Dr. Seuss on muscle relaxers couldn’t dream up this place. The floors bounce like sofa cushions. Acres of sparkly suits flip and carom like kaleidoscope innards. Close by, a flock of 4-year-olds ambles by on their hands.
Into this fantasia walk the unlikeliest of pairs. One, an unheavenly throwing together of size and inexperience sure to put an apparatus warranty program out of business. The other, a graceful grade-schooler with the focus of a woman several times her age.
Bystanders literally cover their mouths to recompose themselves.
“Hope your health insurance is up-to-date,” warns Mark Bonsky, co-owner of Thomas Gymnastics.
He isn’t talking to Emma Spivey, 10.
In March, the Lake Wylie tumbler won a state championship on the balance beam, finishing second on uneven bars, third on vault and fifth on floor exercise for her level. Good for second overall, just .05 out of the all-around title. Her Thomas Gymnastics team took first overall, too.
Bonsky means me, but I’m not deterred. Gymnasts compete based on age and skill level. I look around. I don’t spot any 30-year-old, 270-pound first-timers, so I’m sort of a champion already. I’m kind of a big deal.
Spivey isn’t as assured. Her pre-match banter isn’t gamesmanship. Be careful. Don’t try the “really hard stuff.” And for the love orthopedics, don’t even flirt with the back handspring.
“That could end really badly,” she says.
I’m tempted by the uneven bars and floor exercise. Exercise generally leaves me sprawled to the floor, and if they think the bars are uneven now, just give me a go at them. But the beam is her baby, so I’ll step up. At more than four feet high and just four inches wide, balance beams earn coaches like Lauren Walker their pay. Teaching skills, sure, but more just helping overcome the “legitimate fear” to try it.
“It definitely takes a special kind of kid to excel at that event,” Walker says. “It’ll make a man out of you.”
Spivey hops up like it’s a sidewalk. Her warm-up tells more than her routine. She’s between skill levels, so she’ll mishmash a few moves. Today she’s honing that back handspring. Spivey ping pongs between the high beam and floor version. I couldn’t distract her with a One Direction group hug. There’s steel in her eyes. I ask the difference between beams.
“Broken bones,” she says.
If Spivey isn’t afraid, it’s because she’s had time to overcome it. Half her life she’s traveled to Carolina Stars in Fort Mill or her current gym in Rock Hill. This summer she’ll average an hour of conditioning a day and 16 hours practice a week. When she starts middle school in the fall, competition season adds a dozen or so events through next spring.
“Homework will probably have to happen in the morning,” said mom Christie, an elementary school teacher.
Spivey mounts, straddles and stands atop the high beam. She pirouettes. Leaps several times, nails the new level skills. The worst I could say of her is that, at one point, she tilts a little to the left. She’s never in danger of toppling. The backflip dismount sticks, and it’s my turn.
Spivey shows me a toe spin, running leap and side dismount. I hop up on the beam nail it on the first try. Yeah, right. Does my fat behind look like I can do gymnastics? If I could, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be on Letterman explaining the 14 trillion Youtube hits. And how I shattered Twitter.
I’m a freeloading pterodactyl finally tossed from the nest. Flailing, flightless, falling toward a safety mat that implodes beneath me. These gymnasts barely make a sound hitting the mats. I sound like a heavyweight wrestler being suplexed.
I’m back up, and I’m back down. Several more times, all at a half-point deduction apiece. I’m wondering how many falls before an official just tells me to sit down already.
“I’ve never really fallen that many times,” Spivey says.
A hamlet full of French judges on the take couldn’t swing this one in my favor. My distinct size advantage would serve me well in most sports. Gymnastics is an exception. A boardwalk sketch artist couldn’t over accentuate the difference between us. If I were any larger or she any smaller, she’d actually begin to orbit around me.
I fall again. I’m back up. I sense the gravity of the moment. Anyone who ever flunked a field sobriety test knows the feeling. I weeble, I wobble and I all fall down. Eventually, in several times as many tries, I complete three basic moves. Several parents cheer. Mainly for the safety of their children nearby.
Emma offers a polite smile and pleasantries, but heads off quickly to rejoin her teammates at practice. It’s the price she pays for a sport with no offseason. One the family schedules its life around as long as Emma chooses to do it, and as long as her body can take the tumbling, torquing and back tuck full twists landing just short of full rotation.
“You go with it as long as you can,” Christie Spivey says. “It’s a huge commitment.”
Speaking of huge commitments, I should probably skedaddle before the white trench coats arrive to wheel me out of here. Some people simply have no business being in a place like this, let alone taunting the laws of physics and medicine to do it. Then there are others, who wouldn’t know where else to be.
“She loves it, and she gets so much out of it,” said dad Michael, still without a focused state championship photo for all the teary eyes and shaking. “Seeing your daughter excel at something, it’s incredible.”
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