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San Marcos choreographed gymnastics

Tiffany and the optionals

At 5:25 on an early summer afternoon, the sun still blazed outside the big metal roll-up doors at Stars and Stripes Gymnastics. Inside the San Marcos gym, coaches’ commands and the squeak of the parallel bars and the whump of athletes hitting mats caromed off the high, open warehouse walls. A line of five- and six-year-old boys and girls somersaulted down the long runway leading to the vaulting table. Their coach walked alongside chanting, “Over, over, over.” Headed in the opposite direction, a straggly line of sweaty, barefooted adolescent boys dressed in tank tops and baggy shorts followed a twentyish coach.

In the gym’s southeastern corner, a group of 15 girls sat or sprawled along the edge of a raised, square, oversized trampoline. Dressed in a dark rainbow of leotards — navy and cardinal and hunter green — the girls chatted and glanced around the gym. Some lazily stretched their toned arms and legs. In the trampoline’s center, a tiny girl with blond pigtails turned back layout flips in the slow, casual way an ordinary little girl might play hopscotch on the sidewalk. Bounce, bounce, lay-out. Bounce, bounce, lay-out. On the layout part, her arms stayed at her sides. Her head went back. The rest of her body, all straight in its powder blue leotard, followed her head in a wide arc until her feet hit the trampoline again. Bounce, bounce, lay-out.

Across the runway from the trampoline, behind a series of picture windows, parents milled about in the waiting room. A large fan pushed hot air around the brown metal folding chairs and the moms in jeans and T-shirts. A few dads paged through magazines. Some siblings worked on homework or played Gameboys.

At 5:30, the waiting-room door opened. The five- and six-year-olds and a class of even younger kids filed from the gym into the stuffy room. They held up their hands to show their parents the hand stamps they’d received from their coaches. In the midst of the shuffle of parents gathering kids and gear, Christine and Sarah Bennett arrived. Sarah smiled a wide, self-conscious smile. With her brown hair pulled to the sides in two braids, her long, tanned arms and legs, and her lime green leotard, Sarah fidgeted beside her mother with a sort of preadolescent coltishness. “Go on,” Christine Bennett told her daughter. “I’ll stick around for a while. Then I’ll pick you up after practice.”

Sarah walked through the open waiting-room door and joined the group of girls by the trampoline. Greeting a friend, Sarah looked like a young Meg Ryan: wry mouth, pixie nose, wise eyes. Out in the gym, the air moved across the wide space between the opposing sets of metal doors. “They’ll start with their warm-up,” Christine explained.

As if on cue, the little blond girl stopped bouncing. The girls on the trampoline’s edge jumped down and started running in broad circles around the floor exercise area in the gym’s center. Their long, bare legs and pointed toes made the girls look like a flock of graceful cranes. “This is the competitive group,” Christine continued. “There are 17 girls. The littlest one is Jamie.” Christine pointed to a dark-haired girl even smaller than the blonde who’d done the flips. “She’s eight. I think the oldest one is Ariane. She’s leaving for college in the fall.”

Christine motioned toward a group of coaches who stood at the edge of the floor in front of a bank of lockers. “There are seven coaches,” she said. “They all coach all the events. Some specialize in certain events. You’ll see Nick,” Christine said and pointed to a fit, short man in khaki shorts and a polo-type shirt. Nick Chaimson (pronounced like Jameson with a ch) peered through his glasses at the open pages of a black binder. “Nick’s the head coach. He’ll give the girls a pep talk before and after practice.” At Stars and Stripes, everyone referred to Chaimson as Nick. No one called him Coach Chaimson as they might have were he coaching football or baseball. In fact, all the gymnastics coaches used their first names only.

A leotard-wearing girl with her ankle wrapped in an Ace bandage hobbled on crutches toward the floor exercise area. “The girls come even when they’re injured,” Christine said. “If their leg is hurt, they’ll work upper body. If their arm is hurt, they’ll do extra leg work.”

The girls stopped running and lined up three deep in front of the mirror that covered the center of the gym’s southern wall. The girl on crutches joined them. As calypso music blared out of wall speakers, the girls began moving in unison. Late afternoon sun crept through the western doors. “The warm-up routine is set,” Christine said. “They do the same one every day. It’s a dance that stretches out all the muscles. The girls take turns leading the routine.” Standing in the center at the group’s front, little Jamie kicked her left leg forward and back to the music. The group followed suit. Jamie hopped up and down with her toes pointed hard. A sea of heads bobbed before her.

The images reflected in the giant mirror encompassed a full range of ages and heights and sizes. In addition to Jamie, the group included Sarah, nine, and McKenna, also nine. Shorter than Sarah, McKenna already had the narrow hips and defined, triangulated upper body of the gymnasts you see on TV. At the opposite end, tall, willowy, redheaded Rebecca towered above the group. One of the littler girls had a tiny torso and long, spiderlike limbs. A few of the older girls looked like women, with rounded hips and breasts and powerful thighs.

The calypso music lilted. The girls jumped higher. Each held her arms out to the side, legs spread in an inverted V. Sarah’s green leotard flashed amid the group. “Sarah had her sixth birthday party here,” Christine said. In addition to teaching classes and sponsoring the team, Stars and Stripes hosts birthday parties. “I feel like we haven’t left since.” Christine laughed. “She decided she wanted to take a class. So we started out with one class a week. Then we kept coming and coming. We added a day. The system is set up on tracks, like school. First, Sarah was a Mini-Star. Then she was a Super Star. Then she got recommended for the team. In the time we’ve been here, we’ve gone from 1 hour a week to 14 hours a week.” Sarah, who attends fifth grade at a San Marcos elementary school, practices at the gym from 5:30 to 9:00 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings and from 8:00 to 11:30 on Saturday mornings.

On the floor, the girls sat down and stretched their legs far out to the sides. Like a series of waves, they pitched forward and touched their chests to the floor. After repeating and holding this stretch, the girls brought their legs together and stretched forward again in pike position, chests pressed against knees. With every stretch, their limbs extended farther, their muscles stretched taut, their toes pointed hard. All the while, the girls chatted as though they were lounging on the couch at home.

Toward the back of the group, a dark-haired girl turned and whispered something to the girl beside her. Had the dark-haired girl looked up, she would have seen her name, Tiffany Davis, written in large letters on the gym wall underneath the title “2002 Nationals.” When Tiffany stood to pair up with a partner for the next series of stretches, she adjusted her dark purple leotard and rolled down the waistband of her black stretch capris. She wore her long hair pulled back tight in a bun. At 13, Tiffany’s slightly exotic features and almond eyes gave her an almost feline look, like a Siamese cat with a secret.

The warm-up continued. The girls lined up in two rows at one end of the floor. Still moving to the music, the girls performed an unbroken line of cartwheels from one end of the floor to the other. Two coaches, Chrissy and Stephanie, moved beside the rows. Her red hair pulled back in a long ponytail, Chrissy asked, “Samantha, is that the correct body position?” When Samantha looked up sheepishly, Chrissy added, “You might want to fix that.”

Round offs, then back and front walkovers followed the cartwheels. Each time a girl landed hard, feet together, the springy floor echoed like a big drum. The girls held still and absorbed the shock wave that radiated up through feet, calves, knees, and thighs. After a few more tumbling passes, the girls walked across the floor on their toes. With each step, their legs kicked up straight from their hips. “Aggressively kick your leg up,” Stephanie said. “Aggressively.” Stephanie, who is married to Nick, carried their baby daughter Gabrielle on her hip.

At 6:10, the music stopped. Nick set down his binder and called from in front of the lockers, “Form up.” The girls trotted over to where Nick stood and formed three rows. Shortest girls stood in front. Taller girls stood in back. Walking around behind, Stephanie surveyed the crooked rows from the side. “Fix those lines,” she said.

The girls straightened the rows and looked at Nick. Nick looked back with the air of a general about to issue command assignments. “First of all, Jill and Jessica have returned.” The girls turned to look at two older girls in the back row. “They’re home from college for the summer. Welcome back.” Nick applauded. The girls applauded. “Talk to them. You can learn from them.” Nick paused. “Page two. Schedule changes. We’ve been listening to your parents. We’re trying to get you out earlier.” Nick outlined some changes in the workout schedule.

“There’ll be a handout detailing the schedule changes,” Nick continued. He ran through a few more administrative items. “That’s all for now. Pay attention to every turn,” he admonished. “Pay attention to every strength. Those cheating on strength won’t have the kind of season they want to. Those who aren’t cheating will.”

Nick released the girls. They moved behind him to the lockers and sipped water from bottles. A few greeted Jessica and Jill. After 45 minutes, Sarah and Tiffany’s workout had just begun.

Although relatively new in the United States, gymnastics has a long history in the ancient world and in Europe. Had Sarah and Tiffany lived in Crete during the second millennium B.C., they might have practiced bull leaping. According to Encarta, Microsoft’s online encyclopedia, “In bull leaping, the performer would run toward a charging bull, grab its horns, and, upon being tossed into the air, execute various midair stunts before landing on the bull’s back, then dismount with a flip.” The Greeks used gymnastics both for military training and in children’s formal education.

During the 19th Century, German and Swedish immigrants brought forms of gymnastics with them to the United States. The German form emphasized defined skills, both with and without apparatus, as a way to teach strength and self-discipline. Swedish gymnasts used hoops, small balls, and clubs to perform rhythmic routines. By the turn of the century, American schools had adopted a compromise between the German and Swedish forms.

In 1972, a Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, won three gold medals at the Munich summer Olympics. Millions of Americans watched on TV. Nick described his introduction to gymnastics. “Watching the Olympics in 1972, I saw Olga Korbut. I fell in love with her,” Nick said. “Now, remember, that’s back when we were afraid of the Russians. And here’s this Russian who’s doing beautiful stuff on beam, smiling. And then when something didn’t go her way, she cried. I thought, ‘That’s not the image we have of the Soviet Union. The Soviet people are gruff. They don’t show emotion.’ If gymnastics could take a young lady and have her melt the opinions of the West, that was something I wanted to be involved with.”

Nick wasn’t alone. During the mid-1960s, USA Gymnastics (USAG), the governing body for gymnastics in the United States, listed 7000 member athletes. Today, the organization counts 71,000 athletes and 13,000 professional and instructor members. Every year, USA Gymnastics sanctions approximately 3000 gymnastics competitions and events. Gymnasts at sanctioned competitions compete in one of three areas: artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, or trampoline.

Artistic gymnastics most closely resemble the old German form. Women compete in four events: floor exercise, uneven parallel bars, balance beam, and vault. Rhythmic gymnastics, like the traditional Swedish form, consists of routines performed with balls, hoops, or ribbons.

In addition to training and selecting the U.S. teams for the Olympics and World Championships, USA Gymnastics sets the rules and policies for gymnastics in this country. One rule that plays out every day in the life of every competitive gymnast is the concept of levels. At Stars and Stripes, the team consists of gymnasts between level five and level ten. Below level five, gymnastics are considered Recreational. Above level ten dwell the Elites, the gymnasts you see on TV at the Olympics or World Championships. Levels five to seven are called Compulsories. Levels eight to ten are Optionals.

Sarah is a level five. Tiffany is a level nine. Nick explained how the levels get administered. “At every level, the athlete has to achieve a certain overall score at a USAG-sanctioned event to move up to the next level. Then it’s up to each individual gym to make sure they’re following that guideline, that they’re not cheating, and to make sure that all the requirements at the new level are being fulfilled.”

After warm-ups, the team at Stars and Stripes broke into two groups for most of the workout’s remainder. Tiffany and the Optionals moved to the bars. Sarah and the rest of the Compulsories stayed for floor exercise.

According to USA Gymnastics, “The floor routine must be choreographed to music, lasting between 70 and 90 seconds and covering the entire floor area [40 by 40 feet]. The gymnast must use acrobatic and gymnastics elements to create high points in the exercise. These include two acrobatic series, one with at least two or more saltos [flips or somersaults] in different directions; an acrobatic-gymnastics series; and a gymnastics series. [An example of an acrobatic series is a cartwheel into a back handspring into a back salto. A gymnastics series might consist of a turn, followed by a split jump.] Throughout, the gymnast must harmoniously blend these elements while making versatile use of floor space changing both the direction and level of movement.”

While Chrissy stood at the corner of the floor exercise area, Sarah and the Compulsories reformed in front of the mirror. Their ranks thinned by the absence of the Optionals, the girls spread out into three rows across. Everyone made sure she could see her own reflection. “Okay,” Chrissy called out. “Let’s start with some full turns.”

Each girl stood with her arms held out at shoulder level. The right arm pointed to the side. The left arm pointed forward. The left foot pointed forward directly beneath the extended left arm. Moving to an invisible beat, each girl pivoted on the forward foot, turned her body one full rotation, then stopped in the original position. Around and around they turned. Chrissy moved through the group, adjusting arms, watching. “No wobbles,” she said again and again. “Stand tall. Up on your toes.”

After many turns, Chrissy told the girls, “If you’re done, let’s reform and go through the sequence.” The girls straightened up their lines. They seemed oblivious to the squeak of the uneven parallel bars where the Optionals worked to their right. At Chrissy’s command, Sarah and her group performed a sequence of moves they had obviously learned before. “Ready?” asked Chrissy. “Arms up. Step, step, passé, up, straddle jump, finish, and go one-two-two, two-two-two.” The girls jumped and danced. Each girl finished the sequence by holding a pose — up on toes, hands clasped against the left hip, head turned to the right.

Each time through, the girls and Chrissy added a few more steps to the sequence. “Step, punch, full turn,” Chrissy called out. On the full turn, many of the girls wobbled or hopped. “Oh, my gosh,” Chrissy said in mock despair, “did we not just do about 25 full turns? Why are we doing this?” Chrissy hopped around in a circle with her leg stuck out like a farmhand who had just stubbed his toe. “I know you guys can stick these.”

Sarah and the group went through the sequence again. There were fewer wobbles. “That’s better,” Chrissy conceded.

After a water break, the girls kneeled on the floor in their rows. “Do all of the arms,” Chrissy told them. Three times through, the girls practiced the routine in one spot, moving only their upper bodies. A forest of arms swept up and to the side. Backs arched. Shoulders moved forward and back. “Emily, you have to get through it without looking at Jackie,” Chrissy told one of the girls. “You’ve got to do your own routine.”

After calling the girls to the side of the floor, Chrissy hit the switch on a tape player. Tinny, overblown piano music crashed from the speakers. The girls listened one time through to the music, then went back out on the floor. Twice, they practiced their arm movements to the music. At the end, Chrissy told them, “Hold. Chins up. Chins pressed forward.” Chins pressed forward. Each girl’s eyes gazed back at her own reflection.

During the next portion of the floor workout, the girls practiced tumbling. Front handsprings. Back handsprings. Sarah concentrated. She didn’t stop to chat like some of the other girls. At the end of one tumbling run, Sarah stopped to look in the mirror and adjust one of her braids. When asked later whether looking in the mirror so much was a good thing or a bad thing, Sarah said, “Probably a good thing. If we’re trying to do a skill and we’re thinking about it, we can’t see if our hand is doing the right thing without the mirror.”

Not everyone agrees the mirror is a good thing. Anna Gruning worked out at Stars and Stripes for almost six years. Beginning at age 5, under the gym’s previous owners, Gruning lived and breathed gymnastics. At age 7, she began competing as a level five. By age 10, Gruning competed as a level eight. At the end of that season, when she was 11, Gruning quit competing due to injuries and burnout. She coached at Stars and Stripes until 2001. “I hated the mirrors at the gym,” Gruning said. “It caused a lot of problems. I would look in the mirror, and I would think I was the fattest one. I remember being 8 years old and thinking, ‘I can only have a granola bar for dinner. I can’t eat after 8:00. I can’t have any sweets.’ The doctors and my mom were always saying, ‘You’ve gotta eat. You’ve gotta eat.’

“When I was eight, I weighed 52 pounds,” Gruning explained. “I had my tonsils out and I didn’t want to eat. I ended up dropping back to 42 pounds. So I had eating problems when I was little. I was like that because I saw the little gymnasts on TV, and I read about them. I would think, ‘She only weighs 60 pounds and she’s five years older than I am.’ That was an issue for me the whole time.”

Gruning saw eating disorders in some of the girls she coached. “You can tell because they’re weak,” she said. “You can just tell when they’re not healthy or eating right. Their hair looks bad and their stomach gets bloated right in this one spot. I can remember because if I ate, my stomach would stick out right here [Gruning cupped her hands over the lower middle of her belly]. I was never diagnosed as an anorexic, but the doctors were always making sure. My parents and my coaches would ask me every day, ‘What did you eat?’ ”

Did she lie about what she ate?

“All the time.”

Did she ever make herself throw up?

“A couple times.”

Nick, too, has coached girls with eating disorders. “Teresa and I had an anorexic athlete at another gym where we coached.” Teresa Barnard is a coach Nick brought with him when he came to Stars and Stripes. “It was the hardest thing either one of us ever had to deal with. This girl’s weight was so low that I put her on restriction in the gym. For the first time since the ’70s, I started weighing an athlete. But I was weighing her to see if she was getting the weight up. I wouldn’t let her compete until her weight got to a certain level. She never quite got to the number I wanted. She got to within five pounds, though. She went to Nationals. Six months before, we didn’t even know if she’d be alive by the time we got to Nationals. It got to the point where Teresa had to tell her what she was going to order when we went to a restaurant and what she was going to eat when she got home.”

At Stars and Stripes, Nick said he hasn’t seen any eating disorders. “We don’t talk about it,” he said. “When we do talk about it, I just say, ‘Be conscious of what you put in your body.’ If you’re eating candy before a workout, you’re going to crash. During a long workout, sometimes we’ll take a snack break.

“Every gymnast is built differently. Everyone has different genetics,” Nick explained. “For some kids who are heavy, it’s a thyroid problem or something genetic. For many, it’s simply an inability to control what they put in their mouths. We try to educate the kids as best we can about what to eat, what is good to avoid. Every athlete is going to go through puberty whether you want her to or not.”

According to Nick, the girls are required to wear a leotard in the gym. “They’re not allowed to wear bike shorts. I want them to be comfortable with what they look like. The rule is, if it’s cold in the gym, you can wear pants. No shorts. They break the body line. It’s tough to tell where the bend is actually occurring when you have all this extra stuff on. When you’re just in your leotard, we’re seeing exactly what the judges are going to see. And it does get the girls more comfortable with their bodies because they’re used to being like that all the time.”

Nick and Anna agree the issue of body image has improved for female gymnasts. “It got very bad in the mid-’90s when Little Girls in Pretty Boxes came out,” Nick said. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a book by Joan Ryan, explored the problem of eating disorders in elite gymnasts and figure skaters. “USA Gymnastics did nothing to refute that book,” Nick complained. “No public service announcements. No ads in any sort of publication. Nothing. We lost a generation of athletes because parents freaked out over that book. That book tracked three specific athletes at Karolyi’s in the early ’80s, when he first came to this country.” Bela Karolyi, a former Romanian gymnastics coach, came to fame coaching Nadia Comaneci to perfect scores in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Karolyi now runs a gymnastics training camp in Texas. “The book’s authors made a generalization about our sport based on three kids. And those three kids did, unfortunately, develop bulimia and/or anorexia because of misplaced comments. One was by a judge commenting that the athlete would look much better if she lost ten pounds. That athlete is dead now. I hope that judge is satisfied.”

Gruning believes her eating disorder was made worse by comparing herself to the tiny, prepubescent Eastern Bloc gymnasts who were competing at the international level in the early ’90s. “The gymnasts are older now,” Gruning said. “They’re making them wait until they’re older to compete internationally. They’re starting to look more like women and not little girls. Even the gymnasts who were in the last Olympics looked healthier. It’s starting to change.” After the 1996 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee ruled that female gymnasts must be at least 16 years old to compete in the Olympics. In 1976, Nadia Comaneci won her gold medals at age 14. In the 1996 Olympics, the average age of the female gymnasts was 15.

Christine Bennett echoed Nick’s claim that Stars and Stripes doesn’t overemphasize thinness. “In fact, at this gym, when Sarah first got on that little track, the Mini-Stars, and we started to be at the gym a few more hours, I got to watch the big girls work out,” Christine said. “I remember making a comment about how big they were. These girls were — I mean, some of them were not just big muscles, some of them were chunky. There was one little girl in the entire six years we’ve been here that I was worried about. I just felt like she wasn’t eating enough. Otherwise, the coaches don’t ever talk about weight.

“I remember a parent asking one time if her daughter was getting a little bit on the chunky side,” Christine continued. “I was overhearing a conversation between a mom and the coach. And the coach said, ‘You really need to take her to your pediatrician. Because my rule is, that’s not my role. We talk to the girls about eating healthy and being healthy, but I’m not going to be her nutritional counselor.’ ”

Back at the gym, Sarah and the Compulsories moved some big, blue, squishy mats into place for more tumbling practice. On the other side of the floor exercise area, three sets of uneven parallel bars sprouted from a field of more blue mats. The bars and the mats were dusty with white chalk. Seemingly unaware of the music blaring for the floor exercise, Tiffany and the Optionals practiced bars.

USA Gymnastics describes the uneven parallel bars as “the most spectacular of the women’s events. The routine must move from the low bar to the high bar, incorporating many grip changes, releases and regrasps, flight elements, changes of direction, saltos and circle swings through the handstand position. The entire routine should flow from one movement to the next without pauses, extra swings or additional supports. Each routine must have two release elements.”

Anna Gruning said she loved bars when she was younger. “I liked swinging and being free and feeling like a kid. You could play around. It was neat to learn something new on bars.” Watching Tiffany up close as she swung on the bars, any observer would have to agree that the bars looked like fun. Gripping the high bar and swinging her body in great, sweeping arcs, Tiffany seemed like a propeller revving up on an old-fashioned airplane. Whoosh, a pause at the top, a momentary struggle with gravity, holding the body completely straight and upright in a handstand, then whoosh again down, toes pointed, bending slightly at the waist to create momentum back up to the top.

Before taking their first swings that evening, Tiffany and the Optionals had stood around a large barrel full of powdery white chalk located near the bars. Some girls strapped bar grips to their hands. A flexible plastic splint-like attachment anchored on one end to the middle finger and on the other end to a wristband, the bar grip protects the palm of the hand when the gymnast grasps the bar. Beginning on the floor, the girls paired up and spotted each other as they performed handstands on a single bar raised about four inches from the ground. Taking her turn on the practice bar, Tiffany moved with the grace and ease of a cat. While some of the girls seemed to gather themselves before executing a skill, Tiffany stood in perfect repose. With no apparent prelude, Tiffany suddenly sprang onto the bar, pointed her toes and body into a flawless handstand, then moved her hands and pivoted her body in a full turn. When she lowered her feet to the floor, she stood up and returned to her attitude of repose.

When Tiffany moved to the bars, her movements seemed equally effortless. Hanging from the high bar, the muscles in her arms and shoulders stood out in stretched relief. In the blink of an eye, Tiffany pulled her chin up to the bar, then piked her legs up and over. When she stopped, Tiffany was on top of the bar, arms straight, with her hips resting against the bar. Nick stood near the bars looking up at Tiffany. “I want to see five release moves,” he said.

Other Optionals swung on the other two sets of bars. Nick watched them all. Tiffany swung to a handstand on the high bar and pivoted her hands, turning her body 360 degrees the way she had on the practice bar. As she finished her turn, she swung away from the bar, released her hands, and grabbed the low bar, finishing in a handstand. “That’s a straddle back,” Tiffany explained later. Learning a straddle back was one of the few things in gymnastics that scared Tiffany. “One week, you can be really good at it. And the next week, you do one little thing wrong in your swing, and it’s messed up. If you look at the lower bar for a second, you’re going to fall the wrong way. So you don’t even really see the bar. You just grab it.”

When she’s scared, Tiffany practices mentally to overcome her fear. “I’m pretty good at mental choreography and mental rehearsal,” she said. “A psychologist came to the gym and introduced us to doing routines mentally. I think I have that down. I think that’s my greatest strength overall, having a tight mind. I have to see it in my mind a lot. If I’m scared about something, I do the routine or the skill about a hundred times in my mind. Like, I’m in the bathroom, and I’m imagining myself doing the skill. I do it all the time. Anywhere. Just standing there. You just see it. But you have to see yourself doing it perfectly. Sometimes if I see myself fall, I think, ‘Erase that, do it again.’ ”

Tiffany waited her turn, her face a quiet mask, like a Buddha’s. On another set of bars, tall Rebecca swooshed through the air. Some girls hit their straddle backs. Some flopped over on the lower bar or pulled up short on the high swing. When Tiffany’s turn came again, she didn’t miss a move. Her excellence comes at a price.

After the group warm-up and before moving to the bars, Tiffany had lain on a vault while Nick taped her arches. “Some athletes’ knees don’t track properly,” Nick explained as he wound white athletic tape around the heel and arch on each of Tiffany’s feet. “In turn, their arches fall. If you tape up the arches, it puts less pressure on the knees. It allows the knees to track properly.”

Tiffany’s knees and arches haven’t been her only injuries. “I had a hip flexor problem from overuse,” she said. “And lots of aches and pains. If I hurt myself doing something wrong, it hurts the next time I go into the gym. Sometimes your whole body is really tight and sore, and you can’t lift your arms.”

Anna Gruning remembered the aches and pains. “When I was eight, I got chronic tendinitis in my ankles,” she said. “I had to do physical therapy for a year, and I had to work out with my shoes on with special orthotics. My arches broke down, and I got flat feet. Then I got ganglion cysts in my wrists because I was trying not to put too much pressure on my ankles.”

Gruning faults her earlier enthusiasm for the infirmities she’ll live with for the rest of her life. “I have wrist problems and ankle problems and knee problems. I have no cartilage in my knees, so they grind. I’ll have to get surgery when I’m in my 20s. I think that my body didn’t get a chance to grow properly. I was always pounding it. I don’t think that the way I moved up in gymnastics was very appropriate. But you couldn’t tell me that at the time because I wanted to move up fast. It wasn’t my coaches forcing me to move up fast. I wanted it.”

Back in the gym, Tiffany waited her turn by the bars. The wall clock read 7:20. “Okay, ladies,” Nick called out. “One last turn.” Tiffany hit one more straddle back. The Optionals removed their bar grips. Sarah and the Compulsories moved the mats back to the sides of the floor. Almost two hours into their workout, the girls of Stars and Stripes were a little more than halfway home.

Everything about the balance beam is scary. Four inches wide, four feet above the ground, the beam requires “courage and concentration,” according to USA Gymnastics. Like floor routines, beam routines should last between 70 and 90 seconds. They should cover the entire 500-centimeter length of the beam. The specific requirements for the routine seem more demanding than for the other events. “One acrobatic series including at least two flight elements; a turn on one leg of at least 360 degrees; a large gymnastics leap or jump with great amplitude; one gymnastics/acrobatics series; one gymnastics series; an element close to the beam; and a dismount with a minimum of a ‘B’ value for team competition, ‘C’ value for all-around competition, and ‘D’ value for event finals.” What’s more, “the overall execution should give the impression that the gymnast is performing on a floor, not on a strip four inches wide.”

When Anna Gruning competed on beam, she was always scared. “When I went Optional, I fell all the time on beam,” Gruning remembered. “All the blind moves: back handspring, back tuck, front walkovers. Those were my big fears. I couldn’t see where my foot was going to be or where my hands were going to be.

“The girls I was training with would start with mats all the way up to the same level as the beam. They would do one skill, and then they would move the mat down. Then they’d do another one, and they’d move the mat down. But for me, if there was a mat there or not, if I missed my hand, my head was still going to hit the beam. I was still going to fall. So I just started out with Heidi [her coach] coaching me with no mats. But I kind of relied on Heidi. So it was hard when Heidi went away. That’s when I was 10 and 11. I really hated beam.”

After finishing floor exercise, Sarah and the Compulsory group moved to beam. In the gym’s far corner, four balance beams lined up side by side on the far side of the vaulting pit. The girls grabbed brightly colored batons the size and shape of track relay batons. While Libby Grubmeyer, a petite blonde dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki shorts, and athletic shoes, called out orders, Sarah and the Compulsories clambered up onto the beams and lined up, three girls per beam. “Batons overhead,” Libby called like a high-pitched drill sergeant. “Let’s relevé.” The girls stood on tiptoe and held the batons crossways between their hands high overhead.

“Side together, bend,” Libby ordered. The girls stepped in unison to the side, then bent their legs. “Up on Barbie feet,” Libby continued. “Shoulders over your hips. Don’t look down. Nobody wants to see you looking down.”

The girls moved to the end of the beam. “Chin up. Pivot sharp,” Libby said.

The girls pivoted and faced the long beam before them. “Shoulders over hips over knees,” Libby repeated. “If your shoulders are forward, you’re going to go…”

“Forward,” the girls answered in unison.

Sarah and the girls moved back and forth across the beams, forward and backward and sideways with Libby’s voice leading them like a metronome. “Girls, I see a lot of this happening.” Libby turned her foot out. “You should feel a stretch in that hip flexor. Forward, side, forward, step. Up tall, ladies, as tall as you can be. Shoulders over hips over knees.

“Hot-popcorn routine,” Libby called. The girls hopped forward. Hop, hop, pause. Hop, hop, pause. Arms high overhead. On Barbie feet. Every now and then, a girl lost her balance and dropped to the mat. Each one climbed back up and continued the routine.

After 25 minutes of back and forth, Libby told the girls, “Put your sticks away.” The girls hopped off the beams and deposited their batons in a box. “I want to see three cartwheels,” Libby said. “Be aggressive. Reach out of those cartwheels.”

The girls climbed back up on the beams and tried to execute cartwheels on the narrow four-inch strip. Many fell. “Sarah, you’re not turning your hand or that second shoulder,” Libby corrected. Sarah tried to make the change the next time. Her cartwheel looked better. After cartwheels, the girls worked on handstands. “Three perfect handstands,” Libby said. “Your body should hurt when you get off that beam, you’re squeezing so hard.”

Sarah moved to a soft beam that rested on the floor beside the high beams. She tried over and over again to get her body up and aligned, to hold the handstand for three seconds. Libby walked over and watched. On Sarah’s next attempt, Libby reached out with one hand and clamped Sarah’s legs together. “Pull your butt in,” she said and poked Sarah’s leotard-clad rear end. Libby poked Sarah’s knees. “Straighten these and point those toes.” When Libby released Sarah’s legs, Sarah held the handstand for a good five seconds. “That’s a handstand,” Libby said.

At 8:00, as Sarah and Tiffany neared the home stretch, dusk settled in. A cool breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees outside the open metal doors and wafted into the gym. The boys had finished their workout and left. Two parents sat on opposite sides of the waiting room behind the picture windows. After the circus atmosphere that dominated earlier in the evening, the gym seemed almost peaceful. As Tiffany and the Optional group waited for Nick to adjust the vault, someone turned the music back on. Instead of piano music, Nelly Furtado’s singsong staccato poured through the speakers. “They say that girl ya know she act too tough tough tough, well it’s till I turn off the light, turn off the light.”

According to USA Gymnastics, “a successful vault begins with a strong, accelerated run. The best vaulters explode off the board, raising their feet up over their head with tremendous quickness during the preflight phase of the vault from the springboard to contact with the horse. During the support phase (when the gymnast pushes off the horse), the judges are looking for proper body, shoulder, and hand position and an instantaneous repulsion.” Judges also evaluate the “second flight phase” (when the gymnast comes off the horse) and the landing. Gymnasts must “stick” their landing, taking no additional steps.

Vaulting has undergone a major change since the last Olympics. Beginning in January 2002, USA Gymnastics introduced a new vaulting apparatus. Now, instead of vaulting off the traditional horse, gymnasts use a vaulting table. Nick explained the change. “People competing on the vault at the international level had become stagnant,” he said. “They had gone just about as far as they could on that piece of apparatus. They started trying to figure out what they could do to make the event safer, more dynamic, and more fun to watch. They played with a whole bunch of ideas. Then Janssen and Fritsen, out of the Netherlands, came up with the design of a vault table. It became approved by the Federation of International Gymnastics and was adopted at the Elite level. It’s difficult in most gyms to have enough room to have separate vaulting table and horse areas. Moving them in and out is very time consuming, not to mention that they’re very heavy. USAG made it an option at Optionals to have a vault table this year, then made the table the only vault apparatus as of January 2003. Southern California decided to do the exact same thing for Compulsory levels. We got one. The kids like it.”

Unlike the traditional vaulting horse that resembles a long loaf of bread, the vaulting table looks something like a supersized bicycle seat. The front end is wide and curls down to cover the front of the base. Narrowing slightly toward the rear, the table gives gymnasts a larger area to hit when they come flying off the springboard. Sarah and her mom agreed with Nick about the safety aspects (or lack thereof) of the old-style vault. At Sarah’s first competition, she did what they call a vault wrap. “The girls run the full length of a gymnastics gym,” Christine Bennett explained. “Sarah was running with all her power, and her foot slipped off the springboard. She hit her chest against the vault and rebounded onto the springboard. We were in the bleachers. It looked to us like she’d hit her face. But she’d hit her chest. At that point we were thinking, ‘We didn’t want her to play football for this reason.’ The first time it sort of hits you that this can be a dangerous sport. But she was fine. She got up and vaulted after that.”

“I got a 7 out of 10. I got a 7.1,” Sarah added.

Back at the gym, Nelly Furtado segued into the Goo Goo Dolls. Nick finished adjusting the vault. The Goo Goo Dolls sang “Broadway Is Dark Tonight” over an ascending bass line. The Optionals stopped chatting and turned their attention to the long runway and the vault table at the far end. Tall Rebecca went first. Starting like a sprinter without blocks, she ran as hard as she could down the long strip of spring-loaded padded carpet. Her arms pumped. Her knees came up high with each step. An observer standing beside the path could feel the floor vibrate beneath her feet. When Rebecca reached the springboard at the path’s end, she hit the board with both feet. At the same instant, she brought both hands above her head like a diver preparing to enter the water. Her body propelled forward. She planted her hands in the middle of the vault table. Her legs and feet, clamped together, toes pointed, swept up and over her head. Rebecca finished by going all the way over and falling into a large square pit filled with about a million soft blue foam cubes.

The rest of the Optionals followed Rebecca. Run, run, run, power off the board, touch the vault, over into the pit. Some girls didn’t go all the way over but paused for a long moment on the vault, suspended in a handstand. They brought their legs back down and hopped off the vault’s front. Nick stood at the runway’s end and watched the girls fly through the air. “Nice,” he told Tiffany after a particularly beautiful vault.

“For two seasons, Tiffany hasn’t been able to train the way she wants to train because of injuries,” Nick explained later. “The hip injury, we have no idea what, where, how. It was overuse of some sort. This past year, she was doing very well. The hip was bothering her, but not that much. Then she had the knee injuries. This is an athlete who knows how to train mentally if she can’t physically do it. She’s a very, very, very tough competitor. She knows she has to go out and hit an event even if she hasn’t been doing it that well in the gym. She makes it happen.

“I’ve been to summer camps. Tiffany’s been to all those camps with me,” Nick continued. “We’ve spent very little time apart. Tiffany and I are at a point now, because we spend 20 hours a week together, where I can tell by looking at her if she needs something. And it might just be a look. But I can give her the look, and she’ll be okay. Or she might need me to say something supportive. Or it might be to just say, ‘Okay. What’s going on?’ We’re at that level of communication where we can just look at each other. That’s one of those things between a coach and an athlete that parents don’t always understand.”

Tiffany hit another vault. After the rush of the approach and the whump of the takeoff, the vault itself, when the gymnast sails through the air, seemed silent, like a bomb that explodes with a slow-motion sigh.

At 8:30, a few more parents drifted into the waiting room. Sipping from tall Starbucks cups, they stared through the picture windows. Out in the gym, every few minutes, headlights swept out of the darkness through the still-open metal doors. Tiffany and the Optionals finished up a few more vaults, then joined the Compulsories for strength exercises. At the end of a long workout, no one seemed very excited about doing push-ups. When asked to name her least favorite thing about gymnastics, Sarah answered, “Probably the strength. I know that it helps you a lot to get your skills. But it’s boring, and you have to do it a lot.”

Sarah’s mother concurred. “We were told early on that whatever strength Sarah was going to possess in her lifetime was something she was going to work really hard for,” Christine said. “Nick described it to us. If you look at a scale, some kids are born a five and don’t need to do that much work to get themselves up to a seven, eight, nine, ten. They just kind of have to be there. Then there are some kids who are born at a zero and only get to a five by working their absolute hardest. Nick says Sarah was probably born a two.” Christine laughed.

“Sarah might get to a six if she worked really, really hard. Someone else could do three sit-ups and get the strength they would need to do a skill. Sarah would have to do three times three. It’s hard. Because she sees other kids who appear to not work as hard accomplishing these great things. She got a bar put up in her bathroom. She had the coaches give her some strength homework on top of all these hours she’s spending in the gym. She’s getting up in the morning and getting ready for school and she’s doing leg lifts and chin-ups and just working really hard. It’s taught her a lot of self-discipline. Not everyone has that kind of self-discipline.” Christine laughed again in a self-deprecating way. She pretended to eat something off an imaginary plate. “I’m sitting there with my chocolate cake saying, ‘Good job, honey.’ ” She laughed some more.

In the gym, Sarah did push-ups. In the floor exercise area, Chrissy had set out some soft children’s blocks. Sarah stretched out on the floor with her chest directly over one of the blocks. With each push-up, she lowered her body until her chest touched the block. All around Sarah, girls did push-ups and V-ups. Like a sit-up, a V-up builds abdominal muscles. The athlete lies on the floor, legs straight out in front, toes pointed. The arms are pointed above the head with the elbows just behind the ears. Balancing on her tailbone, the athlete brings her legs up and her body up simultaneously to form a V.

Nick watched the girls doing their strength routine. “Arms behind your ears,” he called out to one girl doing V-ups. “Pretend your arms are poison. If your arms come forward, your arms will shrivel up and fall off. It’ll be hard to do beam with no arms.”

The girl smiled ruefully and tried to keep her arms behind her ears each time she V’ed. In the background, John Mayer’s vocals filled the gym. In his hipster pop voice, Mayer sang, “I want to run through the halls of my high school. I want to scream at the top of my lungs. I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world. It’s just a lie you’ve got to rise above.”

Each girl moved through a circuit, performing push-ups, V-ups, pull-ups, and chin-ups on the uneven parallel bars, dips on the men’s parallel bars, and leg lifts. Chrissy bellowed, “Lower dips,” to the girls moving their bodies up and down on the parallel bars. “You should be on your third round by now.” Chrissy stood beside little McKenna as she hung straight-armed from the low bar of the uneven parallel bars. McKenna bent her legs to form a lap. Chrissy set a wooden block on McKenna’s lap. McKenna pulled her chin up to the bar while balancing the block.

Chrissy turned to Nick. “McKenna’s doing extra strength,” she told him. “We’re doing sets of 20. She’s moving up to 30.”

Later, Nick smiled when he talked about McKenna. “When McKenna moved to Stars and Stripes, she was an instant hit with the kids because she’s so dynamic. By the time we got to sectionals, she was the sectionals all-around champ.

“Parenting has a huge influence on that child,” Nick said. “She has two of the best parents I’ve ever known in all my years as a coach. At every meet, her dad and her brother hide. When she comes out, they shoot her with Silly String. Then they clean it up. The parents are very fun loving. They’re very goal oriented. Dad travels a lot, but he’s very, very involved with the kids, very positive, very energetic. Mom’s a little more low-key. She’s a soccer player. She’s also a personal trainer. They’re both into fitness. They have contests at home — who can do the most whatever. McKenna has set the record here for most push-ups. She can do 205 push-ups. I was testing the kids on strength. She was doing her push-ups. Finally at 205, I said, ‘Stop!’ She was sore in her arms for a couple days. She’s got a heck of a future ahead of her.”

Not all parents are so positive. Anna Gruning remembered parents who pushed their children too hard. “A lot of the situations where the parents were overinvolved, the mom was a gymnast,” Gruning said. “So she wanted her daughter to be the star gymnast that she never was. You see them in the mirror. The kid is looking into the waiting room more than they’re looking at you because the parent is in there trying to coach.

“There was one mom who was at the gym every day,” Gruning continued. “Her daughter Jackie was on the team. Jackie was 8. She had just moved up. Every time Jackie would finish a skill, she would turn and look at her mom. Her mom was always standing right by the window in the waiting room, giving her tips, signing at her. And Jackie just wanted to cry. If she fell off the beam, she would look at her mom. Her mom would cross her arms and shake her head in disappointment. I felt so bad for that little girl. She ended up not doing gymnastics. I ran into her at Costco with her dad. She didn’t say why. She just said she wasn’t doing gymnastics anymore. She’s probably 11 now.”

Nick requires that parents sign a “Parents’ Code of Conduct” form when their child joins the team. “The biggest complaint that we have as coaches is parent negativity,” Nick said. “Some of the points on this form are obvious. ‘Number 1: We expect you to support your child’s efforts regardless of the results.’ I’ve actually had a parent yell at the child because the child didn’t do what the parent thought they should in competition. I intervened. I said, ‘They did fine. They’ll learn from the experience. Then we’ll pick up, and we’ll move on.’

“ ‘Number 2: We expect you to support your child’s teammates regardless of the results.’ I’ve had parents who got jealous of another child’s success. I refer to that as the cheerleader mentality: ‘It’s got to be my kid, not your kid.’ Why can’t it just be someone from our team?

“ ‘Number 4: We respect your position as parents. Please respect our position as coaches and allow us to do the coaching of the child.’ We have some parents who want to coach their kid.

“ ‘Number 10 (A): At a competition, inquiries [regarding scores] by a parent to a coach will not be allowed.’ I’ve actually had parents come down on the floor and ask the judges why their kid got a particular score. It’s a violation of USAG rules and policies.

“ ‘Number 10 (B): Communication with your child at a competition can only occur through the coach.’ I’ve got athletes now who understand sign language. The parent will sign to their athlete to communicate.”

Failure to abide by the code can result in a gymnast being asked to leave the team. “It’s a three-strike phase,” Nick explained. “Strike one is I talk to the parent. Strike two is I send you a letter. So far, I have sent one letter.”

At 8:57, the music went off. The girls formed up in front of Nick. “Remember the change in hours next week,” he reminded them. “Okay, thanks. See ya.”

The girls scattered to their lockers and pulled on shorts or sweatpants. Some took long swigs from water bottles. Sarah’s dad met her in the waiting room and walked with her to the car. Tiffany stepped out of the waiting room into the darkness to wait for her mom.

In the waiting room, McKenna’s dad sat in one of the metal brown chairs. When McKenna walked out of the gym, he unfolded himself and stood up. A tall, muscular man, he gathered McKenna into his arms the way a normal-size man might gather up a baby. McKenna wrapped her legs around his waist and buried her head in his shoulder. “Mom said you had kind of a hard day,” he said softly.

McKenna, an eight-year-old who can do 205 push-ups, didn’t answer, at least not so you could hear. She just held her dad for a good long time. She is, after all, still a very little girl. n

Since this story was written, in the spring of 2002, Coach Nick Chaimson and his wife Stephanie, Teresa Barnard, and Libby Grubmeyer have left Stars and Stripes Gymnastics. Tiffany Davis has stopped doing gymnastics and is a cheerleader at Rancho Buena Vista High School. Sarah Bennett has switched to another gym. And Anna Gruning has married. Her new name is Anna Human.

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