A former gymnastics champion recalls the hazards of her sport, including coaches who shouted at girls, “You’re a fat pig!”
Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. By Jennifer Sey. Morrow, 289 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
Girls’ sports have had legal equality for more than three decades, but they still have nothing close to parity at bookstores. There are probably hundreds of good books about football, baseball and golf for every good book about gymnastics, figure-skating and youth soccer. The number of coffee-table books about golf alone might dwarf the number of books about girls’ sports.
This pattern doesn’t result from a conspiracy but from a cultural reality. Large numbers of female athletes haven’t been around for long enough for the books to catch up with them. Men were playing professional baseball for more than a century before Jim Bouton wrote Ball Four. Another generation or two may have to pass before all bookstores and libraries have worthy books about female athletes in every sport.
All the more reason, then, to welcome Chalked Up, an unusually thoughtful and intelligent memoir by the 1986 U.S. National Gymnastics Champion Jennifer Sey. This isn’t just a good book about gymnastics – it’s one of the best recent books about female athletes in any sport.
Much of what Sey has to say will be familiar to anyone who has read Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes and other exposés of abuses in gymnastics. Judges play favorites. Parents overinvest in their daughters’ successes. Coaches commit physical and emotional abuse, and doctors support them. Even the youngest female gymnasts may have powerful incentives to develop eating disorders and risk permanent damage to their health by competing with serious injuries.
But Chalked Up is unique for the maturity that Sey brings to bear on these issues. After beginning to compete at the age of six, she had grueling career, winning the national championship less than a year after breaking a femur in competition. Now, in her late 30s, she is old enough to have some perspective on her experiences but not so old that her memories of the pain have faded beyond retrieval.
Sey sees the harm done by the coaches who taunted girls, as she says they did at Bela Karolyi’s camp in Houston, with “You’re a fat pig!” and other insults. But she hasn’t written a polemic. Instead, she shows how gymnastics started out as fun and gradually took over her family’s life. Many factors kept her in the sport — her own drive and love of performing, her ability to find kind coaches who helped to offset the others’ abuse, her parents’ willingness to ignore signs of trouble. Although she never got to the Olympics, the cost of her participation emerges in final chapters that list the chilling health problems that she still has.
Yet Set misses gymnastics – or parts of it – every day. Years after she quit the sport, she watched the 1996 Olympics, when Kerri Strug collapsed on her first vault and did a second that helped the U.S. team win a gold medal. It rankled that some broadcasters praised Strug as unique. “Any girl on that team,” Sey says, “would have done the same thing.”
Best line: Sey argues that gymnastics is a contact sport, like football, in which the body is constantly colliding with objects with brutal force: “In football, it’s another player who crushes, bruises, breaks the athlete. In gymnastics, it’s the floor. Or the beam. Or any piece of unmoving, unforgiving equipment that meets the body on its descent through the air from great heights.”
Worst line: When Sey was about eight years old, she saw Saturday Night Fever. She says she was struck by a character whose well-developed body got her into trouble: “After seeing this R-rated movie with my parents, I linked a developing body to danger and unwanted male attention.” That’s a pretty sophisticated perception for an eight-year-old.
Recommendation? A book with crossover appeal, written for adults but likely to appeal also to many teenagers.
Editor: Jennifer Pooley
Furthermore: A graduate of Stanford University, Sey lives in San Francisco.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.