I felt pretty good as we drove down to Chino for my daughter's first gymnastics meet of the season. I think I was a lot more nervous last year. It was her first on the team, and the other parents had warned me that the judging could be brutal. On top of that, watching her perform feats of derring-do (i.e., jumping on the balance beam, flying on the bars) scared the shit out of me. Every time she took her turn, I think I forgot to breathe.
And with good reason, because in those early meets, she didn't always hit her mark. She would stumble on her floor exercise, or struggle to lift herself into position on the bars. She would wobble on that blasted beam. And while the rest of her routines were sharp, those mistakes cost her points.
The state championship meet was the most heartbreaking. One of the walls at our gym is decorated with banners honoring all the girls who have come back with state titles. Last year, I used to see her on breaks just gazing at those banners, and I knew she was imagining her own name on one of them. And when we got to state, she was off to a really good start, earning a high 9 on her floor routine (which was not her best event). Her vault and bar scores were also good...
...but then she got to the dreaded balance beam, which was her worst event and the one that made me bite my nails the most. And she fell. TWICE.
She finished that meet with a 35.85 (the same score she got at the qualifying meet a few weeks before). Close, but no cigar. Or banner in the gym.
She cried in the car on the way home, and none of the encouraging words her father and I offered could make a difference.
Still, her scores were consistently high enough that the following week, our head coach promoted her to the next level, breaking his own rule (that a girl has to achieve two 36 All Around scores before moving ahead). Megan was happy about that -- but had really wanted that 36. At our gym, the names of the girls who reach that pinnacle are posted on a board... and after she was promoted, she had to work her way back up (she only achieved a 24 on her first try as a level 5) -- while the girls she left behind at level 4 had begun amassing lofty 36 and 37's, with their names posted. It was frustrating for her.
But my daughter is one of the hardest working people I know. Her final score of the spring season was a respectable 34, and this was before she spent the entire summer training for 25 hours a week.
She's been reunited with her old level 4 teammates, and is continuing with the girls she competed level 5 with in the spring... and is looking good. So good that at a practice meet we held last month, her coaches allowed her to compete both level 5 AND level 6 on three of the four events (they will be moving her up again as soon as she masters some new skills on the bars).
So I, for one, was feeling confident on Saturday. Unlike last year, I have an idea of what to expect. The first few meets of the season are qualifiers for the sectionals: the girls have to achieve an all around score of 32 to go to the next stage -- then at sectionals, they need to achieve a 34 to go to state. Last year, all but one of our girls made it to the state meet. I knew our girls would qualify easily their first time out.
I knew it, but I was still nervous. Especially when Megan got 8.35 on her vault. Last year, this was one of her strongest events. This year, not so strong. At level 4, she just had to vault onto a stack of mats - but at this level, she needs to use the table, and that's a lot harder. Also, it seems that the coaches haven't been working with the girls much on their vault.
The next event was bars. The first two girls got 9's. Megan's score was 8.9. My heart sank. Yes, I know it's a good score, but I was hoping that this would be the meet where she got that 36, and it was starting to look less likely... especially since the next event was beam... and in her warmups, she was having trouble nailing her cartwheel. (Yes, at this level, she has to do a cartwheel on a 4" piece of wood.)
She took her turn on the beam and once again, my breathing stopped. She looked confident and poised as she went through the paces. One of the other moms sitting with us squeezed my hand. "She looks good," she said.
She did look good. But now it was time to do the cartwheel. I braced myself.
She nailed it. She didn't even wobble. She finished her routine, dismounted with ease, and gave the judges her "gymnast salute." I thought she looked good, but what do I know? It seemed like an eternity before the number flashed on the scoreboard.
I screamed. And then I laughed. And then I screamed again. "9.4! NINE POINT FOUR!!!"
(I apologize to the people who were sitting in front of us and had to listen to me gush. My daughter had never before received above an 8.8 on beam in competition. This was really exciting for us.)
My husband grabbed the program and added up the scores she'd received so far. "She needs 9.35 on floor to make 36."
9.35. That's a high score, but she could do it. I stopped breathing again.
The meet was running long, and the floor exercise was the big bottleneck. Those judges were taking their time. We waited for three more teams to finish their routines before it was time for our girls. Megan pranced onto the mat and did her thing. She looked good to me, but the question was, did she look good to the judges?
They gave her a 9.375. Her final score: 36.025.
We watched as her coaches told her. At first, she looked stunned. Then, she returned their high fives and looked at us and gestured a three and a six.
I don't think I've ever seen her look so happy.
At the end of the meet, they announce final scores and hand out ribbons and medals. They start with the gymnast in 10th place and work their way up. By the time they got to fourth on beam and floor, it was apparent that Megan would be in the top three.
As it turned out, her scores on beam and floor and all-around were not only her personal best, but the first time she ever placed FIRST.
(The team, by the way, took home a second-place award, which was pretty good considering the other gyms we were competing against. All the girls qualified for sectionals. It was a very nice way to start the season.)
At the end of the meet, I congratulated Megan's coaches and thanked them for all they've done for her. They hugged me. "We've been waiting for her to do this for a long time. She just hasn't believed enough in herself," they said.
Now she does.