As I try to catch bits and pieces of the 2012 Summer Olympics, I flash back to my childhood when I didn’t know I was doomed as an athlete. I already knew I was doomed as a piano player, ballerina, and tap dancer, but I had hopes as a swimmer and gymnast.
I started swimming when I was three and by the time I was six I passed the “big pool” test comprising three lengths of the Olympic-length pool, one on my back, and touching the bottom of the deep end at 9 feet under. I had high hopes of being a lifeguard, but my early start actually acted against me. By the time I was 11 I had taken all the Red Cross levels and proceeded to take Junior Lifeguarding. We learned how to save drowning swimmers and how to stay in the water for long periods of time by floating and treading water and even by turning our jeans into a flotation device.
The Lifeguarding class had a minimum age of 16, so I had a lot of years to wait. I took Swimmers I and II which taught me more and more esoteric strokes. Then I took a Swimmers Aid class where I helped the lifeguards with lessons for the early levels. The next summer I was 14 and still two years shy of taking Lifeguarding, but I’d taken every other class offered. That year I started working summers and lifeguarding fell by the wayside.
At around 9 or 10, I joined the swim team. I can’t say I was very good; I think I earned a few red ribbons, no blue. They put me in Butterfly and Backstroke. I doubt I really had the proper kick for the butterfly, but I was one of the few girls in my age group who could actually haul herself through the water with my butterfly arms. That’s probably why they put me on backstroke occasionally too…but whereas I could make my way down the lane on my front by following the enormous black lines painted on the bottom of the pool, I was far too blind without my glasses to spot myself with overhead cues on the backstroke. I’d veer off to one side, then the other, seriously compromising my time.
About the time I was 12 I switched my athletic ambitions to gymnastics. I don’t actually remember how I got into gymnastics, probably gym class and a few summer classes at the rec center. I could cart wheel and somersault, and do a back bend, but I was not capable of a flip. I don’t know why we girls weren’t encouraged with weight-lifting, but that was never on the menu. Although I was a weak swimmer because I depended too much on my arms and not enough on my legs, as a gymnast it was the opposite.
I was no good at the vault or the floor and I was afraid of killing myself on the balance beam, but I was okay on the uneven parallel bars. The lack of upper-body strength left me frustrated on many moves, but I had amazing reflexes and incredible flexibility. These were natural abilities and not the result of hard work. I did love the feeling of getting a move right, which usually meant I made it up to the top bar and then did a fun, swooshing trip down to the lower bar and ended up grabbing the top bar back over my head before I ran out of momentum. I never did get a ribbon in my short gymnastics career.
So, as I watch these athletes, many of them in their teens, I am inspired and awed by their talent and even more by their dedication. I have enjoyed watching the swimming and gymnastics events and am proud of my country’s athletes, especially the teen girls; Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas just amaze and inspire me and make me proud of my country. I did find, though, that the Russian girls on the uneven-parallel bars took my breath away as they flew through their routines, defying gravity and sticking their landings.
Find the Joy in the Journey and may this world be inspired by these gifted athletes, no matter from where they hale!