I’m not sure why, in the near-decade that I’ve lived in the Richmond area, that I’ve never looked for local collegiate gymnastics meets (if you’re new…I’m a huge fan and a former gymrat). I suppose I’ve just gotten used to watching televised meets at my own speed, from my own couch. In this land of OnDemand and Streaming and DVRs (all essential for those of us in the role of momager), I can make a collegiate gymnastics season that, in real-life, finishes in March, last until at least May.
Then, there was also that bit where Every. Single. Time. I thought of a fun-for-me extracurricular activity, that thought often disappeared as quickly as I could say, “Wait, so you have soccer on Saturday and you have to work and we need to go to Lowe’s and Target and, yes, we’re putting up the new shutters? Excellent!”
Then, for basically no reason at all just a few weeks ago, I pulled up my alma mater’s athletics website to see how the 2022 Women’s Gymnastics team was doing this season.
BUT, wait, now what?!?
In a shocking twist, I found that my West Chester University Golden Rams would be making the trek to this very land that I love to compete just down the road from me against William & Mary. This was a huge surprise for me. When I was on the team (yes, back in the day…my gawd…thirty years ago…get off my lawn…), we only ever traveled north. In fact, most of us on those 1990’s teams were convinced that our beloved coach had a weird fascination for filling the smallest buses available with her young athletes, just to see how we would handle traveling to places like Ithaca, New York or Southern Connecticut in blizzard-like conditions.
We did not handle it well.
We hated it.
There was hardly room for our tiny leotards, let alone any space for snow boots, parkas, gloves, or earmuffs. And our university’s minuscule “this is probably all the money a tiny gymnast would need to eat for two days” stipend did not cover any significant stick-to-your-freezing-ribs food.
Traveling south? What? These girls are living in the future!
Oh, but that was just the beginning…
As soon as I saw the date of the competition, I put a giant PURPLE & GOLD STAR on the family calendar announcing a jaunt east to Williamsburg for the meet. This was met with three questioning faces and several groans. As go-night approached, our travel party dwindled to two as mumbled excuses poured out, which is the short story of how only Rich and I ended up at our first gymnastics meet.
His first gymnastics meet.
No, wait, mine too, right?
Of course, I’ve been to a bazillion meets as a competitor and, later, as a coach, but as a normal person off the streets just sitting in the stands?
I’m not actually sure. Or it had been so few that I don’t actually remember.
As Rich follows zero sports at all, per my marital preferences, I was fully prepared to find him half-asleep after the first kip-cast-handstand. Except this was not like any gymnastics meet I’d ever been to…competitor, coach, observer…for the love of Are There God It’s Me, Mary Lou Retton, what was happening…?
I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting the circus-like atmosphere. Most of the collegiate SEC meets televised in my living room seem to be one step short of insanity. I just thought the chaos was reserved for the higher level (Division I), those tricksters who brought in crowds by the actual thousands.
Evidently, Division II was no exception. It was just as…what was happening? In my confused defense, there was a men’s competition happening simultaneously, something else that I’d never seen ever in my life. Rather than a four-ring circus…it was ten.
Once I returned from orbit courtesy of the loud music, adjusted to the pace and gained an ability to focus…a few things popped out to me. Now, I’m certainly not trying to be judge-y or anything but…no…yes…get off my lawn.
It’s not that I thought nothing had changed in the thirty years since I last donned a pair of grips but… what was happening…?
- When did everybody get to start throwing down a sting mat for every landing? We had to hit the ground ankles (or knees (or elbows, butt, back, well, you get it)) first, like it or not (we did not). We did not have mat sherpas running rampant around the equipment throwing down four inches of blissful padding to caress us into our landings, errant or otherwise. I’m not saying this doesn’t make sense. It absolutely does as it currently takes me at least six steps to get my beaten ankles and knees on board with functioning each morning. I’m also about to hit surgery number three on a bad wrist because, where the heckle were those magical wrist braces that everybody slaps on today? Those would have been great in the 80’s! Maybe this endless access to all forms of foam gives these kids a chance at not creaking and cracking at age 50.
- As I was attributing the plethora of sting mats and support braces to the total lack of taped ankles, I realized that…wait…those ankles were, in fact, taped. For those not in the biz, taped ankles are the status quo for gymnasts. Why was it nearly invisible? Uh…no…wait…it was flesh-colored tape. Are you kidding me?!? No bright white beacon highlighting the end of your leg to make sure everyone in the building knew exactly when your foot wasn’t pointed to 180? No wonder nearly every score was a nine-plus.
- Side note, do the 2022 scoreboards not come with numbers below a “9”?
- Music for beam. I actually thought music during beam routines was just for the magic of television, added when viewers lost their ability to pay attention to anything longer than seven seconds. The balance beam used to be a silent event. Annoyingly so. If you fell, everyone, everywhere got to hear every single “clunk” as your body hit that four-inch piece of wonder on the way down, loud and clear, as the apparatus marked out the incoming bruise pattern. Now? Evidently, competitors actually get to pick a song they find relaxing while they zip up and down what used to be listed as the most non-favorite discipline. It would also appear that there are no points off for singing along. Can we just refer back to the numerous times I was docked for talking to myself mid-routine (Hi, I was practically a motivational speaker)? Hold my Metamucil and throw on some Celine Dion, I’m about to pull out my sports bra.
- I don’t even know where to start with whatever is happening over at the vault. Is it still a vault? I think it’s called a tongue now. I kind of wanted to go down and touch it. It looked quite soft from my spot in the stands. And the springboard now sits in a giant diaper, presumably to catch any misaimed feet that overshoot their landing point. As I told my husband, my experience was that if you overshot the board you just slammed chest first in the vault, waited for your knocked out wind to return, and then went back and tried again. And, yes, I know. It is a much more dangerous event today and (hopefully) coaches have gotten smarter.
- Holy hair. Holy, moly, holy, hair. Are teams now staffed with a professional hair braider? The closest we ever got to having our hair done was showing up to meets with pink plastic rollers in our ponytails. I’ve never seen so many versions of the braid, traveling in directions that made me wonder if the recipient was doing a handstand or lying on her side or doing a downward dog when the fingers were flying through her hair. How are these hair decisions made? Do you add a braid for each event you are competing in? Or do they represent your year in school? One braid for each day without a fall? When does the styling happen? How much extra time has to be built into the schedule (asking as one who liked the shortest warmup possible)? I also didn’t see any signs of the AquaNet sheen we used to keep straggler wisps of hair at bay. Kudos.
- Superfluous frivolity. Okay, I’ll say it. Not every landing is a stick, not every routine is a ten. And, while this is more for the stuff I see on television than what I saw in person, yes, I did have some head-scratching moments. Quick background: A few years ago, I can’t remember which university began tossing a “Stick Crown,” placed on the head of any gymnast who very obviously had a no-fault routine. It was used sparingly enough to be cool and deserving and thrilling. It was occasionally accompanied with chants of “ten, ten, ten” that were typically on point. Fast forward to today. It seems that every team everywhere has some sort of totem (totally fine) and every landing and every routine is met with a rush of shrieks and screams of sticks and demands for a ten (totally not fine). Jeepers. In-person Exhibit A: We watched an unfortunate competitor appear to roll her ankle coming off the springboard onto the vault. She somehow survived a very crumpled vault before a very quick pseudo-salute to the judges. As she tried to grab that ailing ankle, she couldn’t. She was blocked by swarming teammates offering congratulatory hugs. Exhibit B: A beam routine that included the dreaded straddling of the beam. Definitely not a ten. Definitely not ideal. Been there. It isn’t earth shattering, but it does leave a mark. And all you had to do was look at this poor young lady’s face to see that she was not interested in post-routine hugs or high fives while her lady bits were still absorbing the rash of suede burn.
- Moving on to better things.
- Every. Article. Of. Clothing. Matched. APPLAUSE. I did immediately feel pangs of, “holy hell, are you kidding me” jealousy when I spotted this but it was quickly replaced with a hearty, “holy hell, good for them.” The teams had matching everything. Shoes, bags, T-shirts, practice leotards, shorts, socks, wristbands, everything. It was as if someone at West Chester had packed a dozen go-bags and set them outside the door with a sign marked “Women’s Gymnastics: Williams & Mary Journey.” Why does this matter? Because it’s frigging awesome. It means, presumably, the school is spending actual dollars on the women’s program and making them, presumably, feel like they matter. We did not have this luxury when I was in college. We got a leotard or two, some black tights, and a march-in jacket. Everything else was at our own cost – and when you want to feel like you are a part of something, you pay the cost. We bought our own blizzard-like conditions coats, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and practice gear. No questions asked. Many of us were full-time student-athletes who also worked so that we could also afford the items needed to supplement that athlete part. Now, clearly, I was not privy to the budget, but as one who wrote her Senior Thesis on this newish-at-the-time concept of Title IX, the idea that it is still playing out gave me an instant giddy-up.
The ironic part of the evening wasn’t the matching shoes or stick crowns. It was actually how zoned out I got mid-way through the meet. Rich was actually more engaged than I was in following the flips and twists. I was busy having a moment of, “oh dear, my parents had to sit through so many of these things…god bless…” while he was ooohing at this whole new world of short, stocky girls that looked, well, very similar to his beloved wife.
And I don’t mean that in a weird way – it was actually quite adorable to hear exclaim,
“Oh wow, we’ve found them! We’ve found your people!”