Summer of 2012 marked the conclusion of the 2011-2012 competitive season in rhythmic gymnastics. I had made a breakthrough that year and just finished the best season of my entire career, which ended with the 2012 Junior Olympics.
Despite my outward successes, my body was falling apart. I had chronic back problems and intense knee pain. Practices were brutal, and there were times when I could not even walk up the stairs to my room after a long day of training.
During the season, I pushed through the pain because I needed to compete. To scratch from a competition was not an option for me-- I was raised to be a fighter, and I willed myself to soldier onward, against the better judgement of doctors. My coach knew of my physical pains but urged me to continue training and competing. I think she felt that her ego was at stake, if her star athlete withdrew from competition. And like I often say, many coaches, especially those from Eastern Europe, view their sole purpose as that of creating physical powerhouses. As long as the athlete is training hard and bringing home the medals, nothing else matters. But what about the very real, very human side of the athlete? What of emotions? Spirit? Joy? During my ten years in gymnastics, none of those three words were in my vocabulary. It was all just work, work, and more work. My life could be described in one word: discipline. I worked hard and sacrificed much for my sport because I loved it so deeply. This is why I pushed myself to train through that physical pain.
And so, by the end of the 2012 season, my back was killing me and my knees were totally shot. I could not jump. I could not stretch. In fact, I was screwed from the very beginning of my rhythmic gymnastics career. I was at a higher risk for injury, because my body was neither innately flexible nor built for rhythmic gymnastics. I continually forced my body to do what it was genetically incapable of doing. It was only a matter of time before it gave out.
My parents were the ones who ultimately dragged me out of gymnastics so my poor body could heal. The only medicine doctors prescribed was rest and physical therapy. But how could I rest, with the next competitive season looming ahead? The momentum was so strong. I had just finished the best season of my life and was hungry for more success. It wasn't an option for me to take a break from gymnastics.
And so, I continued to push. I went to physical therapy and strengthened the muscles around my kneecap to protect my inflamed patella tendon. I iced my knees religiously. But the one thing I didn't do was rest. My parents thought I went to the local fitness center to rehab my knees. Instead, I continued to secretly train. I refused to lose my apparatus skills. I continued to stretch and condition twice a day, despite the loud protest of my back. I refrained from jumping, but insisted on practicing every other skill.
Well, what do you think happened, then? My knee pain didn't get any better. If anything, it got worse. I was far from recovered when I announced to my parents, in the beginning of October, that I was ready to return to training full time. They believed me. So I went back to the gym, got my new routines for the season, and continued to push. I was scheduled to compete at the annual LA Lights Tournament of Champions in late January. The pressure was on, as the injury had already put me behind schedule. I wanted so badly to qualify for level 10 that year, and my coach wanted a level 10 athlete to tack onto her credentials. So together, my coach and I pushed my body past my limit, until one day I woke up in sheer agony, unable to walk. That's when I finally realized I had overdone it.
So the rest is history. I completely stopped gymnastics and missed most of the 2012-2013 season. This time around, I listened closely to my doctors' advice. Rest and rehab. No training. I tried making a comeback in March of 2013, during spring semester of my freshman year of high school. I hoped to compete at regionals so I could go to national qualifiers, the competition that determines whether or not you advance to level 10. But going back to training immediately reactivated the knee pain. As much as I longed to compete, I knew in my mind that that my body could no longer take the stress. I had to make an important decision. Continue to train and risk long-term damage for a slim shot at success, or call it quits then and there, and give my body the rest it needed.
Now, if it were completely up to me, I would have chosen the former option, easily. Yes, it was my body that was suffering. But no amount of physical pain could compare to the emotional and psychological pain I knew I'd feel, if I left my sport. My body was weak, but my heart and spirit remained steadfast and deeply in love with my sport. Gymnastics was the only life I'd ever known, and the mere thought of venturing into a world outside my sport was utterly terrifying. I had put all my eggs in one basket. I had no life outside of gymnastics. Yes, I attended public school. But I had no friends there. I didn't feel the need for friends at school. My entire community was centered around my sport. Gymnastics was the only thing I'd ever felt capable and confident in. Outside of my sport, I was very shy with a fragile self esteem. I lacked the ability to think and act for myself. All my life, I had coaches telling me exactly what to do to reach my goals. I was told what to eat. When to sleep. How to train. So how on Earth would I be able to live without such guidance and hand-holding? Without clear goals and daily structure? More than anything in the world, I was terrified of what a life after gymnastics would bring. I feared that once I quit gymnastics, I would be discarded like a beaten up race car thrown into the dumpster. I feared that my coach would no longer care about me, because I was of no use to her anymore. I feared losing my entire community of teammates, competitors, coaches, parents, and judges. So yeah, if it had been up to me, I would have stayed in gymnastics, at the expense of my physical health.
My parents had the final say in the decision. They decided for me that it was time to quit. I protested vehemently. I fought with them for weeks on end. But at the end of the day, they were my parents, and parents are usually right. When I realized that there was no way of ever returning to competitive gymnastics, all the fight in me dissipated. I lost all hope and faith. I fell into a deep depression. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. As an athlete, I was always highly motivated and disciplined with my training. Everything was non-stop, go-go-go. School, then practice. Then dinner in the car. Then homework. Then sleep. I was like a ticking clock, never stopping my steady momentum. Then suddenly, BOOM. The injury happened. And I, the once steady clock, stopped ticking. I could barely wake up in the morning to go to school. At my lowest point, my mother had to dress me because I was so freaking depressed, I lacked the energy to dress myself. I became a social recluse in school. I'd spend my lunchtime alone, watching old gymnastics videos and crying. Yup. There was a lot of crying. My already low confidence plummeted until there was nothing left. No self-esteem. No sense of self-worth outside my sport. No idea of who I was or what my purpose was on this Earth, if I wasn't a gymnast.
It was the darkest, most difficult time of my then 15 years of life. And the worst part was, no one seemed to understand what I was going through-- not even my family. To my parents, the injury was a blessing in disguise. Now, without gymnastics in my life, I could focus my energy on my studies! Yay! Do you really think I was able to see my injury in that way, at that point in time, though? God no. Not even close. I felt so many emotions... Bitterness towards the situation. Anger at myself for not listening to my body when it needed to slow down. Perhaps, had I listened to the doctors, my knees would have healed completely and I would still be able to do gymnastics. I felt confusion as to why the universe would let something so cruel happen to me. I had promise and potential. I was just beginning to make my mark in the sport. But all my dreams were dashed away, with one devastating injury. Sadness because I lost my one true love in the world. Jealousy towards my teammates who took for granted the fact that they were able to do gymnastics. The worst feeling of all, though, was when I was no longer able to feel anything. That scared the living hell out of me. I didn't feel bitterness, anger, confusion, sadness, or jealousy... it was just a hollow emptiness that sucked the breath out of me. And at one point, I truly believed that I would not make it out alive.
For the remainder of my freshman year and the entirety of my sophomore year of high school, I mourned the loss of a past life. As time went on, my parents found my depressive behavior more and more ludicrous. I distinctly remember sitting in the car ride home one day and being hit with a pang of nostalgia. And it wasn't the pleasant kind of nostalgia that makes you smile softly with gratitude for past memories. No. This nostalgia was angry. Biting. Vicious. It was so intense that I broke down, right then and there in the car, head pressed up against the window so my mother could not see my tears. Of course my mother heard the sound of suppressed sobs, and when she did, she completely lost it. She yelled and yelled at me for crying. She simply could not understand why losing gymnastics was affecting me so deeply. She saw me suffering but had no idea how to help me in any way. I never felt more alone in my life than I did that day.
Believe me-- I tried again and again to convey my pain to my family. I remember researching articles on depression and emailing them to my dad, just so he would understand what I was feeling. As a medical professional, my dad has had plenty of experience treating depressed patients. Which is why I was so confused, when he replied my emails by saying, "Noted. But you also should know that people are able to recover from depression." In retrospect, I think my dad was trying to give me hope that things would get better. But in my time of grief, I felt as if he had completely invalidated my cry for help. He was telling me that things would get better, as if he expected me to magically wake up one morning no longer depressed. Sure, things would get better. But can't you see that I don't know how to get from point A to point B? That I've fallen into a deep hole and am so afraid and want nothing more than to get back up to the land of the living, but have no idea how to do so?
It was the summer into my junior year of high school that I had an epiphany. In retrospect, this must have been the work of God. I was finally ready to end it all... just like Bulgarian rhythmic gymnast Tsvetelina Stoyanova almost did, when she attempted suicide shortly after a health problem forced her to withdraw from training and miss the European championships. But somehow, someway, with the help of God, I mustered up the last ounce of fight I had in me, and decided to enlist professional help in therapy. Because deep down, I knew I wanted to get better. As painful as it was to go on without gymnastics, I still had a will to live.
Therapy saved my life. I had a great child psychologist. Zoe was her name. She knew exactly what I was feeling, and she validated my pain during what was the first great adversity I had ever experienced. She helped me through the stages of grief. She was patient and kind and slowly helped me transition and adapt to a life outside of gymnastics. With time, I was able to emerge from the shell of my former self, wounds still raw and exposed as I took my first baby steps into the scary post-gymnastics world. But they were steps forward, nonetheless. Eventually, I opened my mind to the possibility of finding a new passion after gymnastics. Initially, I felt like I was "betraying" gymnastics by moving on to something else. But I knew that the only way to heal was to look ahead at the opportunities that awaited me, rather than glance behind at a former life that could only be lived through memories. So I explored new avenues, reluctantly, at first. I tried all sorts of things where I could utilize my gymnastics background-- synchronized swimming, diving, jazz dance.
Learning to be a beginner again, after having spent a decade building up expertise in one field, was an incredibly humbling and eye-opening experience. I didn't like it, at first. In fact, I hated it. I hated being placed in the same swimming lane as the 10-year-olds who were, by the way, light-years more skilled in synchro than I was. Same thing went for diving and jazz dance. It was absolutely humiliating! None of the coaches seemed to take me seriously. To them, I was just a 16-year-old late bloomer looking to have some fun with no long-term goals in mind. I was just a waste of their time, and the only reason they even paid me the slightest bit of attention was because my parents were paying them money. And all this I faced, after having spent a decade climbing my way from the bottom to the top, working so, so hard for my dream, and getting so, so close-- close enough to taste the sweet droplet of glory, but never quite making my mark. My pride was hurt. I wanted so much to be respected once more... to have people expect greatness out of me, like they once did. I wanted someone to believe in me. I almost gave up the pursuit of a new passion, until one day, I discovered the world of competitive Latin-American dancing. At that time, I believed I had found my new niche. I had a coach who recognized my potential to succeed in the art and believed in me. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, my fire was rekindled. I felt... hope.
I am forever indebted to Zoe for helping me navigate such a difficult, confusing time of my life. I owe my life to her. Because if I had gone about it alone, I may not have made it out alive. And that is the reason why I have created this blog and shared my life story with you all. Because I know that there exists at least one person out there who is going through exactly what I went through, not that long ago. And if I could somehow reach out to this person and pull them out of the dark hole they are entrenched in... well, that would make all my struggles, pain, and adversity worth it.
I will end my story by saying this. Athletes transitioning out of their sport and into the real world should never have to face the transition alone. Because there are many, many challenges during this pivotal life shift. There's the process of rebuilding one’s identity from scratch. Finding new meaning in life outside of sports. Learning to be a beginner again. Facing disillusionment after disillusionment. Dealing with the aftermath of years of psychological abuse. Developing a voice. My transition out of gymnastics was the most difficult thing I’ve ever faced in my life, a million times more difficult than any kind of physical pain I experienced as an athlete. But, with the proper support system, I miraculously made it out alive. And today, 6 years out of the sport, I am able to say this: There is a world outside of competitive athletics. And it's a beautiful world, with so much to offer its people. And it is possible to find happiness and fulfillment beyond a life of pain and immense sacrifice for the single-minded pursuit of a dream that consumes your waking days.
To be a dedicated athlete is truly a gift, for there is nothing quite like it, in the real world. If your life in sports is a bubble, then that bubble will inevitably pop, one day. And when it does, you will feel like you're falling down the mountain that you've worked so hard your entire life to climb. As you continue to fall, your life as you know it will flash before your very eyes, just before it disappears. You lose your athletic body, your prized instrument, and all the incredible feats it was once able to perform. You lose that sense of certainty, linearity, and structure that comes with being an athlete. The clarity of purpose... the simplicity of habit and discipline... the power of a passion and dream so strong that you can push yourself beyond all conceivable limits to reach your goal. Life in sports is a gem. A diamond. So uniquely beautiful and precious. But diamonds are sharp and, if mishandled, can cut you so deep that you're left with wounds... wounds that may never heal properly.
Too often, athletes are cut deep by the very life they love... the only life they know. They face physical and psychological abuse. Immense pressure of competing with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Crippling expectations of perfection. This kind of life can be incredibly toxic and detrimental to the athlete's mental and emotional state. It's a life that leaves behind scars. And so, you're left wondering... maybe, just maybe, as sweetly intoxicating, passionate, familiar, and simple my life as an athlete was, I am grateful to have left that world behind me. And one day, you will look back on it all and say to yourself: “I am grateful for the injury. It was indeed a blessing in disguise.”