Image courtesy of Rylie Wieseler
If someone were to tell me that I would spend the vast majority of my college career at home—the exact place I was so eager to leave after high school—I would laugh in their face. Staying at home with my parents for four more years? No way. By the end of my senior year, I was ready and willing to do anything to get as far away from my childhood home as possible and leave my “old” self behind. 18-year-old me was convinced that I’d go to college, become the best version of myself, and live happily ever after. The end. So, when all this Covid stuff started happening, I thought it would be two weeks online, tops, and then I’d be back to my regularly scheduled girl-bossing. Now, here I am, writing this from the childhood home I was so desperate to escape from two years ago.
I’ve been home since the spring of 2020. And since being home, I’ve had to confront one of my most repressed experiences: my time as a competitive gymnast.
Near the start of this year and well into the middle of the pandemic, I received an email from an organization called SafeSport asking if I would be willing to talk to them about my past experiences with a certain gymnastic coach. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, there are two things you need to know about my relationship with the sport: One, I did competitive club gymnastics for 16 years of my life and even considered doing it in college, and two, I hate gymnastics.
It seems hard to imagine doing a sport for that long and hating it, but looking back on my time as a gymnast, I never did gymnastics for me. It was always external pressures keeping me there. When I was younger and wanted to quit, it was my parents who forced me to go to practice every day, telling me that quitters never prosper and that we all have to do things we don’t like. When I was in middle school, it was my coaches. Despite my numerous surgeries at the time—four to be exact—I was told that I had potential, that it would be such a waste to quit now. So, I stayed.
By the time I was in high school, there was an unspoken expectation that I needed to see my gymnastics career through. I had made it this far. I had stuck with the sport despite having numerous opportunities to quit, and at this point, gymnastics was so intertwined with my life—I was practicing roughly 30 hours a week—that I didn’t know and didn't have the time to discover who I was or could be outside of being a gymnast. My self-worth could be measured on a 10.0 scale, and I clung desperately to this one thing that I was good at. However, by my junior year, the physical demands of the sport became too much for my body to handle. Considering the toxicity of my coach and the open door that college presented, I finally decided to walk out of that gym and never look back. In hindsight, it’s embarrassing that for 16 years I wasn’t the one in control, and although the adults in my life would like to argue that I could’ve quit if I wanted to, I know that the social repercussions would’ve been severe and that the power dynamic between us was too unequal to overcome. Therefore, I stuck with the sport, even though my resentment for it grew every day, and out of necessity, I learned how to manage my emotions, my time, and my pain. I coped by keeping everything inside, away from prying eyes. To this end, the only people in my life currently who know I did gymnastics in the past are the people who did gymnastics with me.
So, when SafeSport emailed me, I was hesitant to address this part of my life, as I thought I had effectively cut it out when I left for college. However, I couldn’t ignore the gravity of the request. This coach was being investigated for sexual misconduct and racism, and being one of the only girls of color on the team at the time my testimony was important. I bit the bullet and opened up about experiences I would have rather kept to myself.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that my old teammates and I recognized this coach's behavior as abuse. Before we came to this realization, we would treat the whole thing as a joke. We’d all get together for dinner and laugh about how he would yell insults at us or make us run until we puked, and none of us saw this as problematic until we shared these experiences with people who didn’t grow up within our little, toxic bubble. And even then, I can’t say I processed the severity of some of his actions until I had the interview with SafeSport.
One recurring event that I will never forget is how instead of referring to me by name, he would just call me “Asian.” Out loud, in front of everybody, and at the top of his voice, he would call me “Asian” instead of Rylie, and when corrected, he would laugh, say he couldn’t remember our names anyways, and continue to call me everything but Rylie. He even introduced me to new people as the “Asian one.” This behavior went on for years unchecked, and yet, even as a social science student who has had extensive conversations about race and racism, I didn’t fully grasp how terrible it all was until some random person I hadn’t even met before this interview told me over Zoom that I deserved to be treated better, and that they were sorry.
Looking back at this experience a few months later, I recognize it for what it was: closure. I quit gymnastics about four years ago, and for the longest time, I didn’t perceive the girl who did gymnastics as me. How could I? The person I am today would never let anyone treat me the way this coach treated me; the meek girl I was is practically unrecognizable compared to the assertive person I am now. But more than that, why would I want to identify with a part of my life that makes me feel embarrassed and vulnerable and ashamed? Even though I recognize that his behaviour is not my fault, it doesn’t stop me from feeling ashamed that I was complacent in the face of abuse. So instead of processing these emotions and experiences, I chose to compartmentalize this portion of my life and separate myself from it. I am me, and everything that happened in the past happened to her. Once again, I kept everything inside, away from prying eyes, but this time, those eyes were mine.
As a result, I only recently came to acknowledge the effects the sport has had on my life in shaping who I am today. My past coping mechanism of internalizing and ignoring everything only resulted in an emotionally-constipated teen. I didn’t allow myself to experience my feelings in any meaningful way, and the parts of my past that were heavily ridden with emotions were left untouched and unprocessed. No matter how self-aware I was when leaving for college, I know I wouldn’t have done anything to change this unhealthy habit if it wasn’t for Covid derailing my five year plan and presenting me with the opportunity to confront that which I would’ve rather left alone.
For a lot of people, including me, the pandemic has been an extended pause, and in this pause, I’ve had a lot of time to self-reflect and redefine who I want to be. Part of this process has been listening to my inner child, allowing myself to feel and express emotions without having to worry about appearing mature. This means crying when I want to cry and embracing the way my eyes look swollen afterwards, or spontaneously flailing my arms simply because I feel like it, an action my dogs don’t appreciate. Essentially, I’ve taken this pause to reframe the way I approach life by letting myself feel and process emotions instead of bottling them up, and coming to terms with past experiences, accepting them as core parts of my being, whether positive or negative.
The situation of the world right now is not great, uncertainty is at an all-time high, and everything seems more overwhelming than ever, but for the first time in a while, I feel okay with that. Of course, things could be better, but recently I’ve learned that I’m stronger and more adaptable than I thought I was. Confronting my relationship with gymnastics, processing the abusive situations I was subjected to, and acknowledging that this trauma is mine, not hers, has shown me this. I’m no longer ashamed or afraid to admit that I was a gymnast. I no longer deny the existence of the sport in my life. In closure, I’ve found the control I was lacking, and it’s empowering. Finally, on my own terms I’m able to dictate my relationship with gymnastics, and the self-confidence this has given me makes the uncertainty of the future less daunting.
Rylie Wieseler is a senior at Boise State University majoring in Global Studies. Additionally, she has a French minor and an Elementary Mandarin certificate. She’s passionate about foreign politics, specifically in East Asia, and hopes to pursue a PhD in political science upon graduating.