Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Gymnast Parent Diaries: State Finals 2015

Bars Dismounting
Tonight in the snowy mess that was northern New Jersey, I took the eldest and her grandmother to the state finals for her gymnastics program, and the latest and biggest meet of her athletic career.

The eldest is 14 now, going on 15 in April. She's been doing gymnastics at the competitive club level for two years, having come to it a little later than most in the field. It's been an interesting experience, because gymnastics is kind of fascinating. Most of the time when you are watching a sport, you are rooting for the other team to lose; in gymnastics, that's really not the case, because a kid who isn't performing well is at physical risk, and no one wants to see that. You want to see all of the performers do well... but you also want to see your kid do better.

Then there's the judging. You can kind of guess what a score will be, once you've watched a few routines and seen what the scores tend to be, but you really don't know what goes into it, or why, and how much, someone might be better than someone else. Every gymnast is engaged in a game of risk/reward; too many difficult moves and you risk catastrophic failure; too few, and you can't score high enough to win. The gymnast also spends the better part of 3+ hours watching other performers work, and can do nothing about their performances; there is no such thing as defense here, just offense. When you do perform, other athletes are working all around you, and the gym is a distraction-tastic zone of side shows and other people, and there really isn't any luck involved. The equipment is supposed to be the same as every other gym, but that's never true, and the "home" performers always have an edge. It's also just you; while coaches and teammates and family in the crowd helps, it's really just you in the moment.

As a parent, especially the parent in the Grenade Age that is 14, your job is to get your kid to the gym on time, in proper spirits and nutrition, and to make sure she's ready to compete mentally, with a minimal amount of distractions. And today, we failed her with a vengeance. A late-breaking snowstorm hit the area this afternoon, dropping several inches of mess to the world and slowing roads to about a third of their usual speed. We budgeted extra time to get to the arena, and still wound up 45 minutes late. Which meant that my kid was in near tears, convinced that she was going to miss an event, not have time to warm up, or at the very least, poison her image with the judges. And adding to the lateness was some last minute problems in simply finding the damned venue, as the gym in question had several locations available.

Her weakest event is floor exercise; it was also what she had to do first, less than a half hour after walking in the gym. This is the favorite event of most gymnasts, in that it shows creativity and personality, and unlike every other apparatus, there's no real fear of strong injury from a failed move. My daughter tends more towards Serious than Fun when she performs, and this seems to limit her scores in the discipline. She also lacks some of the flexibility that you see in kids with, frankly, more meat on the bones; sometimes a hard body can limit that. And she's got my no air genetic legacy, which means a certain lack of explosion on jumps. But she did well, scored in the higher side of what she normally scores, and had good body language. I was relieved that we hadn't messed her up too bad by being late.

Next up was vault, which is usually a drama-free experience. At this level, vault isn't as super-flippy as you see from Olympians, and so long as you have good form and no fear, you tend to do well. But in the warm ups for this round, she kept coming up short on completion, and seemed to be having issues with her shoulder. Finally when it was go time, she hit the approach at speed, completed the move, stuck the landing and broke into a wide smile of relief. The second pass was better still, and she had just under her usual score.

Bars at this level is a real problem for most girls. It requires a lot of upper body strength that most do not have, and the contestant is a long way up in the air, with a real concern for her well-being. Completing rotations requires momentum that is pulling you away from safety; a lack of momentum also means failure. All of this is happening on a thin bar that never seems perfectly attuned to the performer -- complaints about, and adjustments to, bars outnumber all other equipment by a wide margin -- and you also have to achieve the perfect measure of chalk, work with your grips, and oh by the way, execute the damned moves. What usually happens is that a performer does their routine a few times in warm-ups, then looks gassed and nervous during the actual event. If you gave kids one apparatus to skip in every meet, it'd be bars.

My girl, being a different kind of gymnast, actually seems to like bars more than any other event. She's got more strength than most, doesn't seem to get gassed on repeat, and is good at enduring the pain involved with the event (broken skin seems common). She just doesn't have a very splashy dismount, which keeps her from scoring too high, but also makes the event a lot less risky than most. She did fine tonight, then moved on to beam.

In many of the meets I've attended, I've made small talk with other parents, and asked them the event they linked watching the least. The answer has always been the same: balance beam. Here, the risk/reward equation is at its zenith, with progressively more difficult moves working against the simple fact that falling off a balance beam is a lot easier than standing on it. My daughter completed a meet season where she did not fall once, but she did have some moments of shakiness that caused small deductions, and when the score came down, it was right in the pocket of what she normally achieves. All-around, this was one of her better events, especially for overcoming the late arrival, and I could tell she was pleased with how she did...

And then there's the awards.

At this level, medals are given out to every participant, but more are added if you are in the top half of performers. At last year's event, against a field of 25, she had placed just once, an 8th in vault. Unless you obsessively track every score, who wins what is something of a surprise. So when the results for vault were read, and my girl did not place, I was a little worried that she was going to be shut out. Bars came next, and her name was in the 8th slot, so everything was fine... and a 10th on beam was a little surprising, but hey, two medals this year is better than one last year. Floor was announced next, and we were all blindsided by a third place mark. Her worst event, in her biggest contest, and she got third in a field of 20? Something of a game changer, that. Seventh in the all around followed, and she was happily clinking them the rest of the night, and texting her friends, and going into post-meet analysis of who else did what, and what happened that we couldn't see from the stands.

My daughter does gymnastics for a lot of reasons. Fitness, a love for the strategy, her relationships with her teammates and coaches, and, increasingly, the joy of competition. It's her call for how long she wants to keep doing this, because we harbor no illusions about fame and fortune from this. It's expensive and time-consuming and temporary and not as important as school, family, friends, etc.

But it is important, because the values being taught with the tricks -- perseverance, courage, sacrifice, focus, and self-control -- also stay with the performer. 

Can you get these things from other sources? Of course. And she'd have a lot of them in spades if she had never stepped on a mat. But does she have more of all of this for doing the program? Of course. Along with, well, a very clear example to cite when she tells me she can't do something...

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