12.20.2014

Readings on Gymnastics: Chalked Up Book Review

Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, & Elusive Olympic Dreams An memoir by Jennifer Sey

(Wow. Book reviews are harder than I had imagined. The second book review in the series proposed in my previous post is below.)

I first read this book when it came out and reread it on a boring November afternoon this past off-season. Competitive gymnastics was a huge part of my life for years and played an important role in shaping who I am today. While I no longer follow the sport closely, I do enjoy reading about it and watching it during the Olympics.


Books on gymnastics and prominent media coverage outside of the Olympics are few and far between. Gymnastics books are often aimed at children and teenagers, which shouldn't be surprising given many Olympic and world champions of the past 40 years were teenagers when they reached their peak in the sport. Ms. Sey's book is different.  Rather than writing it as as a teenager, she wrote it 20+ years after her competitive days were over. She went from being the national all-around champion in 1986 to a disappointing end in the sport before the 1988 Olympic trials. Her adult perspective was refreshing and brutally honest. As a former gymnast I found myself thinking about the book long after I was through.
 
Curious to see what others thought, I Googled Chalked Up and found strong opinions both positive and negative. Reviews were from gymnasts and non-gymnasts alike but I don't imagine too many gymnasts walked away from the book without strong feelings one way or the other.

Many critics of Chalked Up are former gymnasts who feel that Ms. Sey's claims of "merciless coaching, overzealous parents and eating disorders" are exaggerated. In a Talk of the Nation interview with Ms. Sey, one of her former Parkettes teammates calls in and claims to have had a different, much more positive experience at Parkettes. (Parkettes is the gym Ms. Sey trained at and has produced numerous national team members and Olympians. Not sure how they're doing today.)

There is not one common experience or one right way to portray time spent in gymnastics. Each gymnast will end her competitive days with a different recollection of the sport. One thing I can say, based on my time in gymnastics at the not so elite level, is that while Ms.Sey is talking about her personal experience at the highest level of the sport, what she experiences is found at all levels of competitive gymnastics from those on teams in the earliest stages of competition to the Olympic team. The intense competition, self-induced pressure, eating disorders, demanding coaches, over-involved parents and more are found at all stages of the sport. Of course at the non-elite levels those problems are less prominent but they are there. While reading the book I was surprised at how often I saw bits of myself in her and her experiences, as both a gymnast and in life today. 

To gain further insight on what Ms. Sey talks about in the book, check out this YouTube video, Pursuing the Perfect 10, Parkettes Documentary.It includes interviews along with footage from training sessions and competitions. Parkettes Coach Donna Strauss does not hesitate one bit to belittle the girls despite the fact that the camera is on her. ("What kind of try was that? Was that a quitters try?" "Just because you're 12 years old doesn't mean you have to act like you're 12 years old.") Watch it for yourself and then form your own opinion. 

Those who say positive things about the book praise Ms. Sey for her honesty in talking about everything she went through positive or not; her intense competitiveness, her self-destructive behavior, her insecurities and fears, the sheer joy of winning the national championship, her path to discovering who she was post-gymnastics. This could not have been easy to write about so I commend her for her courage.

This book is worth reading not only by former gymnasts but by anyone who is interested in athletics and what it takes to reach the top of a sport. To me, Ms. Sey and other teenage gymnasts mentioned in her book endured a lot more physically and emotionally, and are a lot more interesting to read about than steroid taking athletes that are so popular and controversial today.

If you want to find out more about Chalked Up, you can click here to read an excerpt from the book. This link will take you to the Talk of the Nation interview mentioned above.

For the A-list gymnastics primer, check out this post.

For those who are not squeemish, here is the big crash depicted in the book. Yikes! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Oo7umomoxQ