02/22/2012 11:55 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2012

Rhythmic Diaries: 'Let The Competitions Begin'

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.

Elaine Dai

I awake with difficulty, staring with a sleepy half-lidded gaze at my alarm clock. 6:30 a.m.

It's the morning of the fifth annual Rhythmic Stars Invitational, my first competition of the season. Unlike past years, I don't feel jolts of adrenaline pervade my body. Instead the only sign of nervousness is the slight dampening of my hands, something so familiar I hardly notice it. I make a bun and wrestle with seldom-frequented makeup, masking my eyes under glimmering layers of blue and silver.

Later when I enter the gym, I'm nearly overwhelmed by streaming lights and the sound of cheering as the audience applauds a performing gymnast. Four rectangular carpets stretch before me, bordered by red tape to separate the floor area from out-of-bounds. Line judges rest demurely at either corner, flags at the ready if a gymnast or her apparatus crosses the red line. My eyes stray to the balloon-decorated entrance where gymnasts on-deck wait. There the excitement and apprehension concentrates before a performance. There I will feel my heart beat in every cell of my body, my muscles willingly relaxed before the 90-second routine.

Timed warm-ups fly by, and too soon I find myself standing beneath the arch of balloons, facing the panel of judges armed with only my apparatus, a ball. My coach places her hands on my shoulders and whispers last words of advice, her breath tickling my ear while my eyes stay trained on the judges, waiting for one to raise the flower that indicates my turn. I feel peculiarly light despite the descending pressure. The corners of my mouth curve up a bit as I remember the same moment years ago, when I stood trembling under the fierce glare of lights, barely able to hold on to my apparatus while a hundred deprecating thoughts plagued my mind. What if I drop? What if I can't do any of my elements? What if...

My reverie is truncated as a judge raises the flower. I instantly snap into performance mode, salute, and assume my beginning pose. The jazzy tune of "Mujer Latina," my ball music, fills the gym. Everything goes flawlessly for a few consummate moments, and then my ball routine transforms into a game of cat-and-mouse.

Unfortunately, that day I never managed to catch my ball and ended up out-of-bounds twice. It seemed all my old nightmares had resurfaced and taken form in that minute and a half. I was at once furious with myself -- after so many years of experience, how could I still lose myself? --and scared of the next day, when I'd have to execute my remaining two routines. What if the same thing happened? How could I look my coach in the eye?

That night I promised myself I would walk on the carpet without fear, all ambivalence replaced with an iron will to succeed. My hushed trepidation dissipated, and in its place I felt the budding roots of a newfound confidence.

My routines went well the next day. Each time I stepped on the carpet, I cleared my head of extraneous thoughts and previous experiences. With a clear mind, I smiled at the judges and saw the possibility of catching my tosses. When the music started I trusted myself, knowing years of training stood behind me, and enjoyed the routine. Later would be time for reflection, but then, in the present, I competed with a light heart and a strong mind, leaving the past behind and looking forward to the future.

Amanda Dai

I continue to flash nervous glances back at my mother as I approach the security check-in at the airport. With my overstuffed gym bag and miniature suitcase, I unpack my liquids hurriedly and rush through the metal detector. Once I arrive on the other side, I shove my belongings back into my bags and scramble to a bench to fix my shoes. While I lace up my sneakers, I steal one last glimpse at my mother, who remains standing near the door. Catching her eye, I offer a shaky smile before I gather my things and reluctantly head toward the boarding gates. I do not dare look back until I have disappeared from her sight, placing one foot in front of the other, with each step carrying me further away from home.

The constant uneasiness in my stomach is stubbornly pertinacious. Although I had made it safely to Colorado from Massachusetts on Friday, apprehension still dominates my body. I enter the crowded gym, ready to compete but inhibited from doing so. The schedule claims that there are two hours before I start warming up. I arrive early because my teammate is competing now, but I am not scheduled to train. However, after setting my bag down, I cannot resist practicing. My anxiety drives me to practice my risks so I adjust to the unfamiliar carpet and lighting before going on the competition carpet. I continue practicing until I assure myself that I can perform in the current conditions. And finally, when I finish running through all of my routines, I put down my apparatus and join the audience in the bleachers.

The time finally comes for competition to begin. I feel a little weary, as if my body is almost at its limit. But I have not even done one routine, so I grit my teeth and continue practicing. I am among the first to finish today, so I have no right to complain. And everyone around me is under the same rough circumstances, and they are giving all of their effort. I shake my head and refocus on my training. I have no time to dawdle on negligible thoughts. Taking a deep breath, I resume practicing my routine.

There is no time to think between routines. When one apparatus is completed, the next follows immediately. By the time I reach my final apparatus, my arms ache and my focus wavers. Soon my focus is not at all on what I am doing but instead on what could go wrong. Before my turn, I try to recollect myself, but ultimately I walk onto the carpet with this mindset. I try taking on one element at a time, but my lack of focus eventually throws me off. The minute and a half ends all too soon, and I find myself walking off the carpet wishing I had a second chance.

After the competition, there was nothing I could do about my performance. I may regret now how poorly I did, but I am powerless to change what had already happened. I can want a second chance with all my heart, but I will not get it. The only time I can control what I do is when I am on the carpet. And when I am on the carpet, I have to show everything I've got, because all I have is one chance. Everyone is given the same opportunity; whether or not I take advantage of it, however, is up to me.