Gymnastics. That defined me. We practiced two nights a week and four hours on Saturdays. Meets were Sundays. I breathed gymnastics and can still mentally perform a round-off, back-handspring, double full twist. That’s 360° twice while revolving in plank position. And I can even get this 41-year-old body to perform it off a diving board. A most impressive feat, which garners me “cool mom” and/or “show off” (depending on who you ask). Oh, the sheer delight of knowing how to throw myself about! I can still feel the power of my arms and legs pounding and rebounding off the mat… back-handspring, back-handspring, back-handspring– like a slinky with thunder. I felt so strong. Who am I kidding? I was strong.
Summers were especially arduous, as practice was held in the non-air conditioned YWCA. My coach led us in excruciating aerobics after a mile run on the greenless streets of center-city Allentown. That asphalt radiated enough heat to kill anything carbon-based within four feet. Topping out at five feet, I managed to stay alive. This also after riding my bike six miles to the pool, diving and cavorting all day at said pool and peddling six miles home. I’m sure some mama bears kept their gymnasts inside on practice days to save their strength. My father was (thankfully) more concerned about whether or not I was having fun on practice days and every other summer day. I paid for that fun during aerobics. During aerobics my name was not Kelly. My name was “Lazy Dog.” My coach fiercely claimed that her… “grandmother could do better than you, Kelly, and she’s dead.” Back then that was considered creative wounding, at least by 10-year-old me. My militant coaches looked like Grace Jones, barked fluently in the dialect of incensed sailors, and ran their team like the Spartan mothers who said, “Come home with your shield, or on it.”
I mean, I was dying during those calisthenics. The non-negotiable and emphatic disapproval of my coaches made me believe that I was indeed a dog, and though I’d been sapped by a day of arduous physical activity, I did not connect that fact to my lethargy in endless squats. The truth was that I’d been singled out as the one who couldn’t hang, the lazy dog, no better than the dead grandmother.
Thankfully, so much of youth is a study in contrasts. Gymnastics camp. I was trying to master a release trick on the bars when I overheard the Davidic and beautiful camp counselor who was coaching me casually remark to another, “She works harder than any of the guys.” Wait. You must be mistaken. I’m Lazy Dog, the one who can’t hold her own in aerobics. He didn’t know about the aerobics. And that was the most delicious piece of affirmation I had ever eaten, and it became my lifelong goal to garner more of such praise. I cried when I had to leave camp that year; that was the only year I cried.
Only much later when the zoom of perspective got wide enough, could I entertain the possibility that I was not defined by my despicable coaches. And still the lens must push back beyond the outer limits of this universe to prove to me that no man on earth defines another. That is God’s vista.