As someone who has hulked in the back of every school photo ever taken, I love how tiny the Women Gymnasts are. I love their flips. I love their personal flair. I love the way there are always misfits and heroes. This year, I am super into Aliya Mustafina of Russia. She is the perfect bad girl, throwing temper tantrums when she screws up and bitch face to the world right before she begins her events. And just when you think you have Aliya all figured out, she makes a point of hugging Gold Medalist Aly Reisman and then doubling back to re-congratulate her for what was truly a phenomenal floor exhibition. Underneath the tough shell of a warrior beats a heart of gold (and silver and bronze).
Years ago, I had an audition friend who always said she was glad to not be one of the people who moved to New York and got on Broadway right away, because it would set her up with false expectations for the rest of her career. I always think of her when I watch the young gymnasts who devote their lives and physical well-being to a sport that uses them up before they even have the chance to figure out who they are. We love to watch these tinies defy gravity, risking extreme injury, but their careers end so early and they are relegated to featured faces in the crowd of the next Olympics. Last night, I listened to announcers retire 24 year old Catalina Ponor of Romania. At 24, I hadn’t even mastered opening a champagne bottle.
No one gets to be a world champion gymnast at the age of 40. It’s not like going back to school or picking up a new hobby. These women (and men) endure painful injuries because a torn Achilles is nothing compared to the grief of always believing you could have been an international superstar and gold medal Olympian if you were willing to push yourself. They all know the risks and choose to face them head-on.
While it’s not as cool (but often as bedazzled) as competing in the Olympics, my acting professor told our class on the first day of college that only eight to ten percent of professional actors were working at any given time and encouraged us to leave if that scared us. We all stayed. Nearly a decade later, I continue to be amazed at my friends who have stayed doggedly in the theatrical world despite the hard life it provides. To quote one of the greatest sports movies of all time, “Of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard….is what makes it great.”