Before I knew exactly who I was I was an athlete. It just happened that way that my interests were explored early, and I landed in squarely in a place most toddlers aren't in. I was a gymnast. Too young to compete, I developed my love for developing in my craft and having the patience to wait for the world to catch up. I owe so much to my sport and what it taught me – First and foremost – be a student of the game. It’s a cliché right? Wrong. It’s okay not to know who came before you right? Wrong. Here’s a story of a 2-yr old that I don’t often share:
Preventing Burnout - Being a Student of the Game
It was 1976 and the Olympics live from Montreal Canada – specifically Gymnastics. The “big deal” in women’s gymnastics at the time was Olga Korbut of the USSR (now known as the “mother of gymnastics”). The up and coming star was tiny Nadia Comaneci of Romania. At not quite two years old I knew none of that. I was a spectator and at that moment I watched perfection. It was not the 7 perfect 10s that Nadia scored it was the electricity that passed from her veins through my television directly to me. Her coach’s support; the fans adulation; her incredible talent; and her obvious joy – I saw all of that. I seriously turned to my mom and dad and said, “I want to do that!”
I was so fortunate that there was a place for me to go and start my journey. My parents were ultra-supportive. As their first child they were just following their own hearts as much as I was following mine. After a couple of months Sandy from Sandy’s School in Houston, TX told my parents I couldn’t train there anymore! She said, “Jenny” (yes I know….ah the nicknames) “needs to be in a serious gym”. Shortly thereafter my parents found Finch Gymnastics. I was the smallest little thing out there. They had a leotard uniform and there were none small enough to fit me. Being small for my age plus showing up to a place much younger than most made it an interesting time. And there I was about 2-1/2 years old just having fun. Quickly my skill advanced and then the circus of sorts began. Our local NBC affiliate did a feature story on me by the time I was 4 yrs old touting I “may be the first Black gymnast in the Olympics”. Crazy…just 4 years old. But they didn’t get that idea by themselves. Everybody I spoke with who asked me what I wanted to do in gymnastics I was clear – “the Olympics like Nadia!” After the news story along with a few print articles came commercial opportunities. I was fortunate to be part of the Girl Scouts of America commercial campaign as well as a United Way campaign that featured none other than Leslie Nielsen. Life was moving fast for a first grader.
Being quick to develop is a blessing and a curse in a sport that was not designed for super young gymnasts. I was performing at a pace that would have me Elite by 8-yrs old…but with age minimums, I was years away from being eligible to compete. Bummer right? To get really good too young. Once media started coming to the gym and parking out in the lobby, my parents decided to pull their 6yr old 2nd grader and try out a more normal life. In our house normal was relative, but gymnastics they felt was moving too fast without a real place for me to compete. So I kept following the sport and flipping all over our den and backyard!
After the 1984 Olympics I literally bugged my parents to death to put me back in. This time they did under the rising star coach – Bill Austin in Sugarland, TX. He was perfection as a coach. He was a former collegiate gymnast and he lived, eat, and breathed the sport. Bill was my destiny in the sport. I had no problems being the first one in the gym and the last one out. Everything about the development energized me. Bill and I could talk gymnastics all day. And when Frank Marcos – a Romanian coach who was my version of Bella (but better) joined our coaching staff, everything took off! Literally my coaches had to watch my strength and conditioning for over doing it! I would often add extra sets to the program thinking I needed to do more than anyone else to be better than everyone else – I was driven.
I watched everyone – I knew all that there was to know about each skill, its history, connection to dance, etc. I can tell you what’s reflected in the history books do not give you the full story of the sport. Influencers of the sport played a big role into the development overall. Gymnasts like Oksana Omelianchik or Elena Shushunova – the grace and power that each injected into the sport truly changed everything. In the U.S., gymnast Joyce Wilborn choosing to compete to “Let the Music Play” by Shannon in 1987….let me say…I still get chills. Everything about the sport I knew, loved and wanted to play a part in its future.
It’s a funny thing how the mind and body don’t always jive. As I hit 13 years old (a critical time in development for a gymnast interested in the Olympics) my wrist began to buckle under the pressure. First wearing away bone at the growth plate taking me out for a season. And the next year watching a structural imbalance in the same wrist caused from the first injury wreak havoc on my nerves and bones. With a team of doctors, my coaching staff, and my parents – the final verdict was handed down. I had to retire. At 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, standing 4’8” and a whopping 80 pounds – I was done. I wrote a farewell to my gymnastics family and fans that was subsequently posted in USA Gymnastics magazine….and life shifted.
Life after gymnastics was unexpected. I had a quiet period where I didn’t talk about gymnastics because it was too painful. It wasn’t until I was interviewing for jobs in my senior year at Texas A&M University (Whoop!) that I realized how much of an impact gymnastics had on my life. Just about every answer I had for the situational interview questions asked related to gymnastics. I walked away with more than 6 job offers and I regained my perspective on what it meant to walk and flip through that journey.
Bringing it Back Home
Okay with all of the ups and downs that my gymnastics career served up, I never got burned out. The reason? I was doing something I fundamentally loved. I was doing something that I intended to make an impact forever – history books style. You’ll never walk away from something that is a fundamental part of who you are – EVER. That being said, the BEST place you can find yourself is positioned in that dream come true career.
While my 2-yr old dream of the Olympics didn’t come true, don’t you know I have had the pleasure of sharing my experiences with thousands of people over the years that has influenced their direction! That’s my Olympics. Let me also re-state that I have a 15-yr old daughter who I think is going to be something special in basketball. Not because Liz Smith is my daughter, but because she is connected to her sport. She’s already identified that she wants to coach once her playing days are over…ah yes she cares about basketball – she’s found her dream come true. I know what that means and I know the direction it’s going to take her – “ALL THE WAY UP”.
You’ll never burn out if you’re in the right place.
If you find yourself burned out of a job, career, etc. it was not meant to be your lifetime career – only a stepping stone. Constantly listen to yourself, your interests and your heart because once you strike gold with the lifetime career – you’re set. And I will tell you to buckle up…the ride may not be as you originally envision it, but it is going to be AMAZING!