Monday, June 24, 2013

Review: Chalked Up

In the 1980s Sey was a world-class gymnast. She was national champion in 1986. This is the story of all of the sacrifice, physical and emotional, that it took to be an elite gymnast. This is a world in which coaches, scream, hit, and berate students. Families make huge sacrifices and become obsessed with their daughters' success. Low grade injury and pain are constant. Daily workouts and routines risk serious injury. Girls are forced to starve to be as skinny as possible, and are told that three percent body fat is unacceptable. Injuries are handled only by a team doctor, whose main consideration is getting the gymnast back winning medals. 

Sey was at the peak of her career in the mid-1980s. Looking back in 2013 I suspect most of us probably know that some of this sort of thing happens in elite gymnastics. Still, the full explanation and Sey's personal story show that the scope of the problem is overwhelming. I'm curious as to whether things have gotten better in the twenty-five years since Sey competed. Sey suggests that no one addresses these problems because too many people get a sort of perverse pleasure watching pre-pubescent girls fly through the air in tight leotards. I'm sure that does play a role. Sey is very clear that hers is not the story of a girl pushed unwillingly into the elite levels of gymnastics. She was and is obsessed with achievement just as she does and did love gymnastics. Sey was willing to do whatever it took to be the best, and this is not a story of victimization. Sey wanted to be the best so badly that she was willing to endure any level of emotional and physical abuse. Her parents had invested so much money that they were willing to let her. The takeaway is that there are systematic problems in competitive gymnastics. Will they ever be solved? I'm not sure.

Jennifer Sey, Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics (It Books, 2009) ISBN: 0061351474

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