The Trouble With Falling

As you wait for the judges, feet sweating on the blue mats, you mentally rehearse your routine. You prepare a perky smile for when the judges signal for you to begin. No matter how confident you are, there’s still that whisper in the back of your mind: Don’t fall.

After all, the deduction for falling in gymnastics is formidable: .5. Theoretically, if the rest of your routine is perfect, your maximum score is now a 9.5. If you’re an elite gymnast like Simone Biles and Laurie Hernandez, the deduction is a full point. Ouch! (Now McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” face makes perfect sense.)

Gymnasts aim for perfection, but as the Olympic commentators repeatedly reminded us, the balance beam is only four inches wide. So really, falling at some point is inevitable. Being afraid to fall isn’t unreasonable; sometimes, the aftermath is downright dangerous. Like Savannah, the main character in Lessons in Falling, I landed a tumbling pass and instantly tore my ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Now, as a coach and judge, I see the way a gymnast falls and grabs her arm or clutches her knee, and I can immediately tell she dislocated an elbow or tore a ligament.

Other times, falling is more of an insult to one’s pride than physically painful. It keeps you off of the awards stand when the rest of the meet was going so well. It occurs on a skill you could do in your sleep. Or, worst of all, it happens on the first element of your routine. Now you need to complete your routine knowing you’re already .5 in the hole.

Often, falling leaves you with a choice: you can either give up and go through the motions until you dismount. Or you can attack the next skills with a new fervor, refusing to let that bring you down.

Here’s the thing: I remember the falls the most.

I remember when I lost a skill on beam and got it back in time for Level 8 States. I’ll never forget the time I knocked over my coach during warm-ups as he tried to spot me on bars (sorry, man!). In middle school, I ran too far for my tumbling pass and ended up landing on the wooden gym floor. In college, I crashed on a jump series in my floor routine and dramatically waved my arms around, pretending I’d meant to do it all along.

The best stories, the ones gymnasts bond over and laugh about for years, are not the gold medals but the failures. Perhaps you were so surprised you caught your new release move that you let go of the bar and landed on your butt (been there, fell on that). Maybe, like my high school teammate, you crashed into the vault while your new boyfriend and the rest of the football team looked on.

You lived through it, though. You climbed back on the beam or jumped to the high bar. You continued dancing on floor like nothing had happened. You saw it through to the finish, and at the end of the day, that’s what counts.

And the leotards. You never forget those, either. But that’s a story for another time.

Diana Gallagher’s debut YA novel Lessons in Falling will be published by Spencer Hill Press in early 2017. It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.