It didn't matter if it was Monopoly, minigolf, gym class, or the gymnastics state championship, competition was always filling my soft inside. It got my heart pumping and made me feel really alive. If I put a competitive spin on anything I was doing, my interest was snagged, and I had to win.
From ages four through seventeen my competitive passion was for gymnastics. I had an entire wall in my bedroom dedicated to the ribbons and trophies I won in local competitions. My parents thought it was cute until they realized I'd used a staple gun to hang all my ribbons. The other three walls in my room were covered with pictures of Olympic gymnasts I cut out of magazines.
Just after my tenth birthday, I found myself competing in a state championship qualifier. After three events, I realized I was in first place. All I had to do was stick my balance beam routine and I would win the competition and be going on to the championships. Watch out, Nadia, here I come.
Well, three-quarters of the way through my routine, my foot slipped off the narrow, four-inch beam and I fell to the mat. I thought I couldn't feel any worse about this stupid mistake until I sheepishly looked at my coach and saw that he'd dropped his head in his hands. I crawled back onto my nemesis, that beam, and finished my routine without a flaw.
I quickly did the calculations in my head and realized that I had not only lost the all-around competition, but I would be sitting at home while several of my teammates went on to the state championships. I ran into the locker room and started to cry.
After a few minutes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Through bleary eyes, I looked up and found a teammate of mine, Cassandra Wheeler, whom I greatly admired, standing in front of me. Between sobs, I declared that I was quitting gymnastics.
She walked away, and I thought that my role model was turning her back on me and my trivial problems. Then I heard a clanging at her locker and she returned with a small orange card in her hand. She held it out and I read the words, You Mustn't Quit.
"Remember why you chose to do gymnastics," she told me. "You love it! And remember that tomorrow is a new day, and you never know what could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. If you stick with it and don't give up, you might find that your passions will help you reach your goals."
And she was right. The next year I did qualify for the state championships. Without my friend's encouragement to remember my soft inside, that great wall of fame in my bedroom might have remained a small corner of fame.
While I always loved gymnastics, I didn't find my true passion and soft inside until I was eighteen. That was the year I discovered aerial freestyle skiing.
I caught an Evening Magazine show on TV, showing athletes skiing down a ramp and flipping and twisting through the air. It looked incredibly exciting, but also incredibly scary. Aerials wasn't one of those things for me that you know right away you want to do, and know you'll love. I probably had the same response that any other sane person does when they see the sport for the first time: "These people are crazy!!!"
But when I saw how the aerialists train in the summer, it appeared relatively harmless. When they make their first attempts, they ski down a sheet of plastic bristles, flip off a jump and land in a swimming pool. And for those landings that don't go exactly as planned, there are pipes underwater that force a layer of bubbles to the surface of the pool to soften the impact. I figured it might be fun to try a single back flip. But that was all I wanted to do.
Having a state-level gymnastics background, and growing up skiing recreationally with my family, I found the single back somersault came quite easily for me. That summer, I got to the point where I could do straight-over flips, and back flips with a full twist. My natural abilities started to draw some attention and the national team head coach made his way over to watch me. He pulled me aside, and I should have known by the look on his face that I was in store for something terrifying.
... to be continued next week
** [Excerpt from When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out}
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