I Realized in that Moment

The Texas Story Project.

It had been a rough year. I had a new gymnastics coach after six years with the same great mentor, and it wasn’t an easy transition. It was like having to replace an old pair of shoes that have been through heck and high water with you, that pair that has become more duct tape and superglue than actual shoe. You have to replace your trusty companions with a new, clean, all-that-and-a-bag-of-chips pair, except this pair criticizes and makes fun of you, makes sure that you feel as if you aren’t good enough for them, you don’t deserve them, you might as well go barefoot. Like I said: rough year. And despite my refusal to accept it, it would be my last.

Gymnastics had been my life for the past five years, but I still hadn’t gotten over the thrill of a competition. I never would. Competitions still came in tandem with a whole fleet of butterflies to set up camp in your stomach, but butterflies aren't an issue when you have the most loyal, caring, and supportive team there by your side. It didn’t matter if it was an invitational, Regionals, or even Nationals, the team was always there.

My mom and I had driven the three hours through the scenic cow fields of Central Texas from Houston to San Antonio for my fifth State Championships. See, the thing about Texas is that to get from one major city to another you’ll be spending at least an hour in the car passing little more than a couple small towns that you’ll miss if you blink and miles after miles of grass. State Championships happened to be during bluebonnet season every year, so it was miles after miles of blue fields speckled with Indian Paintbrushes and Mexican Hats, and even though those seas of blue may be beautiful, it’s still just beautiful grass.

We spent the night in San Antonio and woke up early to make sure that we had at least an hour and a half for my mom to braid my hair, which was quite a task. I walked into the gym that morning feeling good, my stomach full of Chick-n-Minis (a competition tradition) and an inordinate amount of Beaver Tots from Buc-ee’s. I had that nauseous feeling in my stomach that you get when you are terrified of choking on the cloud of hairspray fumes surrounding your own head or those of the gymnasts around you who are single-handedly keeping hairspray companies in business. I was ready . . . or so I thought.

My first event that day was double mini, which had always been my favorite. The double mini rotation starts with a pass of a few jumps just to feel out the trampoline. Those three jumps were muscle memory, I could do them in my sleep, so rather than focusing on the jumps, I would visualize every step of my routine while on the double mini in order to be ready to go into warm-ups. Visualizing was a strategy that Coach Kevinthe best coach I’ve ever hadtaught me. It was so effective for me because all of my obstacles in gymnastics were purely mental. I was physically able to do any skill or routine, but I was constantly battling mental blocks that prevented me from doing just that.

Three jumps: one, two, three, oh shoot. A string of curse words that I didn’t even know my brain could produce ran through my head. It took all of my strength to stay on my feet and pitifully limp back to the end of the line. I felt as if someone has taken a mallet and bashed it into my heel. Why didn’t you expect this? You should have been more careful, you idiot. All these thoughts ran through my head as I struggled not to cry.

I had been dealing with heel pain for about a month at this point due to being unexpectedly forced to run a mile in less-than-adequate footwear and falling in a hole during said godforsaken activity while in P.E. at school. I’d been living in an ankle brace which made the pain bearable, and by the time of the competition there was little to no pain to be found. During practice I had been fine. So what was the difference?

After a detailed investigation of the crime scene, I concluded that the one difference between this situation and that at the gym was the landing mat. Most matsand every mat I’ve ever competed onwas soft and cushioned your landing. This one essentially felt like landing on a slab of concrete.

But I told myself I wasn’t going to cry; I was going to man up and finish this. I had worked too hard to just quit. So I powered through, landing on that mat four more times, each time worse than the last. I didn’t do too well in terms of scores, but I survived, and that was enough for me.

Back in the staging area while I waited to go to trampoline, I violently rummaged through my bag looking for absolutely nothing other than a better way to hide my tears. I just didn't know what I was going to do. But I had no time to figure out as I was whisked away to the trampolines. All I hoped was for the trampoline to be gentle enough on my heel that I would be able to compete.

As I went through my routines, I tried as hard as possible to keep my focus on anything other than my heel. I didn't make eye contact with anyone for fear that they would see the tears pooling in the corners of my eyes. I put all of my energy, my anger, everything I had into that routine. I refused to let the pain win. I told myself I could do it, and there was no way I’d let myself be wrong.

Trampoline was over. I was done. All that was left was to sit through the awards ceremony. I clapped and cheered when my friends placed, but I didn’t expect to do so myself. My level for trampoline was called and, out of instinct, I listened intently for my name. Then I heard it, the last name to be called, “Olivia Novak, HGA.” I climbed up to the podium, onto the highest block. I looked out into the crowd beaming because no injured heel could take away from the fact that I was a State Champion.

State Champion. This was five years of missing birthday parties and sleepovers, of spending hours driving past every grassy field in Texas, beautiful or otherwise. Five years of learning how to trust people, how to confide in my team, the greatest friends I have ever had, the ones who believed in me when nobody else did, not even me. Of learning my strengths and weaknesses and finding in myself the ability to be strong. I had learned how to be there for other people and to let them be there for me. Five years of struggling to convince myself and the world that I could do it -- I could win this mental war against my fears and insecurities. I could hold my own against the skinny, fearless gymnasts filled with unlimited energy and stamina, even though I lacked all of those traits. In that moment I finally realized what I should have years before: I was a gymnast. This was my passion, the sport that had helped me to become me, and I was going to fight for it. Every part of those five years had paid off. It was all worth it.

Olivia is a self-proclaimed cupcake connoisseur and is still awaiting her acceptance letter to Hogwarts.

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