A letter to my teenage daughter, from one athlete to another
A couple of months after you were born, I gave up Diet Coke. This might seem like a weird way to start a letter, so just bear with me. I used to drink one Diet Coke a day. Then I quit, cold turkey. And I have not had a diet soda since (or any soda). This will be an important fact later, so remember it.
When you were 2 1/2, we took you to your first “my buddy” gymnastics class. Soon after, you climbed all the way up the rope ladder over the pit. You had no fear. I wondered whose daughter you were.
Your first season as a team gymnast was…not good. You were last. Not last on your team, but, like, dead last in the whole meet. Remember after that first meet, when you came home and reenacted the whole thing out with your stuffies? Adorable. Remember how your level 4 team got first place at a meet that season and you got to take home the banner because they all knew (even at 7 years old) that you hadn’t won anything all year, but they wanted to make you feel better? You loved every minute of that first meet season, no matter what place you got.
But Dad and I could see that you were good. That you had something in you. That you were doing gymnastics for the joy of the sport, not for the medals or trophies or podiums.
I wish every young athlete could start out like this. Struggling. Working for every skill. I mean, your hands weren’t even big enough to grip the bars. One time in a meet, your coach caught you as you jumped to the high bar and missed it, like a little Mighty Mouse without the cape. When you vaulted, the springboard wouldn’t even compress as you jumped on it and we never knew if you were going to make it over the table at those early meets. But you know what? You always did. Your determination bested your lack of bounce.
Day in, day out, you worked and worked and worked. It became clear that your strengths were your focus, your drive, and your mindset. Oh yes, you were physically strong. I have never seen someone bang out as many pull ups in one shot as you. But your superpower came from your mental strength. The old “fall down 7 times, get up 8” adage playing on repeat in your head. You knew that the only way to get better was to practice. To fail a hundred times before you succeeded.
Where am I going with this, peanut? (Ugh, I know, you hate that nickname, sorry.)
You see, Ella, I was not a competitive athlete when you were born. I was just someone who liked to work out: lifting, spinning, a bit of running. In fact, it wasn’t until you and your brother were a bit older that I began to race and really train for those races.
Then I realized we had something in common. My training became hard, too. If I had 5 hill repeats, I knew I couldn’t stop at 4. Even if no one was watching but me. Also, I sucked at swimming when I started. But I didn’t care. I knew I could improve if I wanted it badly enough.
On the morning of my first triathlon, I stood in front of the ocean, shaking in my wetsuit. Then I thought about you getting up on a 4-inch wide balance beam and doing a back tuck or a layout…in front of judges…with one chance to get it right. And I said to myself, If Ella can do that, I can do this. So I did. And I loved every minute.
Year after year, hours upon hours in the gym. You got better and better. You won States, you made it to Regionals, you made it to Nationals. You never complained about going to practice. I never had to drag you there. You still loved every minute.
And I got better too. I trained for hours and hours. I ran my first marathon. I thought of you at mile 21, when the legs started to hurt. I channeled your strength and determination. I did two half-Iroman races. I thought of you often when I was racing.
And then….then…you got hurt. Twice. Well, I don’t need to remind you. The dislocated elbow last year, just as your first level 10 season was starting. Months of PT. And then, just as you clawed your way back and were trying to qualify for States, you tore your ACL in warm up. Pop. Just like that.
I guess I can tell you now that when the trainer told us he could not feel your ACL, that it was gone, I stepped into the hallway of that high school gymnasium and sobbed like a baby (I know, this is not surprising). You, on the other hand, were strong. You didn’t cry. Not that day. Not once after. You already knew you could come back from one injury. You would come back again.
And here we are, almost 10 months post-ACL reconstruction. 10 months into Covid (which, as I keep reminding you, was the weirdest silver lining because it gave you time to heal and time to come back). And not once did you have a pity party for yourself. Not once did you give up or say, “This is too hard.” As an athlete who has been injured, I cannot even put into words how in awe I am of your journey back to being whole again. I know you are brushing this off right now, and saying, It’s no big deal, Mom. But believe me. It is a big deal.
Fall down 7 times, get up 8.
So let me end this letter by saying this: I thought I was giving up Diet Coke because I wanted to be a role model for you. I didn’t want you to drink diet soda, henceforth, I would not. This small action was something tangible I could do to raise a healthy kid. I also decided I would never utter the words “Do I look fat in this?” in your presence because I wanted you to be proud of your body. I would look at food as fuel, not punishment, and eat to perform. I would teach my daughter to be strong and tough and proud of her body.
What I did not realize what that it would be you who would teach me to be a badass.
Love you peanut-