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Jennifer Sey on the Harsh World of Elite Gymnastics

Non-Fiction Reviews

Jennifer Sey on the Harsh World of Elite Gymnastics

Jennifer Sey

Jennifer Sey [Photo by Jillian Bisinger]

CLR INTERVIEW: Jennifer Sey was the United States’ 1986 National Gymnastics Champion. Her new book, Chalked Up, describes the incredible sacrifice and dedication required to reach that goal and the toll it took on her and her family. Below is Jennifer’s interview with the California Literary Review.

Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey
Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams
by Jennifer Sey
William Morrow, 304 pp.

Would you tell us a little about your gymnastics career? At what age did you start and what you were able to accomplish?

I started when I was 6. My enthusiasm increased when I watched Nadia at the 1976 Olympics. At this point, I was just in a local class program, but within a year, I’d qualified for the club’s team and was competing throughout the state of New Jersey. By the time I was 10, I was in my first semi-national competition. And by 11, I was competing at the elite level (the highest level in gymnastics) in national competitions.

I was a 7 time national team member and the 1986 National Champion.

At least in the beginning, your amazing competitive drive seems to have come from within you, not from family pressure. What is the motivation for most elite girl gymnasts?

I was a very driven and competitive child and continue to be those things, as an adult today. I think it’s just something born into people. Many kids play sports but few endure to the highest levels. It takes a unique combination of drive and affinity. One cannot endure the intensity of the practices, the physical demands, the injuries and the stress of high level competitions unless there is an innate and fiery drive inside.

Some of the ways in which you describe pre-teen gymnasts being treated by their coaches is truly shocking. It made me think of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which a victim becomes emotionally attached to her victimizer. I got the impression from your book that this is the only kind of coach who produces champions.

I think there are always coaches of elite level athletes that employ an aggressive approach. The thing that sets gymnastics coaches apart is that they are dealing with little girls rather than adults.

From what I witnessed, and certainly in my experience, many of the high level coaches in the 80s deployed a particularly tough approach that would be considered by outsiders to the sport, emotional abuse. As a participant, the seemingly ‘aggressive’ tactics just seemed like the norm. And I just got used to it. It didn’t seem especially awful at the time as it is what most of my friends were also going through. But not all coaches approached the sport this way. In the book, I speak of one, Lolo, who was always most concerned with raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults. And she had one of the top ranking gymnasts of the decade. With some perspective and distance from the sport, I can reflect back on it and see that a lot of what went on was fairly brutal. I wouldn’t want my children in similar situations. But, I’m told it is quite different today. I’m not involved in the sport so I don’t know for sure.

What is your advice to parents whose children are in highly competitive athletics?

My strong preference is that my kids are kids as long as possible. There is plenty of time to be serious as an adult. But, they are young so it is easy to say that in the absence of having a child showing aptitude and drive in a particular area. If one of my children is interested in going down that route, I dare say I’d likely be supportive. But I’d be ever cognizant of their emotional state, constantly asking questions, and always letting them know that they can quit at any time. And I’ll still love them! This is the advice I’d give to parents.

Jennifer Sey at Goodwill Games

Jennifer Sey at the Goodwill Games in 1986

How did your relationship to your parents evolve over the years and where does it stand now?

We had a hard time for several years following my gymnastics. But we are very close today. I recognize that I drove a lot of what happened. They had a momentary lapse in judgment towards the end which they have apologized for profusely. I recognize that parents make mistakes. And we were all accountable in some ways. We’re good now.

The girls you were friends with in the gym were also your competitors. How did that play itself out in your relationships?

We weren’t typical girlfriends. We understood each other but never shared our fears, how lonely we all were, how sad and depressed at times. To me, the other girls seemed so stoic, so able to handle it all. I thought there was something wrong with me. But I didn’t want to show weakness. I’m friends with many of them today. And we marvel at the fact that we never shared how we felt. It could have been such a strength and relief to know that each of us wasn’t alone.

Are there any scandalous incidents you were aware of, but purposely left out of this book?

Not that I want to share.

What has happened to you since gymnastics and how have your former teammates fared?

I am married for almost 9 years to a lovely man and have two kids, ages 7 & 5. I work at Levi’s as the VP of Worldwide Marketing. So I feel I’ve fared quite well. Of the girls I am in touch with, all seem to be doing really well. Happy, great families. They look back on the gymnastics years with pride but recognize there were some really difficult times.

Are there any long-lasting effects from the stress you put on your body at such a young age?

I’ve been lucky not to have any. My ankles hurt a lot, especially the one I had surgery on. But that’s about it. It isn’t prohibitive.

Are you a different person because of gymnastics? Was it all worth it?

I learned early on that hard work and sacrifice can pay off. The drive was something in me, but the results were driven by dedication and incomprehensibly hard labor. I know today that if I want something, I’m going to have work for it. And I’m willing to do whatever is required. Whether it is writing a book, or getting a promotion at work. I put in the time, I suffer a little, if need be. But it works, in the end.

It was worth it. Definitely.

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