Jennifer Sey’s memoir,Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams
, is a brutal book. And I mean that as a compliment. It’s brutal in its exposé of the world of gymnastics. It’s brutal in its depiction of that world. It’s brutal in relaying the disturbing lives of the little girls caught in that world.
Jennifer Sey was born in the late-1960s. She was a young impressionable girl when the Soviet Union’s Olga Korbut charmed the world in the 1972 Olympics. And she fell in love with Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Olympics. And like little girls throughout the world, Jennifer Sey wanted to fly through the air like Korbut and Comaneci. So her parents took her to the local gym where her fearlessness and desire got her on a team of young gymnasts. And before she reached her teens she was competing in national competitions.
And as other girls of talent did before her time, and as they do now, she moved from gym to gym, from coach to coach, looking for the edge that would put her over the top. She was different from most of the young girls who watched Korbut and Comaneci: Sey had talent. She could do the flips and turns that most girls couldn’t. But as she moved from coach to coach, from gym to gym, from city to city, she began to lose something. She began to lose the joy that came from flying through the air on a dismount. She came to fear her coaches. Coaches who would shout obscenities at preteen girls, who would hit them for not sticking a landing, whip them for being a pound overweight. Girls who, like Sey, wanted only acceptance, wanted only to be loved.
Sey broke her femur at the 1985 World Championships, but returned in 1986 to win the World Championships. But by 1987, she was out of the sport, having given up on her dream of the Olympics. Watching these clips of Sey in action, it is hard to believe that this young woman who looks thin and graceful was, at this same time, being berated by her coaches as fat and ungainly. It’s hard to believe her coaches could so easily convince the team’s doctor to rush her back from the broken leg and could put her back to work before it was completely healed, all so she could compete. And it’s hard to believe she bounced and tumbled on an ankle full of bones spurs, bone spurs which took her doctors years to find.
As mentioned earlier, this is a brutal book to read. Brutal because Ms. Sey is so honest and open with her story. When she breaks her femur, the reader grimaces in pain. When she starts gobbling Ex-Lax as a method of keeping her weight under 100 pounds, the reader tastes the Ex-Lax. The reader is angry when the National Coach, who is not her personal coach, has her lead off a competition so that his own gymnast can go last and get the benefit of the higher scores.
This is a must-read book, despite the brutality, perhaps even because of it. Jennifer Sey reminds us that the competitors in Woman Gymnastics aren’t women, they’re children. Children with eating disorders who fight the development of their body because it throws off their balance. Children who, because of their often malnourished bodies, often don’t experience their first periods until they are in their 20s. Children who are subjected to mental and physical abuse by coaches and trainers and doctors and judges, often with the approval of parents and teachers because this is how it has always been.
Even now, even her late-30s, as a wife, a mother of two, and a successful business woman, Jennifer Sey is racked with doubt that she’s not good enough. That she’s a failure. That she is undeserving of the life that she leads. She’s a woman who exudes confidence to the outside world because that is how she has always been. She has exuded confidence so that no one could see the fear, and the terror, on her inside. Fear and terror and doubt brought upon her because her coaches called her a slacker. Because they called her fat, doubted her injuries, felt she was clumsy, and didn’t believe in her.
Jennifer Sey is a brave person. Chalked Up is a brave book. Her parents, who she says haven’t seen it, will not like it. The world of gymnastics will not like the book – well, the coaches and officials won’t like it, but those who were teammates and her competitors might like it because they lived the life as well. If enough people read this book, perhaps the little girls who watch this summer’s Olympics and find themselves wanting to fly through the air like the women they watch won’t have to face a world like the one Jennifer Sey faced in order to fly.
And if her coaches would never say it, then I will, Jennifer Sey is a brave person. She is graceful, talented and dedicated. Chalked Up is a brutal book. A brutal book of a brave person living in a brutal world. It deserves to be read. It’s the least we can do. – John Royal