I can pinpoint exactly when and where it happened: the junior high’s gymnasium, the spring of my seventh grade year. I can also remember vividly how it happened.
Usually I worked out on senior Doug's mat, which was an honor, because it meant I was one of the “advanced” gymnasts. Doug was a good assistant coach, able to understand exactly what each of us needed in terms of help, repetition, inspiration, goal setting and praise. He had complete confidence in us, and we in turn built on that confidence until it shone in us as well. I learned fearlessness and loved working with him. He had a way of inspiring me to achieve perfection in floor exercises that I never thought myself even capable of learning.
He instinctively knew when to step in and help with segments of my floor routine, and he knew when to step back and simply spot me as I sprung around on the mats. He was ACE.
Doug was a brilliant gymnast, holding several state titles and tons of medals, but was not, however, a great looking guy. The poor thing seemed to have a rough case of acne year round, and so we silly little gymnast girls mooned over an assistant on a nearby mat.
The assistant was a few years younger than Doug, which meant he was closer in age to us starry-eyed girls. We all harbored secret, and not so secret, crushes on him. His specialty was the vault, but since none of us were too interested in the vault, he assisted with floor exercises, taking the “beginners” under his wing.
Whereas Doug was quiet, graceful and intuitive, John was loud, prone to mood swings and rather ham-fisted for a gymnast. We didn’t care though, because he was incredibly handsome, with dark, rugged Italian features and eyes you could swim in.
As it happened, Doug missed practice to visit a college campus out of state, where he had been offered a full scholarship, and the head coach had no choice but to mix the advanced and beginners together for one session. We advanced girls couldn’t believe our good luck!
As we readied ourselves for our session, John instructed us that on his mat we had to keep our socks on. We were used to working barefoot on Doug’s mat, so this was an odd request for us, but we happily complied because we were eager to please him.
We sat on the bleachers watching the beginners, and John casually strolled over to ask what each of us had been working on with Doug. I was currently working on a salto/no-handed roundoff/whip back combination, which is a series of moves in which I flipped across the mat from end to end, without my hands ever touching the mat. I’d already mastered the salto/no-handed roundoff, but was still working on the movement from roundoff into whip back. I was momentarily rendered speechless by his request because he was SO GORGEOUS, but I managed to finally find my tongue and tell him what I’d been practicing. he nodded and wandered away.
When my turn finally came, I soared through the first section of the routine until I got to the whip back. John was spotting me, and reached out to guide me over the whip back, and he was too heavy handed. I was used to Doug’s light touch, and John flipped me over too hard and fast. My socked feet flew out from under me and my spine smashed hard on the mat. It knocked me out cold.
The foul smell of salts washed over me and I opened my eyes to find John and Coach bent over me, asking what my name was and what year it was and other things they should have already known. I, however, couldn’t remember anything for a few minutes, which someone later informed me was not a “few minutes” but around half an hour.
I was eventually helped to my feet and John carried me over to the bleachers, where I remained, rattled, for the rest of the session. Coach was livid, screaming at him “What the hell did you do to her!?” John’s feeble response was that I was “a lot lighter” than he thought I was.
I felt really bad for John, and apologized profusely for getting him in hot water. What an idiot I was. He should have been the one apologizing to me!
I didn’t want to tell my parents, because they were already frightened of the stuff I was learning and constantly worried that I was going to hurt myself. Coach, however, made a point to speak to my Dad when he came to pick me up from class that day. On the way home I tried my best to downplay the incident, and I never told them about the recurring pains in my spine that would wake me up in the middle of the night for months afterward.
I missed the next few sessions, recuperating. When I came back, Doug told me that he had heard what happened, and wanted me to start back slowly. I was fine with that.
But I never perfected the whip back, and Doug didn’t force me, because he could see The Fear in my eyes. We both knew, although it was never mentioned, that my gymnastics career was over. Once you get The Fear, it’s nearly impossible to shake. I never shook it.
Free spiritedly springing around the mats is just a distant memory for me now, but I am often reminded of The Fear. It was there again last night, when shoveling a bit of snow caused the fragile lower back to throb and pulse. Was it the pain, or The Fear, that kept me awake most of the night?