Don't fear failure: Why quitting gymnastics taught me the true meaning of success
For much of her adolescence, Michelle Kaeser dreamed of Olympic glory. She never made it. For most of us, our dreams exceed our limitations, and our ambitions lie far beyond our capabilities. In a society that is obsessed with success, how do we come to terms with failure?
There's a moment just before Simone Biles wins the all-around gymnastics title at the Rio Olympics, as she finishes a tumbling pass, flipping backward twice with her body perfectly straight, then sneaking in a half twist at the end to land facing forward, landing blind – a skill so difficult no other female gymnast on Earth performs it – there's a moment here when you can see her face, stiffened with concentration, break into an easy smile.
This smile, so genuinely charming she's become famous for it, stays on her face throughout the rest of her routine. It fades only for fractions of seconds before the big tumbles when her expression briefly resettles into one of focus. Not strain, not even intensity – just a quiet, calm focus.
It's hard to know if she's smiling as she bounces around the floor because she knows by this point that she's won Olympic gold. Or because she's trained this astounding sequence of acrobatics with a particular attention "on the facials," as she explained to reporters, because, it seemed, she had little else to improve on. Or because she's just really having a great time out there, happy to occupy that sacred zone where athlete and sport exist in a holy harmony.
Ms. Biles's victory at the Games was a foregone conclusion long before she arrived in Rio. One of the most dominant athletes alive today, she is a four-time consecutive all-around U.S. National Champion, a three-time consecutive World Champion (no other woman has ever achieved this feat) and now – no surprise to anyone – Olympic champion.
Of course, hundreds of other gymnasts battled their way to Rio as well, each with her own great story. They devoted their lives to the all-consuming training this sport requires, worked through injuries and fought off fears as they searched for a way to the top of the Olympic podium. But these athletes all failed to make good on that dream.
And then there are the thousands of other athletes, all just as relentless in their pursuit of Olympic dreams, as hard-working and as devoted, but blessed with a little less talent. These are the thousands who failed to qualify for the Olympic stage, failed to make it out of their countries, or even their states or provinces or cities.
For every story of amazing athletic success, there are thousands of stories of failure. Failure, really, is one of the most defining features of elite sports.
I think about failure a lot, because it presents itself in so many ways. There's inevitably a gap between what I imagine I can accomplish and what I am actually able to accomplish and I interpret this gap as failure.
When I was a young gymnast, what I imagined I could achieve was a trip to the Olympics. As the dozen of us who formed the elite women's team at the Scarborough Olympians Gymnastics Club in Toronto took turns stretching each other's hamstrings, quads, hips and shoulders before workouts, we would discuss our paths through the Olympic cycle, figuring out which Games we planned to peak for – the nature of the sport being such that women usually get only one shot at it.
"Sydney," I said to Stacey, who was sitting on my back as I sat in a straddle, my chest folded right over onto the floor. "We have to aim for Sydney."
"Yeah, we'll be 17," she said. Stacey was born two days before me. "Sydney's perfect."
Indeed, we seemed blessed in the age lottery. Much luckier than the girls born a couple of years earlier or later, for whom the Olympics come at the age of 15 (not enough time to build up to peak level) and then again at 19 (when most gymnasts are already washed up).
Sydney, 2000. That was to be my Olympics. Except it wasn't. Not even close. I topped out on the provincial circuit – 9th in Ontario in my best year. Which sometimes seems good when I remind myself that the province is by far the biggest in Canada and has a population greater than half the world's countries. But which seems far less good when I remind myself that this province is just one in a country with no great reputation in the sport.
While we stretched and dreamed on one side of the gym, my brother and the rest of the elite men's team did the same thing on the other side. My brother ranked 6th in the juniors in his heyday, before the sport chipped away at his body, attacking his ankles, his knees, his elbows, even his face (at least two broken noses). About his last poor showing at Nationals, he says, "I just couldn't even walk properly anymore." His body had failed him.
The best gymnast in our club was Roshan. As far back as I can remember, Rosh was always the best and always on the cusp of the Olympic dream. His father, one year, had merchandise made just to generate excitement over the possibility. He passed out pens or buttons or pins, I can't remember which. They featured a simple aspirational slogan: Roshan '96, or something like that. As though he was campaigning for it. Or maybe just trying to manifest this reality with a few tangible tokens. Something he could look at and hold and believe in. But everyone believed Rosh would make it anyway. He'd been to every other big international meet (Worlds, Pacific Rim, Commonwealth Games, Pan-Am Games) – and when we watched him perform the sport, we knew we were seeing excellence.
"Show us a Kovacs, Rosh," we'd say when he was training high bar, the most exciting of the men's events – a single steel bar raised almost three metres off the ground. Rosh would swing around and around the bar, building up speed, then suddenly, on the upswing, he'd release his grip, do a double back flip directly over top of the steel bar and come out of the flip just in time to catch the bar on the downswing – a perfect Kovacs.
His hands were callused, rough, disgusting. Even his wrists were toughened by the hand grips he wore for high bar. Calluses wrapped all the way around his wrists, hard and yellow, tinged green in places, so thick they seemed permanent. We all had callused hands, of course, but Rosh's were on another level, impressive and enviable in their repulsiveness.
"Show us a standing double back, Rosh," we'd say.
"Show us a double-twisting Cody, Rosh."
"Show us how to be great, Rosh," we seemed to be saying, because if anyone knew how, it was him. Rosh could do anything. But Rosh didn't make it to the Olympics, either.
I started gymnastics when I was 3. Most good gymnasts do. Three or 4, maybe 5 if you're pushing it. Ms. Biles started at 6 – which is ancient. By the time I was 7, I was training 16 hours a week. By the age of 9, it was 20. Which means I was enrolled in the sport before I had any sense of well-defined preferences, before I could say it was what I wanted.
That's how it goes with gymnasts. There's usually a parent who decides on this path for the kid. Maybe the parent is an ex-gymnast – a former Swiss national gymnast, let's say, who is passing on a family tradition.
My mom fell in love with gymnastics in the sixties, idolizing Vera Caslavska, a legend from Czechoslovakia, and later Olga Korbut, "the sparrow from Minsk." She immigrated to Canada just in time to see Nadia Comaneci make the sport famous at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. But when my mom was competing in the sixties, on the Swiss national team, the sport was different. She trained somewhere between eight and 12 hours a week, depending on her coaches' whims. Competitions were sometimes held outside, in alpine meadows. It was all a bit makeshift. So when she tossed my brother and me into gymnastics as toddlers, she didn't know that it would come to dominate our family's life.
We trained on Sundays and every weekday but Wednesday. Wednesday was the big day off, the one day of the week I could go home right after school, maybe catch up on some homework or watch the still unmatched combination of 90210 and Melrose Place or pretend I had a normal childhood. Wednesday was the day the Advanced Recreational girls, a lower breed of gymnasts, the epsilons to our alphas, used the gym. We knew when the Ad-Rec girls had been in, because they always screwed up the chalk. They dumped water into the chalk buckets, creating a thick and sticky paste.
"What do they even need chalk for?" we'd ask, gathered around the chalk bucket, gawking at the mess. "They hardly do anything."
But then, these girls were barely gymnasts. They eased into splits, first limbering up with a bizarre array of stretches we didn't recognize. Most couldn't even climb a rope. They trained six hours a week and they took themselves seriously. But we knew they were a joke.
"Hey! What are you girls doing?" Janice, our coach, yelled when she caught sight of us around the chalk bucket. "Get up on the bars, get to work."
"But there's no chalk left. We can't use this."
Janice marched over, peered into the bucket and curled a lip. "All right, I'll go get you a fresh block. But no standing around. You can do conditioning in the meantime, some chin-ups, some leg lifts."
I loved Janice, revered her. She knew everything there was to know about the sport, so I hung on every word, did everything just as she asked, and lived for that sharp jolt of happiness that came whenever I earned a word of her praise.
She came to the gym when I was about 10. The club had had some trouble settling on a head coach for the women's side. The previous one, Nancy, smelled like cigarettes and oranges. I couldn't stand her touching me. But then along came Janice, an import from Vancouver with a great reputation, who planned to stay and shape the program. I was so nervous about meeting this Great New Coach, I almost threw up the day she was first due in. But then I saw her: Oh, I thought, she was so pretty in her fun blue shorts with yellow stars all over them. She smelled nice, too, like fragrant drug-store shampoo. And she had little pockets of spit at the corners of her mouth that seemed to punctuate her warm smile. I loved her right away. All the girls did.
The guys liked her rather less.
"She's a bitch," my older brother, by three years, told me a few weeks in. "She just takes our mats and our equipment. She thinks the girls should have whatever they need, and the guys can go screw themselves."
The guys quickly nicknamed her "Thunder." Because of her meaty thighs, they explained, which stood in sharp contrast to the lean little legs the rest of us had. But I prefer to think it was because she was so loud. She bellowed her praise and censure all across the gym. Even in quiet moments, when she had us sit down in a small circle and write down our goals for the year, our career dreams, her voice was a notch louder than it needed to be. "If you write down your goals, you stand a better chance of achieving them," she half-yelled, almost as if she said it with enough volume, we'd be forced to believe it.
Practice was four hours, and every minute was accounted for. We usually started at 4:30 with a 15-minute warm-up. Then it was straight to the apparatus, rotating around vault, bars, beam and floor (45 minutes each). Around 6:15, we were granted a short break, time enough to throw back a bagel or instant noodles or candy or fruit, a quick caloric boost to make sure we wouldn't fall over before the end of the night. The worst part of practice was the conditioning. It probably only ever lasted 30 minutes, but it felt like forever. A hundred sit-ups – go! Thirty chin-ups – go! Or worse, a set of brutal muscle-ups (a super chin-up where you just keep pulling yourself up until the bar is at your hips). The last 15 minutes of practice were stretching out and cooling down, but nobody ever got the full 15. There was always one more routine, one more attempt at a new skill, just one more set of drills before the end of the night.
But at exactly 8:30, one of the coaches – sometimes Janice, though often Fred, the men's head coach – shouted out: "Line up!" And, obedient as little soldiers, the entire competitive team – girls and boys, all ages – hurried over to the floor to line up, in order of height. I took my place somewhere down at the short end (by 10, I'd only just cracked four feet and squeaked past 50 pounds) and Rosh, the oldest and for years the tallest, capped off the other end. Then, one after the other, starting at the short end of the line, we stepped forward to salute our dear coaches – a single arm raised up over the head for the men, both arms raised for the women. It's a militant practice, like much of gymnastics training, but we did it, because we'd been programmed to believe that any deviation from the prescribed methods would enhance the probability of failure.
There are many different ways to think of failure, most of which seem designed to soften the sting of it. In Courage to Soar, Ms. Biles unpacks her own thoughts on the matter. This memoir, "written" by a 19 year-old and published three months into her explosive post-Olympic popularity, is a pretty blatant cash-grab. Still, the book's purpose, beyond racking up sales, seems to be to inspire younger readers, young girls in particular. But why do we look for advice from the most talented in society? What do they know of our struggles to rise up, dripping and stinking, from the swamp of mediocrity? Here, for example, is Ms. Biles describing how, after some initial struggles, she finally managed to nail a tricky skill – a release move on the uneven bars called a Tkatchev in which you let go of the bar on the upswing and fly backward, usually straddled, over the bar before catching it. "And then, just before practice ended, I said to myself, I'm going to do it this time. And you know what? I actually did!" Must be nice.
In Courage to Soar, we learn that Ms. Biles has had disastrous performances, just like the rest of us. After a poor showing at the 2011 Nationals, she comes to this insightful realization: "A person can only fail if they stop trying, if they refuse to pick themselves up and try harder … I finally understood that I hadn't failed at that meet. I just hadn't succeeded – yet."
Each chapter comes with its own inspirational epigraph, a quotation ripped right off the posters of a guidance counsellor's office. "Dreams come in a size too big so we can grow into them." Or: "The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
But there's only so much room at the top, only so many spots on an Olympic team, so many opportunities for victory. For many of us – most of us who have devoted ourselves to the pursuit of any kind of excellence – our dreams already exceed our limitations; our ambitions lie far beyond our capabilities. So necessarily, most of us are doomed to fail. Which is a reality that all our favourite inspirational quotations, morning affirmations and uplifting memoirs conveniently fail to grapple with.
Nowhere is failure more apparent than in the harsh light of competition. The threat of it hung over every precompetition morning, as my mother braided my hair in front of the mirror.
"Braid it tighter," I told her. "Super tight."
It was a slow and solemn process, because it had to be done exactly right. I had already spent 10 minutes adjusting the competition leotard (a beautiful blue crushed velvet with a sweetheart neck) and examining myself in the mirror from every possible angle. When my mom finished with the braid, she adorned it with the matching blue velvet competition scrunchie. Then she pinned the braid into a loop, a hairstyle reserved for meets.
"You ready?" she asked.
I leaned in toward the mirror to study the hairstyle. "More spray."
My mom grabbed the bottle of L'Oreal hairspray that only ever came out on competition days and sprayed my entire head until my hair was rock hard. It's been 20 years since I competed, but my stomach still tightens whenever I catch even a whiff of hairspray.
The rituals around competition speak to its importance. Competitions matter. They are moments of stark clarity carved out of our messy, disordered lives. In an athletic competition, there's a winner and a bunch of losers and that's that. The division is harsh, that's how it's designed. But it provides a satisfying clarity.
"Did you see that girl with the red hair?" I said to Stacey at one of our early competitions. We were 9. A little redheaded firecracker was warming up her tumbles on the floor, generating twice as much power as I ever had.
"Yeah, I saw her," Stacey said, then leaned in close to whisper: "She looks really good."
The little redhead was Suzie Clutterbuck and she turned out to be a real menace. She had more power compacted into her little body than made any sense. Her tumbling passes were sky high. Her jumps were all confidence. Even that name – Clutterbuck – with its hard consonants bookending things seemed to hint at her invulnerability.
Stacey and I were terrified of the competition, yet we wanted nothing more than to compete. After weeks and months and years locked up in a gym, sweating and aching and training, we wanted to be tested, judged and ordered. So did every other gymnast. Competition, while fraught with disappointment and failure, fulfills the desire to stand up and be measured.
Maybe we're drawn to competitions because they function as dress rehearsals for some greater judgment yet to come. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe the very idea of an eschatological judgment, in its many religious incarnations, is just a grand, collective manifestation of our primitive longing to be tested, which is itself a manifestation of our longing for clarity in a chaotic world. Sports, after all, are fundamentally religious.
In The Symbolic Power of Sport, Eleanor Metheny, a writer and lifelong physical educator, describes the sense of meaning athletes find when engaged in their chosen sport. "I have seen a gymnast's eyes grow bright with tears of genuine emotion as he talked about the feeling of wholeness he finds doing a giant swing," she writes. She hears similar stories from football players and Ping-Pong stars. Over and over athletes across the spectrum of sports speak about their experiences in spiritual terms. Ms. Metheny herself identifies a unique freedom in athletics: "Freedom to go all out, holding nothing back – freedom to focus all the energies of my own mortal being on the voluntary performance of one self-chosen human action."
Wholeness, freedom, meaning … to this list I would add – and this may be gymnastics-specific – a joyous weightlessness. I've heard commentators describe the splashy acrobatics of gymnastics as gravity-defying a thousand times, but it's just the opposite. The sport is about working with gravity, manipulating it with just the right swing, just the right body shape, the right push or pull against the apparatus–and all of that effected at once so your body feels not only weightless, but in exact accord with the forces of nature, not in defiance of them. I could do a side aerial (a no-handed cartwheel) on the beam with such precision that I knew exactly how much force I needed to exert against the beam, how high this would send me, how many seconds I had in the air and how to savour that microsecond when I was completely inverted and suspended in space. After years and years of training, there comes a point when you have developed such an extreme competence it feels, if only for a moment, that perfection is within reach.
This is as near a spiritual experience as I have ever had.
"How can you be scared?" Janice barked. She'd become a little less warm after our first couple of years together and my love for her was showing some wear and tear.
We were in Vancouver for a pair of invitational meets, in a training session between the two competitions. I was 12. I was running through a beam routine, moving through my switch leap, my spins, my side aerial–no problem, no problem – but then I set up for a sequence of back flips, arms up, hips forward, just about to launch into it and … I flinched.
Maybe it's because we were guests in a strange gym, where all the equipment, the beam, the mats, the arrangement of things tilted just a few degrees away from familiar.
But all of a sudden it seemed insane to flip backward at high speed, on a four-inch wide beam raised over four feet off the ground. I'd done these flips thousands of times, but just like that the idea of doing it again became completely impossible to justify.
"I don't know," I said to Janice. "I'm just scared."
"No, you're not. Just count to three and go."
"One… two… three," I mumbled to myself. But I couldn't make my legs spring. The primitive part of the brain preoccupied with survival overrode the mighty powers of habit and muscle memory.
Every gymnast knows the eerie hush that sweeps over a gym after someone has crashed and spilled. We don't need to see the fall to know something's gone wrong. Maybe we hear the ping of a bar that just doesn't sound quite right, or an unrecognizable thud against a mat. One sharp yelp might follow, or prolonged screams, or silence. And all we can do is turn to watch and wait and hope that our friend, our teammate, our sibling will soon stand up and somehow, maybe even miraculously, shake it off.
Gymnastics is an intensely scary sport. Everyone gets injured. For me, it was groin tears, a few sprained ankles and a wrist thing that's never gone away.
My mother twice knocked herself unconscious and once knocked out her front teeth. We're both very lucky. Last June, a Danish gymnast broke his neck training a triple back flip into a foam pit. He's now paralyzed.
"Well, I'll tell you something," Janice said.
"You're not coming down from there until you do it. So set up, get your arms up and figure it out."
But there was no figuring it out. So I did what any kid would do – I pretended. I stood in place with my arms up by my ears, pretending to set up for the sequence, pretending I was working myself up to it. I started crying after about 10 minutes, when my arms started to ache. Ten minutes inched toward 20, then 30.
Janice sent the other girls on their break. I heard them laughing with each other, saw them eating bagels and granola bars on the sidelines. My arms, heavy and trembling, stayed locked beside my ears, because any time I tried to lower them, even if just to wipe at the tears and snot on my face, Janice somehow noticed and screamed, "Arms up, Michelle!"
So back up my arms went, into setup position, and I wondered how long this would last, if it would last for hours or forever.
At about 45 minutes, Janice lost her patience. "All right, get down," she said. "And get out. Go wait in the change room till we're done."
She pulled me from the next competition.
We could have replaced the back flip with something else, something less terrifying, but she was a purist. "If you're not going to do it the way we trained, you're not going to compete. You can sit on the sidelines and watch."
Soon after this, I quit. Because every day was filled with terror. I'd spend the day at school dreading the start of gym, the hour at which Janice would try to make me do an insane release on the bars, or take a sketchy tumbling pass from the foam pit to the hard floor, or throw me up on the beam again and demand the resurrection of those back flips.
I made my mother come with me to break the news to Janice because I was scared to do it on my own. I'd seen her sweep friends into an office and somehow cajole them into staying on.
We intercepted Janice in the gym lobby and formed a small huddle, a quiet conference that could have been about anything, but was about everything.
"Michelle wants to quit," my mother said.
Janice turned to look straight at me, her face hard, the eyes narrowed. "Is that right?"
"Mm-hmm," I said.
She looked at me like I was the worst kind of failure: a quitter. "Okay," she said. And walked away.
That was it. No Svengali mind tricks, no counterarguments. Just that little "okay" so rich with disappointment that it was almost contempt.
That evening was one of the worst of my life. Instead of relief, I felt a mounting panic over what I'd done, what I'd given up, who I'd be without gymnastics. Because who I'd be was just another ordinary, mediocre 12-year old girl. I rubbed at the calluses on my hands, sat in front of the TV and felt terrified that I'd never again be good at something. Nothing is scarier than that.
I was back in the gym the next day. And Janice and I never talked about that 24-hour interruption. She went right back to dictating my life; I went back to being a good gymnast.
Of course, "good" is not the same as "very good," and "very good" is not the same as "excellent." We are forever reaching from one tier to the next in this hierarchy of achievement, trying to find a way through the porous barrier that exists between each.
Some athletes, the most fascinating to me, are dissatisfied with anything less than top-tier excellence. They're not just disappointed but crushed by their silver medals.
The Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova burst into tears and dropped her head into her hands, crumpling into a classic posture of shame, the moment she learned she'd won silver at the 2012 London Olympics (she wasn't even a heavy favourite). In 1994, Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater, removed the silver medal she won at the World Championships while still standing on the podium. Roger Federer once cried, actually cried, during the award ceremony of the 2009 Australian Open, after losing to long-time rival Rafael Nadal. It's rough to watch this poor guy vainly try to subdue the raw emotion of his failure. You can't help but feel for a fellow failure – an almost paradoxical sentiment, because Mr. Federer, of course, is one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
I suspect there are many, many more of us in the dissatisfied-with-second group than let on. We're forced to hide it, because it's not pleasant, it's not uplifting, it's not healthy – it's sad.
At the Beijing Olympics, the American gymnast Shawn Johnson lost the all-around gold to her teammate Nastia Liukin. She smiled for the cameras and said all the things she was expected to say, about how proud, honoured, grateful, etc., etc., she was about winning an Olympic medal, regardless of its colour. Years later, though, in a video put out by a Jesus-y group called "I Am Second," Ms. Johnson says: "I told everybody it was the biggest honour of my life, but really, it kind of crushed my heart." The dignitary who presented her with her silver medal gave her a hug, then told her he was sorry. "It was kind of a validation in my heart that I had failed," she says. And, after years of watching her on publicity tours, forcing out smiles and proclamations about how proud she was of that Olympic performance, even though I could almost see the agony in her eyes as she performed this charade, it was a validation in my own heart to hear her admit this.
We can easily trick ourselves into believing things could have gone differently. If conditions had been just a little better, if we'd trained just a little harder, it all might have shaken out in your favour. I still sometimes think that with a bit more effort, less fear, some better coaching, I could have been a great gymnast. These are helpful little delusions designed to preserve our sanity – psychological escape hatches we slide through when we want to evade a stark confrontation with our own limitations.
But no amount of psychological trickery could get me to believe I could ever have been a gymnast like Ms. Biles. Even the Olympians say the same thing. Aliya Mustafina, the all-around bronze medalist at both the London and Rio Games, said of Ms. Biles's gymnastics: "I think I will never be able to do that." Just after the Rio all-around final, silver medalist Aly Raisman said: "No one goes into this thinking they can beat Simone."
A dominant figure opens up her own tier in the hierarchy of achievement, some rarely seen level between excellent and divine, a tier whose barrier is completely impassable, and the rest of us are pretty much left to just bash our heads against it.
Watching Ms. Biles flip and fly is like watching Usain Bolt run, or Michael Phelps swim, or Serena Williams smash tennis balls past opponent after opponent. It's mesmerizing, and it makes us aware that we're alive at a special time in a sport's history. Ms. Biles is one of those rare athletes whose dominance would seem almost mythological – like a tale of great feats that's been stretched and twisted and elaborated and exaggerated over time until it achieves the status of full-blown legend – if we weren't witnessing it ourselves in real time.
But imagine what this does to the rest of the athletes in the field. Imagine you have devoted your life to one singular pursuit, to the exclusion of all others, and after decades of focused striving, you have risen to the highest levels of achievement, only to collide with a figure who eclipses your talent and reveals its true meagreness. That must be shattering. Ms. Raisman, in acknowledging Ms. Biles is unbeatable, offers this approach: "For me, the silver medal is like winning the gold."
But second isn't first. She's just redrawing the top at whatever place she thinks it's possible for her to reach.
A similar strategy is to dehumanize Ms. Biles. Ellie Black, who placed fifth all-around in Rio (a best-ever finish for a Canadian woman) said: "Her body is built for this sport … I don't think she's human."
With this simple remark, she deifies Ms. Biles and so removes her from the general competition among mortals.
When we refer to truly extraordinary athletes, jokingly or in wide-eyed awe, as inhuman, as gods, isn't it just a coping mechanism disguised as a compliment?
Both of these attitudes attempt to erase Biles, to remove her from the equation and rejigger the idea of "best."
This approach isn't limited to sports. In Peter Shaffer's play (and movie) Amadeus, the composer Salieri is so distraught at his own mediocrity that he tries to erase Mozart – by driving him to psychological collapse.
But even after Mozart's death, Salieri can't unknow what he knows: that Mozart's talent is superior. So it's Salieri who winds up in the nut house, consumed to the point of psychosis by his own mediocrity.
The story ends with Salieri anointing himself the patron saint of mediocrity, wandering the halls of the asylum, offering a benediction to those around him: "Mediocrities everywhere – now and to come – I absolve you all."
It's an astute observation on the nature of failure.
Because maybe it's just absolution that we – the second, third, ninth, hundredth place finishers who are tormented by our own limitations, by never having achieved what we dreamed we could achieve – maybe it's this that we most deeply crave.
"We're changing up your floor," Janice announced to me after a disastrous provincial qualifier. I'd seen a stunning slipping in rank (right out of the top six) that would mean failing to even qualify for the provincial championships that year. I was coming up on 15 and slowly, very slowly, creeping toward puberty. My body was getting heavier, everything seemed so much harder and, despite an exhausting effort, I wasn't getting any closer to excellence.
At this age, I'd outlasted many, but not all, of my teammates. Stacey, my one-time equal, picked up steam in her teenage years and leapt past me as I floundered. (She never made the Olympics, but she did end up on the NCAA circuit, competing for Eastern Michigan).
Janice must have sensed my decline as keenly as I did. I hadn't yielded a good return on her investment. I was a dud. So she turned her focus to younger gymnasts who showed the promise I'd failed to make good on.
"We're going to change the leaps," she said. "We'll put a cat leap after your second tumbling pass."
Janice decided what skills we would perform. She dispensed them among us, like an oracle doling out prophecies – this one for you, this one for you – knowing, through some godly wisdom, which was meant for whom. This worked better when I was young and reverent and enchanted with her and her yellow-starred shorts. But it worked less well as I teetered toward adulthood.
This decision to introduce the cat leap seemed like pure spite. Because the cat leap is the stupidest of the leaps. Everyone knows that. You spring off a leg, then bring one knee after the other up toward your chest. It's idiotic. It's the one leap that even the most graceful gymnasts struggle to make look elegant. But there's no arguing; you just do what the coaches tell you. That's how it works. The sport demands a blind obedience and obtains it because the athletes are too young and indoctrinated to challenge authority.
My floor music started, a ridiculous upbeat samba number that I hated. It was Janice's choice, of course. "It's the perfect fit for your personality," she decided, although I was deep into grunge by then, spending my off-time worshipping Kurt Cobain's ghost. I moved through the routine, arrived at the cat leap and, to spite her for her spite, just half-assed it. No height, knees low, sloppy arms.
"STOP!" she screamed. "Stop the music."
The gym went quiet.
"What the hell was that?" she asked, her face in this memory like a growling beast's. Suddenly, the pockets of spit that were forever hovering at the corners of her mouth hung down her face like long lengths of drool, stalactites of saliva. Then came the yelling. Everyone in the gym turned to watch, to see whose turn it was to bear the brunt of her rage. You get screamed at over and over and over as a gymnast, but it never stops being humiliating. So I was crying – I was always crying, everyone was always crying. "Look at me, look at me!" she yelled. "Watch. I'm old and fat and I can do that leap better than you."
And then this frothing, salivating, angry-faced woman, with her big meaty thighs, tried to launch herself into the air – an attempt at a leap, but one so offensively devoid of grace that, even though I was humiliated and in tears, I couldn't help but laugh at her.
So Old Thunder thundered right on over to me. She grabbed my chin in her hand and she said, "Oh, you think that's funny, do you?"
Coaches had touched me a million times, always spotting, holding, stretching, pulling, pushing, twisting. But none had ever touched me like this. I could feel the tips of her fingers digging deep into my cheeks. This woman who had caught me when I was falling, who had saved my life dozens of times, was now squeezing my face in her hand as though she wanted to crush it.
I knocked her hand away and said: "That's it! I quit!"
Then I walked out.
Oh, it was glorious! Such a great, spontaneous exit, the kind that frees you all at once from a tyranny you thought inescapable, the kind of dramatic exit I've fantasized about making at every job I've ever had. Just suddenly: Screw this, I quit. Except I've never loved a job the way I loved gymnastics. Never felt a job in my bones, never defined myself by job. By the time I reached the change rooms, I was shaking with regret. Uh-oh, what happens now?
To return to Janice would have required a level of humility I wasn't equipped with. But I couldn't leave the sport altogether. So I joined up with the Ad-Rec girls, the epsilons, who had rebranded themselves as the "interclub" team, because the word "recreational" didn't convey the gravitas they imagined they deserved.
"Fifteen and already a washed-up gymnast," my brother said. He was still deep in the sport; he didn't quit for another two years, when he was in university.
The six hours of weak-brew "interclub" gymnastics seemed ridiculous, so I joined the power-tumbling team, too, an adjacent acrobatic sport, in the same world as trampoline, all part of the giant reservoir for failed gymnasts.
"Power tumbling? Are you serious?" my brother said. "Jesus, have some self-respect."
Something still distresses me about this half-quitting. It lacks purity, maybe even dignity. I had become a dilettante where I'd once been devotional. I should have quit altogether. But that seemed impossible. I'd sunk too much time and too much love into the sport to just sever ties with it. It's like a boyfriend you still love, but can no longer stand to be around. The relationship undergoes changes first; you make new attempts to work it out before you finally abandon it as a failure.
Everyone fails. It's impossible not to have failed somewhere, sometime, at something. The world is fine with you admitting that you have failed. It's a harder thing to say that you are a failure, because you've failed at the one thing you tried hard to do. The simple grammatical shift from verb to noun causes all kinds of problems. My mother, brother, therapist, they all get uneasy when I use the F-word to describe myself.
"But what about all the times you won?" they ask.
"What about all those medals and trophies?"
"What about the fact that you were better than however many others?"
Yes, yes, yes, but I wanted to go to the Olympics and I didn't. So I'm a failed gymnast.
The tragedy in most stories of failure seems to be in how entangled our notion of failure is with our notion of self-worth. As though these things are at all related.
In a society that is obsessed with success, that worships high-achievement, of course we're horrified to be failures. It only makes sense that we would encourage each other to dwell on our puny little successes and inflate them out of all sense of proportion. We are coerced into propping up illusions of our excellence.
I don't remember the last time I quit. I've groped for the memory over and over, but it's gone. Or repressed. Time passed and, somehow, I just wasn't a gymnast anymore.
The calluses on my hands faded over the years. One day, when I was 20, I looked at my palms and found no trace of them; instead there was just smooth, flat skin. I'd never seen my palms like that in my life and it seemed like a betrayal, like my body had never really been meant for the sport in the first place. As years passed, I stopped mentioning that I'd been a gymnast. This part of myself that I'd once been so proud of, that I'd shout out to people within minutes of meeting them, I now let drop way down to the bottom of the list of biographical facts. For 10 years, I wouldn't even watch gymnastics on TV.
But a sport never really leaves us once we've devoted ourselves to it as children. It follows us forever, into adulthood, into relationships; it shapes our way of moving through the world. The failure follows us, too, of course. Although we desperately try to wriggle free of it with our focus on the small wins, on our personal accomplishments, with our compulsive reimagining of success. But these exhausting efforts never really rid us of our failure; they just push it into the shadows, a lurking presence that haunts us forever.
So maybe what we ought to do instead is acknowledge that real success, the kind of success we spend years striving for – true excellence – is, for most of us, simply beyond reach. Maybe all we really need to do is cop to this lack of excellence, own our failure, claim it as one of our defining characteristics, and then kneel humbly before the patron saint of mediocrity and allow ourselves to be forgiven for it.
GOING THE DISTANCE: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL