By John P. Midkiff
Another day kneeling on the purple-carpeted spring floor. Cartwheel, back walkover, back handspring, round-off two. Skill after skill, every kid is different, and I spot them all, helping them position themselves, learning to use and control their bodies with a practiced precision. Constant repetition is the only way to master the skills these young athletes desire. I watch my daughter, Abby, out of the corner of my eye. Her hair in her usual ponytail, curly strands grazing her shoulders. She isn’t in class today; she just came to work with me, because she wanted to practice, to train. At times her dedication and desire absolutely blow me away. For her it isn’t just a desire to get better; I truly think she needs it, somewhere deep down, something inside her. Call it heart, desire, call it whatever you want, but she drives and pushes herself to the breaking point every day. Another girl’s turn in my line: “front walkover,” she says. I nod my head smiling.
“Ok, let’s do it.” I laugh, reaching my hands out to support her back as she rotates.
I follow her with my eyes, watching her finish the skill. Looking past her, I see Abby start to squat down, swinging her arms behind her. I inhale, holding my breath, trying to get up, to rush to her. I know what she is doing; she has been pushing herself to get her back handspring, non-stop for two weeks. I just know deep down she isn’t ready. She is only 6. If she rotates wrong, if she lands wrong, if the slightest thing is wrong she can get hurt, badly. If she doesn’t lock her arms, all of her weight will collapse onto her head, compress her neck, possible concussion. If she doesn’t get her arms down and locked she could easily sprain or break her arm, her wrist; dozens of things could go wrong.
She squats lower, swinging her arms behind her.
I’m in the hospital holding her after she was just born. I look at her and smile; I have no idea what to say or what to do as she sleeps in my arms. I remember thinking, I will never be like my father. I will never leave my children alone to fend for themselves, never. How the hell am I going to do this? What do I do? How to teach this little person to be a big person? I don’t know; I have no clue. I still think that, daily. All I can do is guess and work my way through it a day at time. I look back down at her tiny sleeping frame. She is absolutely beautiful.
“I don’t know what I’m doing little one, but I know, I will always protect you. I will always keep you safe.” I whisper as I start to cry.
I look out the window at the city covered in night then back down at her and hold her just a little bit tighter.
I’m standing up trying to get to her, as I watch the cords of muscle in her legs tighten with her squat. Her arms starting to swing forward and up, passing her thighs. I have to get to her. I have to protect her from hurting herself.
We are in the car after her first gymnastics class; she is four. I look at her smile, her excited young rambling; she can’t stop talking about it.
“Dad, I want to cheer,” she says so excited.
“Abby, honey, you already cheer,” I say laughing.
“Noooo, Dad I want to cheer here, for the new gym,” She says matter-of-factly.
“Are you sure?” I ask, skeptically.
“You need to understand, baby, that takes a lot of hard work. You have to get a lot better at your tumbling skills if you want to make the team. But I will make you a deal; as long as you want to do it, I will do everything in my power to help you learn everything you need to, and I promise I will push you to make you the best.” I think back to all the other sports I have coached, already thinking of exercises and who I can talk to and how I can learn this complicated sport.
“OK, ok,” she practically yells at me already getting impatient.
“Oh, no little girl slow down. You haven’t heard your part of the deal yet. I am only going to do this as long as you do your best. You have to try your hardest. If you truly want this, we will do it.” I say this as I reach for my phone to text her coach, seeing if I can learn some basic beginner skills and drills. Two years later I would be working as an instructor and coach.
Her back starts to straighten as her arms come up to her ears. I can see the strength in her back and shoulders, the tight cables of her muscles pulling beneath her skin as she straightens her back.
We are together in the garage sweating like she just finished training for the Olympics; I’m kneeling on the blue mat beside her as she tries to do her back handspring. The dumbbells discarded on the cold concrete near the treadmill. We sit here nearly every night working and trying to fix things before they turn into bad habits. The air is thick with humidity as she flips. Again she squats and raises her arms, leaning back and jumping; as I support her back and flip her feet over, she lands on her knees.
“Again.” I sigh.
“ABIGAIL! What did you do wrong?” I ask, clearly showing my frustration as I shake my head.
On her knees, dripping sweat on the mat, she looks at me and tries to stand, the weights on her ankles making it exponentially more difficult.
Looking at me, she starts to answer, and I can hear the tears in her voice: “I jumped back instead of up,” she robotically replies, starting to sob. “But I just don’t get it… I don’t understand how to jump up and do it.”
“We have talked about this over and over. You jump up; your arms carry you back,” I snap. Her crying only aggravates me more. I know my frustration isn’t at her; it is at my inability to help her understand. I’m pissed at her crying, not because she is crying, but because I caused it and I don’t know how to fix it. She is crying because of my failure. My failure to teach her how to succeed. Which only frustrates me more. I expect more out of her. I always have. She has always been treated like an adult, and she has always risen to my expectations. She has always been 2 years ahead of anyone in her class at school; she has never gotten less than a hundred on any test. She is 6 years old for God’s sake; she should be allowed to cry.
Growing up I constantly pushed myself to be the best; I think on some level I equated being the best with making friends and not being lonely. “No one wants to be friends with a loser”; for some reason this idea rings through my entire memory of my childhood. But really it’s less about losing and more about being alone. I was terrified of being abandoned. A father that never showed up, a sister that ran away, a mother that disappeared. Bit by bit I was abandoned my entire life, and I swore that I would never feel that way again. The only way I know to do that is to be the best, to be the winner. I took that psychology into the Marine Corps; only then if you weren’t the best, people died. You had to be the best to win; at some point it stopped being about making friends and became ingrained in me. It was about survival. Being the best meant you wouldn’t be alone. You could protect people; you could control your fate.
“How many more?” she asks sniffling.
“Until you can figure it out.”
She looks at me, tears and sweat running down her face, pleading to me with her big blue eyes.
“Please, Dad, can we be done?”
“ABIGAIL, we don’t have time for you to sit and whine at me. If you want this skill then you need to work.”
She tries one more time. I feel her body in my hands as she jumps up and rotates around landing on her feet for the first time. She finally got it. I smile looking at her. She looks up and sees me; she smiles and runs over to me and jumps into a hug, almost knocking me down.
“Can we be done now?” she asks smiling.
I look at her calmly. “Again. Show me you can do it right three times in a row then we will talk about it and before you ask, the weights stay on.”
She gets in position, sweat running off of her. She wipes her face with her arm; the tears are gone, replaced with a look of determination.
I’m moving. 20 feet away. I see her knees straighten and feet leave the ground. She drives all her muscle strength up through her toes, just as she has been taught. The use of the ankle weights shows in the height that she gets off the ground.
At the gym, we are alone, no one else in the building. She is hungry for it today. She wants to get this. There is only one row of lights on, shining down on the purple spring floor, like a line of spotlights in the direction she is tumbling. Her own personal runway. The music practically shakes the room; her playlist, the one she demanded, a mix of Taylor Swift and “Don’t Stop Believing” bouncing around my head.
“Dad, I’m ready. I can do it. Let me try it by myself.” We have been going for nearly an hour. I have told her a dozen times that I will let her try it by herself. Yet, every time she begins, I reach my hand out to support her back and rotate her body. I use the excuse that I thought she wasn’t going to make it or she was going to land on her head. Deep down I know it’s not her; it’s me. I can’t let her do it. What if she isn’t ready? What if I didn’t prepare her enough? Everything bad that could happen runs through my head every time she starts to jump. I won’t be able to protect her, to control her body and support her.
She will be alone to fend for herself and be her own person.
“Ok, ok.” I finally reply, giving in. I get up and walk far enough away that I can’t interfere. I watch her start squatting low, and I hold my breath. As she raises up, arms going by her ears, she jumps, starting to rotate. I see it before she does. She isn’t high enough. She rotates around, and I watch as one of my worst fears happens. Her hands touch the ground, but her arms are bent; the top of her head hits the floor, and her neck twists just a little bit as her body flows with gravity and sinks to the floor. I rush towards her completely petrified.
“Baby, are you ok?”
“Yep,” she says jumping up and rubbing her head as if nothing happened.
I sigh loudly, finally able to breath. Then I start in on her. Berating her for not locking her arms, for giving up on her rotation, for not snapping her legs down. The tears start to form in her eyes, and I catch myself. Why the hell am I yelling at her? She just showed more courage than probably 90 percent of people, and here I am screaming at her for not doing it correctly. I stop yelling and just look at her. I notice the muscle definition in her arms and shoulder and how comical it looks on her tiny frame. The stringy lines of muscle in her thighs. I can’t help but notice the amount of work she has put in to build that level of muscle. I know I should give her a break. She works so hard. I have to keep her safe. The only way I know how is to prepare her and shield her. The world won’t give her a break.
“Dad, I can do it; just let me do it,” she pleads.
“Abigail, you’re not ready, and until I say you are you will not try it again,” I say with a definite tone of finality. She frowns at me, clearly upset that I don’t trust her. Why can’t she understand? I just want her to be safe. I have to keep her safe. I promised.
She rises up to the top of her jump, her arms by her ears, arching her back as she starts to rotate, becoming level with the ground.
We are in the garage; she is jumping from the ground to a box over and over again, box jumps. She has on her ankle weights, and sweat is pouring down her.
“KEEP JUMPING. DON’T QUIT!!” I shout over Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”
She stumbles, her shin ramming the box hard, drawing blood as she starts to cry.
I squat down in front of her.
“Look at me, sis.”
She raises her head. “This is when champions are made; this is what separates a good athlete from a great one. You have got to push yourself when it hurts, when you’re crying, when you can’t go any farther; that’s when you HAVE to go just a bit more. NOW, GET UP!” I yell.
She has heard this speech a thousand times; it is the most important lesson I can teach anyone. Never quit. You have to be tough to win, to survive. My blood, sweat, and tears mentality helped me survive years in the Marine Corps. You have to train like you fight, strong and hard, never accepting defeat. There is too much on the line. She gets up, wiping the tears off her face, and starts jumping again.
As she finishes, I yell at her to lay down. She drops onto her back and lifts her legs, already knowing what’s next. Holding her feet six inches off the ground she slowly starts to circle them in the air. I can see her struggling to control her breathing as the ankle weights threaten to pull her legs to the ground. She is now openly crying; I can see the pain and her struggle on her tiny face, but I know this will pay off. The end justifies the means. She wants to be the best; this is how that happens.
“Push it!” I yell again. “You can do it. Ten more seconds.”
She keeps circling until I call out “Time,” and her feet drop to the ground.
She rotates, her hands touching the mat well before her head. I keep running towards her, ten or so more feet. I can see her abs as she squeezes her stomach tight. Bringing her body to a handstand as she starts to transition into the final step of the skill. I’m almost there.
We are at tryouts, and she has made the team. She is so excited. I look at her smiling, and I can’t help but smile.
“That’s so good, baby. I’m so proud of you,” I say. “But…”
“I can always get better. There is always something I can do better,” she replies, repeating what we have said a hundred times.
I laugh, unable to believe her determination and drive. For just a moment I think to myself about the consequences of that attitude. What if she is never happy with anything she does? She will always strive to be the best no matter what. What happens when she isn’t; how will she react? What will happen? I shake my head; I won’t let it happen to her. I will guard her.
Her hands spring off the floor as she snaps her hips down to the ground, landing on her feet as I reach her. A nearly perfect back handspring. Her hands in the air, the look of fierce determination almost comical on her young face. Suddenly her expression changes, and she smiles a huge smile, unable to believe she just did what she did. I start to laugh and pick her up, hugging her.
“OH MY GOD, you did it, sis; you actually did it. That was AMAZING,” I say excitedly. “That was perfect, baby; it was so good.”
She smiles again, looking up at my face like she has so many times before. “Thanks, but it wasn’t that perfect, Dad. Now I need to starting working on my round-off back handspring.” And just like that she’s gone.
Walking away from me, she starts doing handspring after handspring, clearly excited but refusing to show her emotion. I stand there just watching her, and I think about how scared I was and I start to realize something, something I think I always knew. It was never about her getting hurt. Hell, it’s not even really about her, at least not directly. I am afraid of letting go. I am absolutely terrified of giving up my control over her, of letting her take the risk on her own without me, of letting her grow up. I am powerless; this isn’t something I can protect her from, and in the end I don’t know if I can really protect her from anything anymore.
About the Author:
John Midkiff is a Marine Corps veteran. Serving multiple combat deployments to the Helmand province of Afghanistan and Kuwait, he spent 4 and half years with 1st Battalion 9th Marines as an Infantry Assaultman. His writing focuses on the common human experience, ranging from coaching his 7-year-old daughter in gymnastics to the epidemic of veteran suicide, John’s work is shaped by his military background. He won Marshall University’s Maier Award in 2013 and is married with two children and frequently explores those relationships in his writing.