Story of a star gymnast who suffers a career-ending injury and deals with the aftermath.
She loved the feeling of flying. At the age of five, her apparatus had been the living room sofa. However, her mother had quickly grown tired of the flattened couch cushions (along with the broken coffee table, as Alyssa had once misjudged her height in the air and had landed stomach-first onto the table, crumbling with the splintering wood in an almighty crash that had brought her mother running), so she enrolled her in recreational gymnastics classes at the local Y. With her diminutive frame and child-like fearlessness, Alyssa had quickly become the best tumbler in her class as her emerald eyes sparkled when flipping on the mats. Even Donna, the head recreational coach, had pulled Marcy aside one day after Alyssa had out-flipped the nine-year-olds, despite the fact that she was three years younger.
“I’m not really supposed to tell you this, since we keep losing kids to Star Elite across the river, but your girl has talent. Recreational gymnastics is well and good for those kids who need to gain coordination before they embarrass themselves by tripping over their feet while running in gym class, but Alyssa can only go so far here before she gets bored and wants to quit.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Donna. . .” Marcy said, rocking her head back and forth while wearing a simpering grimace. She could barely restrain her expression of shameless pride that spread across her plump cheeks
“She’s only six, and really, I just enrolled her to get her off my hands for a few hours a week. Not to mention that I really wasn’t looking forward to explaining any future damage on an insurance claim form when she inevitably brought the house down around my ears!”
“I’ll give you the number for Star Elite. I know Sergei, the owner. He’s trained multiple national champions. He can be a bit caustic at times, but it’s all for their benefit, and, well. . . Alyssa doesn’t need someone who’s going to hold her hand, anyhow.”
Voices bounced off the far-placed walls of the massive gymnasium in a cacophony of sound. The squeals of delight of the girls in the recreational class as they somersaulted over one another. The light admonitions of the younger coaches who attempted to keep their charges in line while their mothers finished their Christmas shopping at the local mall. Over by the uneven bars, three coaches stood wearing masks of granite. Jen, the bar coach, had nudged the gym owner in the ribs and muttered “She’s got it” while biting back the knowing smirk that threatened to shatter the stone expression on her face.
“She can already do kip cast handstands. You know what kind of strength is required for that.”
Sergei shook his head. “We’ll have to work with her on form, for sure.”
Coach Danny wasn’t watching Alyssa’s form. He looked at the slight pudge protruding from the girl’s abdomen and glared.
“When can we get her in with the nutritionist?” he growled.
Alyssa was having the time of her life on bars as she giggled and coughed on her downswing, a cloud of chalk swarmed her face. She had never gotten to swing on bars at her old gym! The girl trying her out was really nice. She smiled and clapped each time Alyssa successfully balanced her weight onto her hands and pulled herself into a handstand over the bar.
“Nice cast!” she said encouragingly.
“H-What?” Alyssa turned her head in confusion, and before she could realize that it was a mistake to make any sudden movements while upside down, she felt her chest hit the fiberglass bar, flipping her down onto the mat, where she landed on her back with a resounding smack.
“Don’t touch her!” Jen pulled her head towards Sergei’s ear, her whisper ruffling his fire-hued hair.
“Sergei, not today.”
Sergei waved her Jen away. "We need to know her toughness."
After a couple of seconds, Alyssa opened her eyes and gazed at the blonde girl who stood above her. “Becca, I’m not wearing a cast. Why did you say ‘Nice cast’?”
After finishing her daily lunch of grilled fish and celery sticks, the largest meal of her day, Alyssa threw away her disposable plate and paced the hotel room. In three hours, she would be competing in her first Junior National Championships. Suddenly, she ceased pacing and gazed in the mirror that hung over the mahogany dresser. She would have to practice her smile, she decided. Maybe the judges would look the other way if she didn’t quite make the twist completely on her new tumbling pass.
“Again!” Sergei had barked at her the day before during podium training, after Alyssa had cheated the twist for the third time.
“If you can execute a perfect double layout, you should have NO problems with adding two twists to that! What is wrong with you?”
Alyssa was past feeling embarrassed whenever Sergei yelled at her in front of the other gymnasts and their coaches. She had almost grown accustomed to hearing the sharp baritone bark across the gym whenever Alyssa’s toe was a little too flexed or she over-rotated a dismount. She didn’t even cringe when he accused her of milking her broken ankle last summer before he sentenced her to an extra-rigorous course of arm conditioning to complete while the ankle healed. After a while, Jen was the only coach that Alyssa bothered to try to impress because she seemed to be the only one capable of being pleased with her.
Alyssa had always been grateful for Jen’s support, and today of all days, Jen had shown that her support would continue.
She reached into the pocket of her warm-up jacket and pulled out the gift that Jen had given to her earlier that morning. Alyssa rolled the porcelain sparrow through her fingers, remembering with a smile what Jen had told her:
“I collect these, and I want you to have one. I really hope you’re not one of those people with an irrational fear of birds” Jen had said with a shrug.
“Um, thanks,” she had said, attempting a gracious smile. “W-what exactly is it for?”
“Well, it’s not like you can hook it onto your leo in the middle of competition, but maybe by having it in your gym bag. . . I don’t know – I didn’t take this job because I’m good at writing Hallmark greetings. . .”
During the competition, Alyssa tried to keep her chest from heaving as she fought back the burning tears that threatened to shatter her façade. She was in the fourth rotation of the Finals competition of the Junior National championships, and she wanted nothing more than to crawl into the bed in her hotel room, curl into a ball, and disappear into the mattress. Her downward spiral had begun on uneven bars. She had zoomed through the routine effortlessly, repeating the skills she had executed countless times during her seven-hour practice days. She had been setting up for her final release skill, a Gienger, when her right grip had slipped on the disintegrating chalk. Rather than bail out of the move, which would have earned her Sergei’s wrathful conditioning punishment for the next two months, Alyssa had chucked the skill, knowing fully that she had let go of the bar too early. Her hands hadn’t even come close to reconnecting to the bar after twisting in the air, and she had felt a sharp surging pain in her lower spine as she landed flat on her stomach.
Jen had implored her to shake off the regret she felt at having blown her chance at a national title. However, Alyssa continued her meltdown. She stumbled her way through a shaky beam routine in the third rotation, and she knew something was wrong with her back. She wasn’t getting nearly as much height on her switch ring leap as usual, and it had become much more difficult to punch her feet off the beam as she threw her body into a sloppy twist. When she completed the third twist and felt her feet hit the mat, her torso jerked painfully.
For a comical second, she considered telling Sergei about her pain, but she knew he wasn’t feeling too generous after Alyssa had fallen once off bars and twice off beam. As Alyssa tried to calm herself in preparation for her final event, so she could get the hell out of there, she heard a gruff voice in her right ear.
“Try not to fuck this one up. You’ve already embarrassed me, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to show my face at regional meetings again, since I thought I had the next Olympic hopeful. You’re such a disappointment.” As he walked away, Alyssa sighed, gathering her courage.
After saluting the judges, she posed with her arms raised artistically in the corner of the spring floor. The violins on her music track wailed and screeched despondently as Alyssa raised her arms. The corner of the arena blurred as tears clouded her vision, yet she threw herself into a sprint like a medieval war hero charging into battle. After the preliminary roundoff back handspring, Alyssa felt the stabbing pain in her spine as she heaved her body into the double-twisting double layout that had plagued her for so many months. Knowing intuitively mid-air that she would have to cheat the second twist again, Alyssa opened her position and looked for the blue mat. As her right foot found the ground, Alyssa instinctively twisted to complete the rotation. As the hot pain splintered through the back of her knee, as Alyssa bit her tongue in reaction to the distinctive tear of cartilaginous ligament from bone, she knew it was over.
Before Alyssa could scream, before she had looked down and saw her kneecap placed to the side of her knee, Jen looked away, knowing immediately what had happened. She ran to Alyssa's side with tears in her eyes as Alyssa gasped, "It's over. My career is over."
Jen muttered, "No, just. . . just wait for the trainer. It'll be okay. Try to calm down." Alyssa looked over at Sergei, who had pulled out a folder marked "Future Applicants" that he had brought with him to the meet. As she shuddered in agony, she watched as he glanced around the arena, looking for a girl from a lesser gym to mark for later interview.
Staring back at Jen, Alyssa screamed in grief for the first time in her life.
Alyssa shivered, pulling her wool sweater more tightly around her frame as the sharp wind cut through her. Taking a long drag from her cigarette, she held the smoke in her throat, relishing the burn that seemed to match the burning she felt in her eyes as she fought tears. Crying wasn’t her thing; despite her sensitive heart, she always felt a twinge of shame when the tell-tale lump built in her throat, no matter what the circumstances might be. Another souvenir from the years of gymnastics training. . . Smile always, even if you just fractured a kneecap. Do you want the whole country to see you blubbering? It’s gymnastics, not a fucking bingo hall. The words of Sergei were ingrained in her, now.
As snowflakes lilted gently from the sky in joyful waltzes, Alyssa felt the feeling begin to leave her fingers. Tossing her cigarette into the river, she clutched the item in her opposite hand to ensure its safety as she absentmindedly scuffed the sole of her clog against the slick rock bed that glistened from the crystalline snow. Barely acknowledging her stinging fingers, she turned her wrist and opened her hand, as if she had forgotten what she was holding. A small porcelain bird. . . a sparrow, was it?
Three years of debilitating depression after the injury had left Alyssa with a gaunt face and hollowed-out eyes. Once again, she found herself staring at the tranquil waters of the Ohio, not yet completely frozen from the new arrival of winter. She rolled her eyes in self-loathing.
She felt a strong urge to hurl the porcelain figure into the nearest block of ice that floated lazily on the river. For seven years of her life, Alyssa had lived by the whims of others. For seven years, Alyssa’s feelings hadn’t mattered. She wasn’t even aware that she had the capacity to feel so deeply until the day her life changed forever and her Olympic dream disappeared in a cloud of chalk. She knew that “ruptured ACL” might as well mean “amputated leg” for her.
She didn’t know if destroying the porcelain sparrow would help her to find happiness, but it was worth a try. She raised the hand that held the sparrow and prepared to chuck it into the river. As she held a lungful of icy breath, she realized she couldn’t let go. Letting go of the sparrow meant destroying her own identity. While she had no extreme sentimental attachment to the little knick-knack, Alyssa knew it represented who she was.
She couldn’t let go of flying.
Memories of training sessions flooded her mind, and she remembered Jen. Jen had always been the coach who Alyssa felt safest around. Jen had always been the coach who Alyssa trusted. Jen had always been the coach that Alyssa had aspired to be. She had once asked Jen about what to do with life after gymnastics.
“Well. . . “ Jen had begun, looking thoughtful, “I imagine most Olympians go on to coach in the sport. They never can bring themselves to leave the sport that has been a part of them for so long, so they make do with what they have. . .”
As snow continued to swirl around Alyssa’s rigid frame, she nearly smacked herself in exasperation. Though she never wanted to see Sergei again, why couldn’t she coach? She knew what to do (and what not to do) in order to nurture the dreams of star-eyed little girls, and she knew that it was best all together to keep them realistic. No one had bothered to keep Alyssa grounded, though Jen had tried.
She would call Jen first thing in the morning. Perhaps she would like to work together with her. They would start at another gym, away from the abusive nature of Sergei, and maybe one day, they could open their own gym with their own coaching philosophies that weren’t centered on the terrorizing of talented girls.
Alyssa felt a smile creep across her face as she gently set the sparrow in the frigid river water, watching it bob along. Alyssa knew this was a fitting act of closure, because she, too, would evolve. She could no longer fly, but she would be the floating coach that wouldn't let future stars drown.