Back in the Air at Last, Free to Be Me

By Jill U. Adams
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I watched Nastia Liukin win the gold medal for the individual all-around in gymnastics and was transported back, as I always am by the Olympics, to my girlhood dreams inspired by Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci.

The girl I was then is long gone, faded into a two-dimensional past and packed away in file boxes. Yet for a couple of years I visited her in an adult gymnastics class, where I relived the three-dimensional joy of throwing my body into the air, connecting midlife back to adolescence -- and discovering who I am.

My feet touch the mat and I lift my arms to the ceiling. As I bounce upward, I see something surprising: the top netting of the ball pit, from above. It means I am where I should be -- high in the air. I pull my knees to my chest and tuck as tightly as I can. I land the somersault and rejoice.

I've just completed a round-off, back handspring, back somersault, in sequence. The last time I did such a thing I was a teenager and competitive gymnast.

As a 40-something mom, I was just trying to get some exercise. And yet the exhilaration I felt in this class went beyond the successful coordination of sensory and motor operations. I knew where I was, up there flirting with the tops of things, because I had been there before. This time, my achievement was unmarred by teenage feelings of unworthiness, and it brought me sheer pleasure.

My friend Christy, a former dancer, lured me to the class. "Jill! You've got to come. It's a riot," she said. "Of course, I can barely walk today." The message on my answering machine lasted nearly two minutes as she recounted her previous evening. But I had my doubts and newfound adult worries. I expected to learn exactly how out of shape I was, how little remained of my past training.

As I warmed up at my first class in more than 20 years, I eyed other students' lumpy bodies and less-than-limber legs. I reached for my toes and lamented my loss of flexibility. Christy, who spent years on the dance floor, sat in the widest straddle of the group.

The instructor, Vinnie, with dreadlocks and an eye patch, took charge after warm-ups, ordering forward, then backward rolls. I could still manage a backward roll, I found. "Okay, I'm seeing stars," I said to a woman in line, seeking her acceptance. A couple of other women moved to the inclined mat to practice their rolls, enlisting gravity's help to get bottom over top.

Handstand forward rolls came next. Two more students stepped out of line to practice handstands. My consternation faded: I didn't belong among those beginners, I realized.

The class culminated with front handsprings. Vinnie got the beginners working on a variety of drills, each designed to help with kinesthetic awareness in a slowed-down sequence of movements. Four of us, now singled out as the advanced students, went one at a time, with Vinnie spotting us.

"Okay, I'll try. I used to do these in a previous life," I said. I ran toward Vinnie, summoned a feeling something like faith, hurdled and stretched, placed my hands, kicked my legs and tapped into muscle memory, pattern memory, timing memory, whatever memory I could conjure. I didn't know if it would respond.

It did. And I was addicted.

Christy and I became regulars with Toby -- a modern dancer who embellishes a cartwheel with a break-dance backspin finish, grinning a challenge to us -- and Kate, our comic relief, joking about her fat behind, teasing Vinnie, tagging me with my new nickname, "Floaty Jill."

Vinnie was tireless in his spotting and took no excuses from us about old bodies. He was not exactly effusive, but our adult egos didn't require that. We were fed from within.

"It's so different from when I was young," Kate said. "There's a lot more of me to hurt now!"

"I was definitely more fearless then," Christy added. "I would go for anything. I was a real pistol."

"I feel more free now," I said. "Back then, there was so much other stuff. Did my coach like me? Does he think I'm fat? All that teenage stuff got in the way."

We would do it constantly at the class, compare ourselves with our younger versions. The back flip is cool, but the insight is fascinating. I could connect the girl I once was with the woman I had become -- six feet above the ground.

Jill U. Adams is a freelance science writer.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company