“One more time, honey.”
“Mom, can I get a break? I’m tired.”
“Come on, Brooke. Just one more time. I promise.”
Those few sentences were the most common exchange of words between my mother and I while I was growing up. There was never much more than that. And it would never be the last time. We would keep practicing over and over, until I would cry and scream. One time I even faked a stomach ache and was probably a bit too dramatic with it because my parents took me to the hospital right when it started. They constantly asked the doctors when I would be released and when I would be able to train again.
People assume that child “prodigies” are set for life and they think that a prodigy’s talent is a forever guarantee. For many of us, however, I would say that is not true. A lot of us feel the pressure and experience burnout, which leads us to give up what the world thinks we should do. That was the case for me. Others have a life changing injury. That was also the case for me. Others lose interest. Life gets in the way. Practically every scenario somehow applied to me.
Brooke Griffin was the name that was supposed to be a top name in international gymnastics, not the name of a librarian. When I had my burnout, I was determined to never step on a balance beam ever again. When I did return to gymnastics after pressure bombarded me, I was immediately injured and doctors told me that was it. It was all over. They said it was too much of a risk to continue. If you were to ask me about how the injury happened, I would be unable to confidently answer. I still ask myself whether or not it was an accident. I tell everyone it was a tragic accident, but it felt more like a blessing in disguise.
Without gymnastics, however, I was a no one. I was not worth anything anymore to anyone.
My dad would always tell me, “That’s your ticket, kiddo. Ticket to school, the Olympics, worlds, money, and a ticket to your future. Gymnastics is going to pave a road in life for you and you should be damn grateful for that.”
Gymnastics was all there was to me. I tried my best to protest and prove that I was more than that, but I was supposed to be the next best gymnast in the world. When I was young, I somewhat savored that idea. Medals, world travels, fame, and glitter leotards would mesmerize any eight year old. Over time I became smarter and was thankful that I was not heading in that direction anymore.
At the age of sixteen, it was over and I had no idea on how to continue with life from there. I was supposed to participate in an international competition soon after my injury, but I was pulled out of it and replaced by a “lucky” teammate. The sudden changes overwhelmed me. Imagine being in an old fashioned puppet show and then the strings that hold you up break somehow. After falling in slow motion, you are stuck on the floor in a debris of string. That was how it felt. I was a limp puppet. My parents really proved that they only cared about my talent because after my new life started, they gradually changed into two of my worst enemies. I once overheard my mom say that my exit from the gymnastics world was what caused their divorce. It took me a long time to understand that their divorce was caused by them and not me or my life. The best thing about my new beginning was seeing a new glow in my brother and sister. For years it had been about their older sister and finally, they could shine and be more present. I never wanted to be the center of attention, that was just how it ended up. Seeing Hannah and Caleb flourish in happiness gave me the most satisfaction I had ever felt. It was finally not all about me.
My gymnastics journey/nightmare started when I was three and would roll on the carpet in my parents’ living room. They would laugh and say, “Look at that future Olympian!” What started as a meaningless joke would quickly become so much more. At age four, I started beginning gymnastics classes. The teachers were surprised at how rapidly my skills were developing, they noticed I was worlds ahead of my fellow pupils. At age five, my mom gave birth to my sister Hannah. She went into labor in the car while my dad drove me to gymnastics. She refused to go to the hospital until I was dropped off at practice. At age six, people saw something in me that they did not see in any other child in the class. At age seven, I practiced with the older children. At age ten, my brother Caleb was born. I was not allowed to see him until after practice was done. The next few years were a blur but I clearly remember that at the age of eleven, my coaches told me that they wished the Olympics could accept thirteen year old contestants so I could compete. I moved gyms, which meant a two hour commute there and a two hour one back. I was training every single day. Birthdays, Christmas, Sundays, and the flu did not matter. I had to practice. I never was able to be a normal kid. I had a limited amount of friends because my mom said that there was no time for friends. Most of my childhood friends were the other girls in the gym’s carpool. It was a cycle of being overwhelmed until I exploded. I had a full on burnout at the age of fifteen. My parents could not drag me out of bed when it was time to practice. I started hiding out at the library because I knew they could not yell at me there. I would even play hide and seek with my younger siblings and tell them to not tell my parents where I was hiding. I simply could not handle it. Then the pressure was mounting from every source possible. Officials at my school had always told me to continue gymnastics, no matter what, because I would easily be awarded with scholarships. They said that with my grades, I would never be accepted anywhere. During my burnout and break, my grades improved drastically. I was not dumb, I am in fact very intelligent. I just never had the opportunity to try. Schoolwork did not have much time in my relentless schedule. I also developed an eating disorder at the age of thirteen which became better during my burnout. Depression and anxiety creeped in around that time and strangely improved when I stopped training. The dance and gymnastics worlds torment to the point of purging and self hate. When I realized that, it made the environment so much more sickening. At age sixteen, I hastily returned to practice after I felt trapped. Two days after my return, I was injured and it was over. Internally, I took a huge sigh of relief.
Seeing child prodigies on television truthfully saddens me. The audience fascinated with the children’s talents will never know how painful it can be. Of course, some of the children love what they exceed at and will continue to pursue following their talents for years. Some of them love what they do but secretly not enjoy the relentlessness attached to their talent. What started out as fun for me turned into a nightmare. I am unsure of whether or not that is a rare occurrence for child prodigies.
After I was given a new beginning, I felt lost. It was a bittersweet feeling. I was free, but I was free in a place I had never been in. I learned how to be more social and gained a great group of friends. My grades improved, so I was able to receive an academic scholarship. I was able to be a teenager and enjoy what was left of my youth. Parties, dating, more friends, studying, and extracurricular activities were suddenly in the picture. For the first time, life was enjoyable. Life was finally to be lived.
Although we lived in the same house, I began to shut my parents out of my life. Their divorce honestly calmed my nerves. I did not have to deal with two negatives at the same time anymore, it was now having to deal with one at a time. Maybe they were right, maybe my gymnastics was the glue keeping them together and their marriage intact. Though if that were the case, the glue was covering up the true issues. I graduated high school with spectacular grades and an acceptance to a wonderful university in the state of Washington. A move from Virginia to Washington state may seem extreme but to me, it would be more extreme to be stuck in Virginia. At the age of fourteen, I would have never imagined myself studying to become a biology professor in Washington. I had this planted idea in my head that I would be at a big name university, miserable during my time there. I only felt happy in Washington and I still do. I teach biology at my alma mater. I live with my husband and young children. On our first date, I told my husband to never bring up gymnastics. By choice, it became a taboo topic between us. He was okay with that and always has been. My life is a different portrait than what was painted for me early on, but I love the chaos of color. I love how it fits in its frame.
Two days ago, my daughter started rolling on the floor. Unlike my parents, I let her do it without joking about the Olympics. If she wants to try gymnastics, I will not stop her. Right now she is a silly five year old who talks about Paw Patrol and ponies. She is too young for a dictatorship. More than anything, I want her to paint her own portrait.