When I was thirteen, perfection was just a misspelled word on a t-shirt from a gymnastics catalogue. Perfec10n, the shirt read.
I was obsessed with the way the phrase rolled off my tongue so easily. Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton? Now those were girls who knew how to work hard.
I thought that if I pointed my toes hard enough and stayed at the gym extra hours, working on stretches until my arms and legs were sore for at least two days straight, I could make it to the Olympics.
But then I went to seventh grade and my history teacher told this other girl that she was too old to be an Olympic gymnastic. And since we shared a birthday, I knew what that meant.
It didn’t matter anymore if I was short and skinny and ready to dedicate my whole life to being America’s next Shannon Miller. I was already too old.
I remember looking at her from across the classroom, my pulse skyrocketing as I thought quickly before he reached my desk in the back corner. What did I want to do with the rest of my life? I didn’t know. I didn’t even remember what I’d packed for lunch.
From then on, perfect was unattainable. Out of my control. Sure, I could spend 20 hours a week caked in chalk and sweat until I literally couldn’t smell myself anymore. But that wouldn’t be enough.
And so began the pattern of always being perpetually behind.
My coach would make us do five perfect beam routines in a row. No falls, not even a wobble. For some of the girls, cleaning up minor missteps on a dismount or over-rotations on a front tuck was easy. They’d focus and knock all five routines out in no time.
Me? I’d do one or two then fall. Two more and another fall.
And then, of course, I’d be late to the next event — uneven bars — which was, consequently, my worst event.
It was a cycle that drove me crazy. And I watched the rest of the girls master it, so why couldn’t I?
What I know now is that perfect’s just the accumulation of mistakes we make leading up to a self-determined ‘final destination.’ I was so busy being paranoid over the notion of “5 perfect beam routines in a row” that I couldn’t focus on the block of wood under my toes.
When USAG stopped handing out 10.0’s like candy, I’d already quit. Not because I wasn’t perfect, but because I couldn’t accept that fact. I drove myself (and my parents) crazy when I played mental games, reverting back to basic skill levels like a child forgetting how to walk and talk.
On those nights, I ran upstairs and jumped into the shower, because at least I didn’t have to think about how to wash my hair. But the truth was that all I needed — and all most of us need at one point or another — was to be shaken and reminded that perfect’s boring.
And really, perfect is a lie. USAG decided that for me. Not long after my seventh grade history teacher.