their second year of college. They would constantly ask themselves, “Who am I, without my sport? What is my identity now, if not a gymnast?” The identity crisis was real. They felt anger at having had to quit so suddenly, with no say in the matter. They also quit during the time when puberty hit, and their bodies began to naturally change. They continued to eat as much as they did while still training, and then some, because of the depression. The result was weight gain, which, in turn, negatively affected their mental and emotional states, as so much of their identities as gymnasts was tied to their fit physiques.
The twins briefly considered switching to another sport, like horseback riding. But they were discouraged by the thought of starting something brand new so late in the game. So they did nothing, instead.
It took many years for the twins to fully come to peace with leaving their sport prematurely. For a long time, they remained unsure of what role gymnastics played in their lives. It was their past, but it was also their present. They existed in a limbo state, for a while, unsure of who they were, if not gymnasts.
When the two of them began college at UC Santa Barbara in fall of 2016, they began working as beginners’ coaches at a gym on campus. It was only when they integrated gymnastics back into their lives, this time with new roles as coaches, that they were able to begin the steps of healing and gaining closure. However, as time went on, the young gymnasts continued to progress, and Callista and Cassandra, seeing this, were brought back to the painful memories of “what could have been”, had they not quit when they did. That, coupled with the negative environment of the gym where coaches would yell constantly, led the twins to eventually quit their jobs as coaches.
During fall of 2017, some students at UCSB started a club gymnastics team. The twins joined the club first as general members, then later took on leadership roles in the organization. Being involved in a new club where gymnastics is celebrated as a fun physical activity, without the added negativity and pressure that stems from competitive gymnastics, was incredibly fulfilling for the twins. Club gymnastics also helped the twins ultimately come to peace with their past lives as competitive gymnasts. Cassandra said, “My initial goal with club gym was to gain back some of my old skills. But eventually I realized that I didn’t want those to be my goals anymore.” Callista shared the same sentiment. “Club gym helped me realize that gymnastics was more of my past identity. My goals have shifted. I now know that I am more than my sport.”
As leaders in UCSB’s club gymnastics team, the twins had the opportunity to work with beginners who had no prior gymnastics training. Callista said, “It is so fulfilling to share my knowledge with beginners. I find it so much more fulfilling to see beginners improve and learn new skills, than if I myself were to hop on a beam and try to gain back new skills.”
Now, in their third years at UCSB, Callista and Cassandra have begun to develop their identities in many ways outside gymnastics-- and outside sports, in general. In addition to coaching, they enjoy being full-time students, and are focusing on developing their personalities more, while exploring career paths and potential passions unrelated to sports, like singing.
Despite having been out of the competitive circuit for nearly 5 years, the two still carry over the lessons they learned from gymnastics into their lives after the sport. Callista cites “persistence” as the main thing she’s learned from gymnastics. The sport taught her to approach life with a “just do it” mindset, namely, doing things even if they terrify you and you think you can’t do it. Cassandra credits gymnastics with her ability to deal with nerves and pressure. While she still gets nervous before giving a presentation in front of a class, gymnastics has taught her how to be okay, in those high-pressure situations of evaluation.
When asked what pieces of advice they could give to athletes still competing, Callista says, “Enjoy [your sport] while you can, because as you grow older, you won’t be able to do everything you used to do. If you’re not enjoying it, take a step back and reassess the situation. If the sport is not benefiting you, even if you are so tied to the sport, it might be worth it to take a little break. Ask yourself, is it worth your time and energy? Because it is not worth it to sacrifice happiness for your sport.” Cassandra says, “Once you stop, the transition will be hard. You will feel lost for a bit, but it just takes time. Just give it time, and you will find closure. It is also important to explore other avenues beyond your sport.”
Indeed, the question of whether it is possible to live a life as a competitive athlete while maintaining a semblance of “normalcy” has been a long-debated one. When I asked the twins whether or not they believed balance was possible as a competitive athlete, they replied, “It is possible to have a balance. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. It honestly depends on your personality and situation. Parental pressure is a huge factor as well.” Callista added, “Not only is it possible to have balance; it is so important, especially for when you inevitably retire from your sport.” While the twins attended public school alongside gymnastics, so much of their identity and community was tied to gymnastics. All of their friends were from the gym. So even though they went to school, just as most kids their age did, their identity outside of gymnastics was not nearly as salient as their identity as gymnasts. This is ultimately why losing gymnastics was so devastating. They were not only losing their sense of self, they were also losing an entire network and community that played such an important role in their lives.
When asked whether or not they missed their lives as gymnasts, both Callista and Cassandra expressed mixed feelings. Callista says that the nostalgia comes and goes, but in retrospect, the gymnastics life was probably not the best fit for her personality. She states that she naturally does not have very high energy levels, and as a gymnast, she found herself always tired and groggy, be it at practice or at school. While she does miss having something that made her unique, and sometimes wonders what could have been, had she continued the sport, she ultimately concludes that being a gymnast was not the best fit for her, and has come to peace with that chapter of her life. Cassandra also misses her sport sometimes-- both the sport itself and the lifestyle associated with being a competitive athlete. But she also admits that she inherently does not have the best work ethic and time management skills, which made being a gymnast and student all the more difficult. It was very hard to keep up with homework and training, while leaving time to unwind and relax.
I have known the twins since the third grade, and they remain two of my closest friends to date. Having accompanied them throughout their journeys, I can confidently say that these two young women, both of whom have been through so much emotional toil these past four years, have been able to effectively piece together their lives and identities from scratch, and ultimately close one chapter of their lives to write another. It is my honor to know two of the strongest, most insightful and deeply introspective young women out there.