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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Old Gymnast, Old Tricks: My Story in International Gymnast

One way to get into International Gymnast magazine: make fun of yourself! I had to chuckle when the editor mentioned how much he also hated running. 

Here's the story copied below. Or read it in the March 2012 issue of International Gymnast, my favorite magazine since 1989. :)

I'm not sure if it's the current trend in general, or if I've just reached the age, that it seems like everyone I know is running 5K's and 10K's and competing in triathlons and training for marathons.

I have a theory about this.

I don't for a minute believe that all these people actually enjoy running.

Oh, I’m sure some of them do. I guess they just love huffing and puffing through the neighborhood, feeling the wind in their hair, hearing the acorns crack under their Nikes. But frankly, I think that many people run races simply to have something to work toward. They want a reason to exercise, a way to get credit for the hard work they've put in at the gym.

I'm a terrible runner. But I have to say, I've considered it myself: How can I test myself, how can I feel some sense of accomplishment, what sort of goal can I set that will give more purpose and direction to my workouts? The clear answer is with an organized race. As an adult, it’s pretty much the only way to satisfy that competitive urge, whether you're driven by the other athletes, or you just hope to set a personal best record, or you want that sponsor-list event t-shirt to prove you did it. 

But you know what? To heck with that! I hate running. It's boring. It's miserable. It's not so great for your knees.

So instead I'm setting my own fitness goal--one that doesn't involve running. And to do it, I'm going to need to borrow a set of bars. Just for a few minutes…at some point. But not yet.

I struck upon the idea a few weeks ago when was celebrating my daughter's 5th birthday. We had her party at the local gymnastics academy and we had the run of the whole place. That's when I did something that always drove me crazy when I was a coach, working parties. Gymnastics parties are for the KIDS, you know. No adults on the equipment, please. No size-13-dad-feet on beams; no grandma, purse in hand, on the parallel bars (I saw that once). 

But I just couldn't help myself. It was all so enticing! Ever so discreetly, I casually sidled over to a set of bars. With a furtive glance to see if anyone was watching, I quickly felt for adequate chalkiness. I saw the opportunity, and I took it.

I jumped, reached for the bar, took a nice glide--wait, not so nice. Funny how I couldn't seem to extend myself at the end of that swing. Why should that be hard? It's just swinging! I straddled to make it easier, but the tops of my legs were really burning. Toes to the bar...almost. How many times had I coached little girls, "Don't throw your head back!" (Did they also feel like they were wearing concrete helmets?) Now, to pull right up...ooooph! Or not.

A kip, the very building block of any bar routine, is no longer a part of my skill set. My kip is GONE. Sure, I can still break out a respectable handstand to impress my kids. I could probably even eke out an ugly cartwheel on beam if I needed to. But what I imagine when I drift off to sleep at night, is that sensation of a perfectly timed, smoothly swung, straight-armed kip.

The glide kip, to me, represents all that's great about gymnastics. It's the skill that gives young gymnasts fits. You can spend hours trying, month after month, knowing you’re strong enough and oh-so-close, but you can't quite understand the technique or master the timing. And it's tricky: you have to pull, yet push; you have to let your hands roll around the bar when you want to hang on for dear life. 

Then one day, you finally jump! glide! pull! push! and find yourself perched on top of that bar for the first time. You experience a moment of such utter delight, such pure joy, that all you can do is laugh and yell and kick your legs in victory because your arms are finally doing what they're supposed to do by suspending you up on that bar. I loved watching friends, and later students, learn that trick. There's nothing like seeing the surprise on a kid's face when they make their kip for the first time. It's like Christmas morning. 

Hundreds or thousands of kips will follow, and it just becomes another basic skill. But I still remember the simple pleasure of gliding on that bar and feeling like it was easy. 

THAT is my goal. Some folks get satisfaction from crossing a finish line, but I want the satisfaction of completing a skill. I want to float up to that bar like I did when I was twelve. 

Here's what I’m up against: I understand what to do, but I'm no longer fit enough to do it. I now realize that I spent my youth bemoaning my mediocre gymnastics ability, when in fact I was actually quite athletic and strong. Eight years ago I was still playing around the gym where I worked, then having three kids in five years made it easy to stop exercising. But for the past two years--I'm 35 now-- I've worked out at my local Y two or three times a week. I've found that a cross-train class is really similar to the conditioning we did in gymnastics--and as an adult I push myself more because I'm striving to get the best workout possible in the shortest amount of time. I also enjoy a cardio-kickbox-hip-hop class--much more fun than the treadmill.

I'll need to modify my workouts a bit. I'm aiming for three or four times per week. I'll have to add in some more purposeful exercises, elements to serve as kip drills.  It should be easy to get in some extra abdominal work (ab classes are offered at the Y because everyone wants a flat stomach), but outside gymnastics, I've found, the hip flexor gets no love. So I’ll have to find time to get in all those leg lifts and V-ups I’ve been missing.

Now about those bars. The biggest challenge for an adult wanting to do gymnastics is finding access to equipment. My kids' local gym doesn't have an adult class, so I'm prepared to pay for a private lesson. Those can be costly, but most of my preparation will be at the Y I already attend. I also have the option of trekking the hour and a half back to the gym where I used to work. And because I'm not attempting something dangerous--skills involving rotation in the air are definitely no longer in my realm of possibility--I feel I can practice the skill itself on a sporadic basis. 

Finally, I’ve got my gymnastics blog, www.opinegym.com, to keep my friends abreast of my progress. Maybe I’ll get others thinking outside the box to find their fitness motivation or better yet, recapture something they loved from childhood.

And that's my game plan to relearn a kip. I think you can teach an old dog new—or old—tricks. Will it take a month? Six months? A year? There's only one way to find out. 


  1. Saw your article in IG. Good luck on getting your kip back! I'll be anxious to hear about your progress.

  2. Thanks for reading! I'm still concentrating on building up strength and I think a kip is much more in my realm of possibility than it was even just two months ago. It's nice to remember how motivating it was to always have the goal of a new skill.