07/11/2012 09:14 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2012

Slow and Steady Improvement

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.

The videotape dates December 2006. On the screen, a makeshift curtain draped with baby blue and light pink rhythmic gymnastics ribbons separates the back area from the carpet. Ropes, ribbons and hoops fly in and out of view as the competitive team practices in the back. As the camera swerves around, a gym decorated with balloons comes into focus. Red and white balloons rise stick straight off the backs of chairs, bounce off one another from childrens' friendly swats and dot the arch overhanging the entrance to the carpet. In the corner of the shot, parents chat with animated faces and wave video cameras in the air.

Upbeat music announces the beginning of the 2006 Winter Gala. A wave of black rolls onto the carpet as the team enters clothed in black cotton leotards and matching shorts. The team begins with an exhibition of skills. Gymnasts leap along the diagonal of the carpet, execute a turn and head back to their lines. When 11-year-old Elaine appears, I cringe. My chassé is framed by crunched toes and bent knees. My leap is awkward and short. Onscreen, the younger me smiles unperturbed and continues with an attitude turn. I watch as she turns once, shifts off-center and comes stumbling down. I pick up the remote and quickly fast-forward.

The next time she enters, she sports a black and flamingo pink leotard with matching rubber clubs. An acoustic beep signals the start of the routine and a rendition of "Run Llama Run" from The Emperor's New Groove begins to play. I watch as she starts with a cossack turn and follows with a circle of mills. As the music develops from cautious, rhythmic beats to tense trumpet notes, she stretches back into an elbow-stand and taps her clubs on the ground. She then stands up with a toe rise and prepares for a toss. For a moment, she stands motionless in a fifth-position relevé, staring into the ceiling with a concentrated expression before swinging her arm up, cartwheeling once underneath and landing just in time to snatch the club and cartwheel again. I smile at her palpable relief and place in a new DVD.

The 2008 Massachusetts State Championships pops on, and I see 13-year-old Elaine enter the carpet. Her raven black ribbon spirals to life as the music, a tango, marches on. My jaw drops. That girl can't be me! I watch, dumbfounded as she spins four times in a passé turn, the ribbon held in the bend of her leg, and continues with a boomerang toss behind her back. Disbelief clouds my mind, but there she is on screen, tossing the ribbon and executing two chaînés underneath. Catching, even. There's no hesitation, no pause beforehand to prepare. Just a flick of the wrist and a quick upward swing.

The figure continues with an attitude turn. I blink. That turn -- I know that turn! It's the one from two years before, only held a bit longer and positioned better. And the toe rise -- it's the spitting image of the one in 2006! Same with the cossack turn, and the elbow stand, and the switch leap -- I've seen them all before, only now her extensions are amplified and her turns more fluid.

When she has finished the remainder of the routine, I am swimming in a pool of shock. Was that really me? Could I have improved so much in such a short period of time? I rest my head against my fist and think back to today's training, of my frustration over a new balance that I did perfectly just yesterday but kept falling out of today. I think of my dismay, anger and, ultimately, submission to failure. Instead of dismay, though, I feel a budding resolution to try again. And again and again until I master it.

I see that progress takes time, that it doesn't appear in a matter of months. Rather, it takes years of training, but to have the vision and perception of improvement is far more valuable.

As I sit and watch the remainder of the competition, I wonder what I'll be like in a few years. Much improved, I bet.