Fear and the Regret of What Could’ve Been

I was a competitive gymnast for several years. I wasn’t Olympic level or anything, but I was learning some super difficult skills by the time I “retired” at 14.

Officially, my retirement after 10 years in the sport was because of a chronic bad back. Something the doctors told me wouldn’t get better, just worse, the longer I kept at it. Plus, I was entering my freshman year and I wanted to have a high school life beyond the confines of the classroom — an impossibility when competing in a sport that meant at least 25 hours of practice per week.

But, unofficially? I honestly wouldn’t have made it much further than I did.

Why? Because I was old enough to have fully developed, adult-style fear.

It was the kind of fear that crept into my mind, whispering all the things that could go wrong if I fell/lost control/missed my mark by a centimeter.

Gymnastics is a very precise dance in physics. One that can turn very ugly very quickly.

When you’re 10 and a gymnast, what drives you is not what could go wrong, but how freaking cool it could be if things went right. But when you’re 14 and already have a crappy back and have seen far too many examples of what can happen when things go wrong — a dislocated knee cap, head injury, broken collarbone — it becomes a tad bit terrifying to throw yourself into a new, cool, and totally insane new trick.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym again because my preschooler is getting really involved in gymnastics. He’s no longer doing little kiddie balance drills, but learning actual skills.

His class meets at the same time as competitive gymnasts who are learning really high-level skills. Girls who are just a notch above where I retired. They’re probably between 12 to 14 and throw themselves about joyfully — no fear in sight.

These girls have me thinking a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d taken gymnastics more seriously early on. If I hadn’t waited until I was 10 to compete. Would I have bypassed the fear enough to beat my back troubles to the punch and get up to the level where I could’ve gotten a college scholarship? Gone to nationals? Learned enough to coach?

I’ll never know.

What do you wish fear hadn’t kept you from doing?

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8 thoughts on “Fear and the Regret of What Could’ve Been”

  1. Hi Sarah,
    That is so cool to learn this about you. Starting gymnastics when you were four? That’s so rad. And to hear that your son may be following in your footsteps puts a whole different level of fear on everything. Great post, my friend!

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  2. Sarah, my daughter did dance/gymnastics from age 4 to 10, and did competitive for a year. Unfortunately, her teacher was, um, not a people person, and it made her quit. But it did light that competitive spark – she was a 2010 national dance champ and earned a state champ title for taekwondo in 2013. And she’s still terrified ever time she competes (or so she says).

    Me, I wish fear hadn’t stopped me from writing for, oh, over 10 years. When I think about where I could be if I’d just shoved the “you’ll never be any good at this, so why bother” thoughts to the cub when I was 25 instead of 35 – well, I want to cry (or at least indulge in far too much chocolate!).

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  3. I wrote horses into my teens. I also didn’t think twice about jumping six feet in and outs (jumps in a row). I’m with Mary on wishing I’d gotten serious about writing and learning the publishing business earlier.

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  4. Thanks for a great post, Sarah! Who knows, with the back issues, you might have saved your life by retiring at that point. But I understand fear and regret. And I’m with Mary and Theresa re: writing.

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  5. I was a child competitor too; long distance swimming was my thing. (I never saw the movie Jaws because I knew I’d be scared during open water swims!) Your fear of what might have gone wrong may have affected your gymnastic future, but by competing even a little, you shaped your ability to commit to something, work hard, and learn from success and failure, all skills that will help your writing career!

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  6. What a great post! I grew up with a good friend who was a seriously competitive gymnast. It is indeed a crazy sport, and one that can cause some horrific injuries. She got out for other reasons at about the same age you did, but she’d been competing for many years by then.

    My oldest daughter has been a competitive diver since she was 5, and she’s learned some great things from it. But she’s getting to that point where it’s like “are we going to go all in, or are we done with this?” It’ll be interesting to see what she decides.

    I agree with Diane: that kind of commitment to sports (or anything else) teaches discipline and desire that come in handy in so many parts of life.

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  7. My only regret (well, the only one I’ll admit to online!) is waiting so long to start writing seriously. It took me until my mid-30s before I had enough self-discipline to put BIC and write.

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  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I had two dreams as I finished my M.A. in English–one was to travel & live overseas, & one was to try to get in to a publishing house in NYC as an editor at the lowest level. I did neither. I don’t know if it was fear or convenience that made me move home & start teaching. Eventually went back to school & got a doctorate, & now I teach full time. I met my husband in school, & I love my kids & my life. I wouldn’t change anything now, but I wonder what life might have been like. Thank you for a lovely post that gets us all thinking.

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