In 6th grade, she is easily the fastest and strongest kid in her class, boys included. The Gym teacher fawns over her 3 minute flexed arm hang, and she wins the Presidential Fitness Award every year in elementary school. With gymnastics training since age 5, she doesn’t have to try very hard to be the best; no one else in her grade does gymnastics.
As time marches on, her limbs grow longer. People call her “beanpole” or “broomstick,” nicknames given since all four of her long appendages are bereft of muscle, just skin and bone. She gets taller and becomes the tallest kid in her gymnastics club, a clear liability. As she does glide kips, her legs jam into the floor, too much leg to hold up, never enough abs or biceps. “My arms are weak,” she says to herself, “That’s just the way it is.” She identifies with cartoons as they hold up their arms, muscles drooping down into a U-shape.
In 7th grade, she is no longer the fastest or the strongest in her class. “Well, I’ll always have 6th grade,” she thinks, “Guess it’s all downhill from here.”
At 15 years old, in downtown Chicago, she has a grand mal seizure in the lobby of a Chinese restaurant. The doctors are stumped, as is she. They find a brain tumor, so she must stop all her activities for the time being, but eventually they learn it is benign. She is put on an array of medications, all with detrimental side effects. She starts passing out in various public places. “I’m broken,” she whispers to her best friend.
She continues to do high school gymnastics, but second guesses herself every time she is on the beam, visualizing herself falling off, cutting her head open. “I’m too scared,” she writes in her journal.
A year later, a simple diagnosis is found – vaso vagal syncope. If she stands in one place too long, is dehydrated and hasn’t eaten well, her blood pressure and heart rate will drop, and she will pass out. “I can’t even stand on my own two feet,” she says to no one.
The high school track coach and diving coach each approach her to join their teams. Despite the health scares, she is still relatively fast, and her gymnastics skills can be transferred to diving, says the diving coach. “But I’m not strong enough,” she believes.
At 38 years old, now a mother of 3 children, she reaches down to pick up an envelope and throws out her back. Her low back aches when she cooks, so she takes to sitting on a stool to cut veggies. She throws her back out again and ends up using her feet like a soccer player to get all of the toys in a pile, picking them up all at once to limit the times she has to bend over. “I’m weak and I’m old,” she tells her husband.
She gives birth again, and her body recognizes power again, at least on that day. Then, when her baby is 6 months old, she locks her in the car while getting gas. Instead of panicking, she alerts the gas station attendants and they immediately try to pry the doors open. It doesn’t work, but she still doesn’t panic. The gas station is only 3 blocks away from her house; she can just run back and get the spare car key. She starts to run back and within one block, she is doubled over clutching her side, her throat ragged, gasping for breath. Now she starts to panic.
She thought she would be one of those supermoms who would be able to lift a car off of their child if need be, and instead, she can’t even run 3 blocks to get the key that will get her child out of a locked car. “I am a failure, a big fat Zero,” she tells herself as tears stream down her face. She limps to the house to retrieve the keys.
By the time she gets back to the gas station, the car has been opened, and the manager is playing peekaboo with her baby, still seated in the car seat, giggling and unaware. She unbuckles the baby from the car seat and holds her tight. “I will do better,” she says, more to herself than to her baby’s soft ears. The baby bats her in the nose.
Her husband had been bugging her for years to join a cult, this thing called Crossfit. She has resisted for 3 years, but that fateful gas station visit elicits a shift, and she relents. She will give it a half-hearted try, guessing that after 3 months, she will call it a day.
She tries the beginner classes. Surprised that her body still remembers how to move, she still feels like a creaky wind-up toy. When she is set for group classes, she freaks out, big sweat stains covering her consignment store workout clothes, even before the workout begins. She refuses to buy any new clothes, certain that she won’t be doing this for long. She can’t even get those metal cuffs onto the barbells, doesn’t even know what they are called. “I’m too weak,” says the voice in her head. Luckily, someone named Mufasa comes to her aid, and he slips them onto the bar effortlessly.
Soon, she starts going to group classes twice a week. She notices women who are strong, who can do strict pull-ups, who have thighs the size of redwood trees. Their strength looks effortless, like they were born strong. Then, she is going to classes three times a week, making small gains. Her muscle memory kicks in and her gymnastics skills come back in pieces. At 40 years old, she can do a handstand again. When she is upside down, she feels like she is 11 years old, no, like she is timeless – she is sunshine reflecting off a puddle, that plane zipping through the sky, the Buddha striving for enlightenment. She remembers her Great Aunt who made a deal with herself to be able to ride her horse at 70 years old and there is a picture to prove it. “I want to do a handstand when I am 70 years old!” she tells herself.
She is up to 5 days a week, a loyal full member of the cult she’d been such a skeptic about. She starts to join in some competitions, sees that it pushes her beyond what she thought she was capable of accomplishing. She has always been tentative, careful — now she realizes she can choose who she wants to be, how she wants to be.
“I’m strong,” she says to her kids, wrestling them to the ground with tickles. And the fears that had guided her simply fade into the background.