Amanda and Elaine Dai are sisters and competitive rhythmic gymnasts who train at Rhythmic Dreams in Newton, Massachusetts. "Rhythmic Diaries" is their account of balancing training and competing in this rigorous sport with being normal high school students.
Freshman year was arguably the darkest period of my rhythmic career. I had always been incredibly ashamed of my flexibility, but that chagrin had never affected me as strongly as it did that year. It was hard to have trained for eight years and still struggle with basic stretching, something younger girls mastered in a matter of days. My body was an unyielding block of metal, my joints creaky screws, and I'd have to coax them to warm up and obtain a semi-malleable state, while all around me, my teammates folded in half and assumed contortion-like positions.
It was nearly unbearable to tell myself "Don't rush -- you know it takes you more time" when everyone else had already moved on to over-splits or lines. I wanted to stretch with them, laugh with them, cry with them, but I was separated by an invisible barrier, an unspoken agreement that I had special rights because of my natural limitations.
More than ever, I remember fervently wishing I wasn't so different. I envisioned what it would be like to have certain skills -- how it'd feel to grab my leg and see it bent over my head, to be able to cradle a ball with only the arch of my back and do walkovers with it there. I wanted to be flexible, yet every time I attempted an over-split, I dangled hopelessly above the ground, my hips suspended mid-air and refusing to succumb to gravity's pull. When I looked up, I saw all that I couldn't do take form before me, so after some time, I stopped lifting my eyes.
Training became monotonous. I shut off my brain so a thousand self-deprecating thoughts couldn't permeate my consciousness, so I wouldn't have to fight back tears or feel another shard of shame sink inside me. I went through the motions and let muscle memory take over, slowly losing hope in myself. I couldn't bear to see my reflection in the mirror; I hated my bowlegs, my flat feet and stiff arches that would never resemble the beautifully curved point I yearned for. I silently despaired and lost myself in an abyss of misery. My self-confidence dwindled to non-existence, and going to the gym was like voluntarily entering a self-inflicted hell.
I took the year off, training only once a week on Fridays to keep up my strength. The first months of freshman fall were marked by incessant tears -- tears of sadness, regret, or relief, I don't know, but they came subconsciously in tiny floods. I was constantly swept up in a current of emotion and carried wherever it went. I was swimming at times, drowning at others, but mostly drifting because I had lost the sole thing by which I defined myself.
On the first day of school I remember being asked to share something unique to me, and I immediately blurted out "rhythmic gymnastics." When I walked into ballet classes later that month, I retained the same response. As I spent my time coordinating movements with classical music, I realized though I enjoyed the subtle, graceful art of la danse classique, I missed the dynamic nature of rhythmic. I missed feeling the weight of my apparatus, missed the range of music my routines were choreographed to, missed not being able to get up in the morning because I was too sore. I missed my friends, my coach, the rhythmic community. I missed the rush of adrenaline before competing, the surge of happiness after a good performance. I even missed conditioning and kicks. Halfway through the year, I found myself begging my parents to let me return to rhythmic.
That year, though I lost much of my strength and stamina, I gained something invaluable: perspective. I missed rhythmic, and it wasn't until it became a slight, flickering flame that I rekindled my love for the sport. I'm not any more flexible than I was then, but I found that rhythmic is my passion, something no stiff joints or imperfect splits can ever change.