Chalked Up

Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders and Elusive Olympic Dreams by Jennifer Sey (2008)

I couldn’t put this book down, and I read it in a few hours. (This was also perhaps helped by some insomnia, but still . . . )

Apparently this was a much-talked about book in gymnastics circles earlier this year when it came out. I was not aware of it when the title caught my eye from a display at the Mission Branch library a few days ago. Prior to actually reading it, however, I looked up the author’s website and blog. I didn’t recognize her name, though if she was in gymnastics in the ‘80s, I really might have seen her on tv at some point. I watched gymnastics back then, wanting to take part, knowing I was too old and too big all at the same time. Sey won the 1986 US National Championships. She was worn out and exhausted, and with lingering injuries before the 1988 Olympic trials.

This book really shows me that I would have never had the guts to do it. Sey says that as a kid, she really, really wanted it, and tried hard to be good enough. However, she was never good enough, at least in her mind. Her coaches all managed to point that out often as well. Even when she was little, age 7, her coaches kept telling her she wasn’t going to get anywhere if she was scared. (I would have been too scared. I might have liked the floor tumbling routines, but doing the same on the balance beam?? No way. I tried a somersault on the balance beam once in a beginner’s gymnastics class, and that was enough.)

Sey is quite critical about the coaching styles in the elite level of gymnastics. She admits that to stay competitive that she had to keep in shape even while she was recovering from injuries, but she does ask why no one in elite gymnastics puts a stop to pressuring, insisting that gymnasts keep ruining their bodies to achieve an often elusive dream. She also brings up the parents. I get the sense that her parents were not necessarily pressuring her at the beginning, but by the time Sey reached the elite level, her parents and family had rearranged their whole lives to focus on her goal. By the time that Sey was burning out, her mother was pushing her to kept trying to go on, to reach the ’88 Olympics. Sey admits that during all of those years, she did not or could not recognize the sacrifices her entire family was making for her. She feels bad now for a lot of things.

Sey is also very candid about her “diet” strategies to lose weight, and how weight was/is such a big deal in elite gymnastics. She is also candid about how she would peel the skin on her fingers as a way to cope. This is not always pleasant reading, but then I did not expect this book to be a pleasant happy read.

One part of her life that I wish she’d gone into more was her decision about a breast reduction (after she quit gymnastics, she matured and gained weight, and was not happy with the size of her chest). She does express that when she had her first son, she felt like she was not good enough because she could not produce enough milk for her baby due to the breast reduction. I feel like there is something lacking here, though. After all of the details (“despite the self indulgence”, page 279), then she kind of skips through life now. (And I wanted to know more about her BR, given that I understand, at least to some degree.)

I do like Sey’s Afterword. She feels like a failure in everything she does now. Ever since she attained success at a young age, she says, “It is inevitable that anything less than number-one status provokes feelings of failure. . . I work myself to the brink of exhaustion to suppress the feelings of not being good enough.” However, she goes on to say that really she is not a failure, that she is trying to do her best to raise her two little boys, that she forgives her parents and thanks them.

The nice thing is that she does have an online presence, and you can go to her web site and find links to articles and pictures from her years in gymnastics in the ‘70s and ‘80s.