Gymnastics was my first love.
As a shy, introverted child, it boosted my confidence immensely – it often made me feel like I could defy gravity.
My mother had been a professional ballerina. At 16, she won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School – a life-changer for someone from a small Northern town gutted by Thatcherism.
But ballet wasn’t her true calling – she dreamed of gymnastics, but was forbidden ‘lest it bend the spine for dancing’.
Once I was old enough, she signed me up.
My earliest memories included balancing along a narrow beam, chanting ‘good toes, naughty toes’ as I pointed and flexed my tiny feet, and being the first in class to do a backwards roll.
I brimmed with pride at mastering something beyond myself and years later, those were the moments I would always reminisce on – the good ones.
For over a decade, the painful memories from my childhood as a gymnast laid dormant. I only allowed myself to think about the positives – the euphoria of tumbling through the air, the unparalleled adrenaline rush, the pride of coming home with medals hung around my neck.
I buried the negatives in the recesses of my mind. Later, I learned this was a trauma coping mechanism, where repressed memories ‘hide like a shadow in the brain and can’t be consciously accessed’.
In my twenties, these shadows were exposed as I sat in a social work lecture on detecting emotional abuse.
Without warning, I started having flashbacks. Aside from nausea and panic, I felt a profound sense of cognitive dissonance; If gymnastics was this uplifting part of my childhood, then why did the signs of emotional abuse seem so familiar?
This awakening led me to acknowledge the trauma that I experienced during my childhood.
What was once a passionate sport, soon turned into something else as the focus became, for some coaches, their reputation instead of my wellbeing.
I became underweight with the intensity of training, which left teachers and relatives concerned. ‘Are you eating!?’ they would ask. My mum even asked the deputy head to watch over me at lunchtime to double-check that I was.
But at gymnastics, I was praised for my frame and stunted growth.
Fat-shaming was commonplace. If we were caught snacking, we’d be mocked for ‘eating like pigs’.
And heaven forbid we develop breasts. ‘Boobs are only good for weighing you down’, jeered coaches.
Obsessed with staving off puberty, I counted calories and snuck in sit-ups before bed. I wanted to remain the eternal dainty gymnast.
Looking back, I am not surprised that between 51 and 62% of gymnasts have disordered eating. With practices like weighing children still not ruled out by British Gymnastics, I fear this will not change.
The body dysmorphia I experienced was just one of the remnants of the abuse that remained over the years.
Bullying, manipulation and gaslighting were endemic. One particularly awful tactic was to ‘line up’ at the end of class, a public humiliation ritual where we stood, in height order, for feedback.
Once a coach uttered ‘Rebekah, step forward’ and after yelling about my shortcomings, she added ‘I always thought you’d amount to more. I’m disappointed in you’.
Those words played on a loop for months, eroding my self-esteem. I felt worthless.
Gymnastics became a form of self-harm. Instinctively, I was terrified of hurling myself backwards on a beam no wider than my hand, but I loathed myself so much that I complied. ‘Who cares if you get hurt, you deserve it’ I thought.
Pain and gymnastics were synonymous: ‘The show must go on, even if your leg falls off’, they joked.
I remember sobbing as grown men pressed their full weight onto me whilst I lay face-down in the splits.
My palms would tear badly after practising on bars. If I had the audacity to complain, the coach snapped ‘Pathetic! Other girls have worse injuries. Carry on, NOW!’.
Years later, I know as a social worker, if a child was at risk of significant harm of emotional, physical, sexual abuse or neglect, an investigation would take place under the Children Act 1989. I would argue that some gymnastic training methods are indeed abusive.
But somehow, inflicting pain for the pursuit of athletic excellence is deemed acceptable. As British Olympian Nile Wilson said, gymnasts are treated as ‘pieces of meat’ – and I agree.
As gymnastics continued to take its toll, I eventually quit aged 13. The anxiety associated with it was permeating into every other area of my life; I couldn’t sit through a single school lesson without obsessively repeating routines in my head, terrified of the consequences of messing up.
As teachers started to notice, I knew that I would need to sacrifice either gymnastics or education, so I chose the former.
I am grateful for the lessons of discipline, hard work and team-spirit that gymnastics gave me, but I wish I could unlearn others, such as never questioning authority, dysfunctional relationship patterns – where sacrificing wellbeing to please others is encouraged – and emotional repression.
I kept quiet as a child, believing I was the problem. No one else raised concerns, and after years of authoritarian coaching, I was desensitised. Now, I wish I had spoken sooner – perhaps I could have prevented others from harm.
CBT and counselling have helped me process my trauma, but I still battle anxiety and perfectionism.
The bravery of Olympians such as Becky and Ellie Downie, who recently disclosed their abuse, inspired me to open up. Since then, thousands of gymnasts have spoken out via the #gymnastalliance hashtag.
In a small way, I reclaimed gymnastics. Combining my love of sport and social work, I wrote a book about increasing emotional wellbeing in children through movement.
I still have faith in the life-changing potential of gymnastics – it can make the body and spirit soar – but this passion has to be nurtured in a way that protects the children who love the sport.
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