American coverage of women's gymnastics falls squarely into one of two camps: tales of plucky, lovable teens wearing their perma-smiles to the winners' podium, or exposés of the sport's seedy underbelly, of eating disorders, abusive training methods, of cruel coaches and broken bodies. It's either Nadia Comăneci's perfect 10 or Cathy Rigby's bulimia, in other words. Mary Lou Retton or Joan Ryan's Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Light or dark.
Not long ago, a pair of gymnast memoirs hit bookshelves and dutifully took up their positions at either end of the sport's narrative spectrum: Shawn Johnson's Winning Balance: What I've Learned So Far about Love, Faith and Living Your Dreams and Dominique Moceanu's Off Balance. You can learn a little about gymnastics from the books. You can learn a lot about American culture from the distance between the two.
In the "sugar and spice and everything nice" corner, we've got 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson, who just retired from the sport at age 20 due to a knee injury. Her book was released the week of the gymnastics national championships. Johnson's story is told in linear fashion, literally starting with birth (and her first Apgar score!) and moving forward in time, each chapter closing with an uplifting life lesson gleaned from gymnastics training and competitive success.
And repping the dark side, we've got 1996 Olympic champ Dominique Moceanu's memoir, which chronicles her struggles with her domineering, fame-hungry father and the excessively harsh coaching she received from the sport's perennial bogeymen, Béla and Márta Károlyi. Moceanu's book shares its DNA with Jennifer Sey's 2008 autobiography, Chalked Up, which describes all the injuries and negative coaching she endured during her competitive period in the 1980s, and Ryan's Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which describes all the injuries and negative coaching gymnasts endured in the 1990s.
For those of you who have difficulty remembering Moceanu—after all, it's been more than 15 years—she was the youngest and arguably cutest member of the Magnificent Seven, the first U.S. women's gymnastics team to strike team gold. She was all smiles and ponytails and big, soulful brown eyes. She notably charmed the audience with a floor routine set to "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," a strategic music selection for an Olympics staged in Atlanta. Though she did not medal individually at those Games, she left with a team gold and became a very popular and marketable teenager. (An example of her extreme popularity in 1996: An acquaintance of mine recently confessed that she had been an über-fan at 8 and named all of her dolls "Dominique Moceanu." Adorable and kind of creepy.)
That Johnson and Moceanu would write memoirs as tonally and thematically distinct as these two is hardly surprising. While both were phenoms, media darlings. and Olympic gold medalists at very young ages—16 and 14 respectively—Johnson seems to have had an idyllic childhood. Born and raised in Iowa as the only child of a doting couple, she was coached by Chinese emigrant Liang Chow, who is one of the most positive forces on the elite gymnastics scene. Under his tutelage, she had a largely uncomplicated rise to the top of the gymnastics heap—she went from junior national champion to senior national champ to world champ and then Olympic gold medalist (and Dancing With the Stars winner) with nary a hiccup along the way. She didn't even suffer a serious injury while she was training. (Her career-ending knee injury was the result of a skiing accident.)
This lack of concrete obstacles doesn't exactly make for a fascinating read. None of Johnson's problems were so intractable that a smile and some hard work couldn't solve them. And it seems that she never met a coach, judge, or fellow athlete who was anything but wonderful. That goes double for her sponsors, of whom she writes in glowing marketing-speak. Her only true gripes come after she takes a break from the sport and gains weight and gets hazed, female celebrity-style, by being called fat in the tabloids. And even that trial is overcome by book's end: She goes on a diet and starts training again.
The underlying lesson in her book is that if you wish to be successful, start out with prodigious talent, a supportive family, some hard work, lotsa luck, and voilà—you too can reach your goals. A charmed life, indeed.
Not so for Moceanu. Though she experienced the same rise as Johnson—elite by 9, youngest national champ at 13, and youngest American gold medalist at 14—she had more than her share of personal problems. Her family, especially her father, was less supportive than insistent that she become a champion gymnast. She wasn't one of those kids who enroll in gymnastics because they're really energetic and who take to the mat like a monkey to a tree. Moceanu was destined for it from birth and spent her entire childhood trying to live up to that destiny. This meant high-level training at a young age and a move to Texas to work with the most famous coaches in the sport, the Károlyis. By 17, however, she filed for emancipation from her parents. She swung between the two extremes—from being fully dominated by the adults in her life to being solely responsible for her physical, financial, and emotional well-being.
In keeping with the tropes of Olympic gymnastics coverage, neither gymnast does justice to the complexity of her own story. Though unabashedly positive and cheerleader-esque, Johnson does allude to moments of doubt and of wanting to quit, but she never delves further into them. It's understandable that an athlete wouldn't want to dwell on second thoughts in the midst of flipping and twisting on a four-inch-wide balance beam, yet this lack of reflection does not serve her well on the page.
Moceanu occasionally refers to her own ambition, that the goals others had for her were often the same ones she had for herself. At a very young age, when most kids have only just mastered tying their shoelaces, she was already aware of her extraordinary athletic gifts and was motivated by them.
"By the time I was seven, I started to realize that I didn't just love gymnastics, but also that I had a special gift for it," Moceanu writes. To recognize one's own strengths at a young age is a rare and powerful thing.
In Anything to Win, a documentary about the Mag 7, Kerri Strug, who famously vaulted on a sprained ankle, said of her decision to leave her home at 13 to train with Béla Károlyi in Houston: "You go to him cause you know he's going to get you to where you want to go." Like Moceanu, she says that she realized quite young that she had a talent for the sport, which fueled her decision to seek Károlyi as a coach.
That young girls like Moceanu and Strug can be possessed of such steely purpose when folks a few years older switch their major three times in college is difficult for many to believe. Perhaps that's why we've chosen to regard female gymnasts as either adorable little moppets at play who can perform cool, gravity-defying tricks or unhappy kids forced into the sport by domineering, fame-seeking adults.
Both characterizations infantilize the athletes and rob them of any agency. In neither scenario are they the ones making choices and sacrificing for their passion. The sunny narrative makes the sport seem less grueling than it is, which undermines the gymnasts' commitment and work ethic; the darker narrative turns them into tumbling robots, the products of adult programming. In either case, they are portrayed as fragile children, to be fussed and fretted over. I always pick on poor Tim Daggett, one of NBC's mouthpieces, but when he twice mimicked and mocked 15-year-old Sarah Finnegan's soft-speaking voice on air during the national championships, I wanted world and Olympic medalist Alicia Sacramone to walk over and clock him like she did that one Brown student.
The youth of the athletes encourages people to mentally strip them of their self-motivation. Most female gymnasts peak in their mid-teens (not in their early- to mid-20s, like most athletes). It's easy to see their goals as some combination of their own hopes mixed in with those of the adults in their lives. Perhaps that's true, but that is descriptive of childhood in general. I don't know about you, but most mornings my mother forced me go to school, though we both had ambitious goals for my academic and professional future. And anyone who has had a fitness or weight-loss goal and has worked with a trainer recognizes that even though the desire is solely your own, it helps to have someone kicking your butt to reach your target. As it is in life, so it is in gymnastics.
Gymnastics isn't the only sport in which athletes compete at high levels at a very young age. Michael Phelps competed at his first and much-less-ballyhooed Olympics in 2000, when he was 15—that is, a year shy of the age minimum in gymnastics. What coverage he received didn't reduce him to a cutie pie or a mere victim. Why do we wish to view female gymnasts as children rather than as teens and young adults?
It's not solely because of their age. It's in part due to their gender. Even adult female athletes get a variation of this treatment. Vogue's recent Olympic spread featured the male athletes actually doing their sport (with models, 'cause they're studs) and the female Olympians-to-be just hanging out, looking hot.
Everyone's appearance—men's and women's alike—matters, but a woman's still matters more. And if, unlike Kerri Walsh, who is over six feet tall and broadly muscular, you're a female athlete whose physique signals both petiteness and youth, that will still be heavily discussed. For female gymnasts, this frequently has meant that their bodies have been interpreted to further the narrative of childishness and lack of control.
Can't we be a little more nuanced and holistic about female gymnasts? Can we simultaneously believe that gymnasts are young, sometimes adorable, but also incredibly tough and self-directed? I sure hope so. If not, perhaps Sacramone can knock some sense into us all.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.