My little brother used to complain about how my parents compare him to me. They always seemed to be after him, complaining, “Why aren’t your grades higher? Why can’t you be more responsible? We never had this problem with Paheli.” Of course, in front of him, I smugly pretended I was the perfect, model student he thought I was, but sometimes I wished I could be more like him. I wished I were able to capture others’ attention as he does, make them laugh as much as he does. While people seemed to consider him a charming and self-confident young man, they passed me off as an awkward, self-conscious, twitchy nerd.
I used to be a competitive gymnast. Although I have always been shy, I loved performing. I loved how I felt as if I was flying as I tumbled across the floor. I loved the thrill of the competition. But more importantly, I loved the satisfactory feeling of standing on top of the podium, clutching my very own gold medal. My parents and my aunt and uncle used to proudly tell all their friends, “She’s a state champion,” and I would blush with pleasure. Each competition, I would bring home wearing a few gold and silver medals around my neck and dazzling videos, which I would email to all of my friends and inform them of my scores and awards. However, once I reached high school, I had more schoolork, less hours to spend in the gym, and as a result, my gymnastics became sloppy and I began to lose some of the skills I previously had. I stopped enjoying the sport because I was no longer improving, and I wasn’t the best anymore. I stopped attending my team prctices as often, and I was no longer passionate about the sport.
“It just means you’ve grown out of the sport,” My mom explained to me. “But I think you should at least finish this season. Don’t walk out in the middle of the year! I understand if you want to quit next year, because as a junior, you will not have time to juggle all of your AP class work and three hour practices. Just stick with it until this summer, alright?”
I had agreed, but reluctantly; I did not want to go through two more months of humiliating team practices, watching my teammates and old friends leap forward while I struggled with the simplest of skills. Halfway through May, I was counting the weeks until I could quit gymnastics. I was thrilled about finally being able to have a life – to be able to eat whatever junk food I wanted, and to be able to do my homework peacefully at my own desk rather than in the car on the way to practice. I surprised myself, because before, I had always expected myself to continue gymnastics until senior year of high school. There was nothing I had wanted more than to go to practice and become as good as I possibly could be. I couldn’t believe my gymnastics career was ending in such an untimely fashion. When my team was having picture day during one Friday practice, although I was exhausted from the entire school week, I decided to go to practice. I still had to be part of the team. Just for three more weeks…
“Hi, stranger!” My friend Ashley’s mom greeted me as I walked into the gym. “We haven’t seen you in a long
time! Are you competing at the Invitational Meet this Sunday?”
Shoot, I thought to myself. I had completely forgotten about the competition on Sunday. In any case, there was no way I would be able to compete. I had a huge Chemistry test coming up that week and I needed as much of the weekend as I could get to study. The competition would last for over four hours. Of course I would not be competing this weekend.
“I don’t think so,” I told Ashley’s mom. “I have a lot of work this weekend. Maybe next time.”
Soon, my teammates and I had changed into our shining, turquoise leotards are were huddled together on the gym floor. I was surrounded by glitter, combs, and the strong scent of hairspray. My teammates giggled as they combed each other’s hair and talked excitedly about the upcoming meet and the new skills they couldn’t wait to show off.
“Girls!” My coach Wes tried to yell over the chattering voices. “By a show of hands, please tell me, who is competing this Sunday?”
I looked around and watched as my teammates raised their hands. Wes looked at me expectantly. “Paheli?”
I cleared my throat. “I, um…I’m not competing this time.”
“What?” she asked incredulously. “Hold on, we need to talk about this.”
I felt a thrill of dread run through my body. I did not want to have this conversation with her – or anybody, for that matter. I was ashamed about quitting, and I knew that she would make me feel even more ashamed as she tried to convince me to compete. I had always liked and admired Wes. She was a tall gymnast, the tallest one I had ever met. I was relatively tall for a gymnast, and before I met Wes, my coaches seemed to think that I was too tall and big to succeed in the sport. Then I met Wes, who was four inches taller than I was. She believed in me and care about my gymnastics more than any other coach I had. I knew she would be disappointed that I was hiding from the sport and I did not want to face her.
I followed Wes across the gym, dragging my feet and daring to walk as slowly as I could, wishing I could disappear on the spot. Finally, she settled down on the edge of the red floor in our gym and tapped a space next to her, gesturing for me to sit down. I carefully avoided her gaze, suddenly appearing to find the texture of the floor very interesting.
“Paheli, I know you’re very busy,” she began, and I began to fiddle with my fingers. “I don’t doubt it. In fact, if anything, I don’t know enough about how busy you are. I understand that you might not enjoy competing in gymnastics as much because you don’t have time to practice. However, I don’t like the idea of you disappearing in the middle of the season. I don’t know how your family is financially, but your parents spent a lot of money on getting your routines and I would hate for it to go to waste.”
I gulped, looking down. “But I can compete later, right? I don’t think I can compete at this one, but there will be more meets, right?”
Wes shook her head. “The next meet after this one is a state meet, which you have to qualify for. This is the last local meet. I know you can qualify for state as an event specialist – all you need is a minimum score of eight point five. I know you can do it; I wouldn’t be urging you to do it if I didn’t think you could. You don’t even have to compete on all four events – if you want, you can compete just on floor and go home after that.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know…”
I couldn’t get the memory of our last meet out of my head, how humiliated I had felt, being the only girl from our team who didn’t get a medal, how I had felt like crying but had to wait until I reached home because I didn’t want the others to see me.
“Think about them,” Wes interrupted my train of thoughts, gesturing to my teammates. “They need you. They score better when you’re there to support them. And they all look up to you so much. It would be wrong to desert them in the middle of the season. Even if you don’t want to do it for me, or for your parents, at least do it for those dorks in the blue leotards.”
Although at that time, I was annoyed that Wes had pressured me into competing, she assured me that later on, I would be grateful that I had finished the season on a good note. And now I can say with confidence that I am glad that I decided to compete.
When I showed up on the floor at the meet, Wes greeted me with a hug and exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you! I’ve never been happier to see a person in my life!”
Luckily for me, our first rotation was on the floor, the only event which I was competing, so I did not have to waste any time waiting. It was a different feeling than usual, sitting on the sides of the floor and cheering on my teammates. Since I was not pressuring myself to get a certain score or get a medal, I could relax and genuinely enjoy watching my friends perform. Only when my turn to compete began to creep closer, my hands started to sweat and jellyfish began swimming in my stomach – the usual symptoms for my nervousness. The worst moment, as it always was, was waiting for the judges to give me the cue to begin while they calculated the previous girl’s scores. I stood stiffly with my hands firmly at my sides, starting at the judges. My heart pounded heavily in my chest; it was so loud that it almost drowned out the sounds of cheering coming from all directions.
Somehow, Wes caught my eye. “Deep breath,” she mouthed. I nodded and gave her a tiny smile.
After what seemed like forever, one of the judges raised a white flag, and after giving them a customary salute, I walked stiffly onto the floor. The music began. After two years of performing this same floor routine at various competitions – local, state, regional, and even national meets – I had never enjoyed it more than at this moment. I flashed the judges wide smiles and gave them everything I had because I had nothing to lose. This would be possibly my last competition ever. And more importantly, I was not there for myself, to get a medal or to qualify for state. I was there for my teammates.
Finally, I finished my routine, saluted to the judges, and bounced over to my teammates. After they all said, “Good job!” and gave me high-fives, Wes told me, “Paheli, your routine was beautiful. If I didn’t know that you haven’t been training as much this year, I wouldn’t have been able to guess by watching you. You perform as well as anyone who has been coming to practice every day.”
I smiled and thanked her and then looked over at the scoreboard, anticipating. After several minutes, my score flashed in ominous, red numbers: 8.600. It was certainly not my best score. Needless to say, I did not get a gold medal for my performance at the meet. But at that moment, I felt that I was better than I had ever been.
I remember how the protagonist of Joyce Carol Oates’ Expensive People, Richard Everett, chose to retake his IQ test because his mother was disappointed with his initial score. His entire self-worth was based not on what he thought of himself, but based on his mother’s evaluation of him and his performance. While it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to meet others expectations, ultimately, what others think is of little importance. We will never be perfect, and others will always manage to find something or the other that is wrong with us. Recalling the experience of the last invitational meet of my gymnastics season, I have come to realize that I can’t control what others think of me, and I can’t waste me efforts trying to please everyone. More importantly, no one, not even judges, can tell me how good I am – only I have the power to decide that.