Playing With Fire

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Chapter One

Jane McCormick took a deep breath and faced the uneven bars, adjusting the grips on her hands as she tried to focus. She was halfway through the four-hour Monday evening workout at her gym, Mandan Academy of Gymnastics and Dance, and already she was tired. She took a few extra seconds to calm her mind and catch her breath, then fixed her attention on the low bar several feet in front of her.

She went through her mental choreography, imagining the feeling of performing the mount as she said the words in her mind. Run. Jump. CATCH! Tight. LEGS! Handstand. When she was ready, she took a deep breath, ran forward a few steps, and jumped onto the springboard that was positioned in front of the low bar. She bounced forward and upward, keeping her body straight, and grabbed onto the lower bar as she passed over it, her knuckles facing the way she had come in a reverse grip. She bent her body into a pike as she circled around the low bar. When she had rotated about halfway around the bar, she straddled her legs to clear the floor and the springboard. She snapped her legs back together as she rose up into a handstand on top of the low bar, making sure to keep her body straight and tight and her head tucked between her arms. After holding the handstand for two seconds, she hopped down.

“Awesome!” Mel Peterson, her coach, called from the side of the bars. “Did you feel that? That was just the right amount of power.” She started motioning with her hands. “You gotta get up and over the bar in the front flip, but too much power and you’ll overshoot it. Keep that hollow form on the handstand and make sure to focus on knees and toes. And we’ve gotta hit that handstand, every single time.” She emphasized the last three words by stabbing her right index finger into her left palm.

Jane nodded as she reapplied chalk to her grips and prepared to practice the mount again. Once she began, she could hear Mel talking her through it on the sidelines. “Tight form! Legs. HANDSTAND! All Riiiggghhht!” Jane hopped off the bar and walked over to Mel, who gave her a high-five. “That was great,” Mel told her. “Do you feel it coming along?”

“Yeah. It is getting a bit easier.” Jane smiled as she took a drink from her water bottle.    

“How’s the shoulder feeling?”

Jane rotated her left arm around, testing her newly-healed collar-bone. “Good. It hasn’t hurt all day. It was a little sore last week, but this week, it just feels normal.”

“Any other pain from the accident? Anything I need to know? Headaches? Dizziness?”

“Nope. Not for weeks.”

“Good. Do five more mounts, only good ones count,” Mel told her.

“Got it.” Jane dipped her hands into the chalk bucket as Mel turned to watch Jane’s best friend, Alexis O’Neill, practice a new skill on the bars.

Jane took a minute to catch her breath again. Ever since resuming her full training schedule, her endurance had been lacking, and it took longer to catch her breath after each routine.

She looked around the gym as she took a moment to recharge. It was basically a large warehouse with a cavernous main room. Several offices, the restrooms, the pro shop, and the locker rooms where at the front of the building next to the main entrance. There was also a large, comfortable lounge area situated on top of the offices and locker rooms where gymnasts could hang out before or after class and parents could sit and watch their children practice. The furniture in the lounge was mismatched and a lot of it had seen better days, but Jane never minded how it looked. It was comfortable, and it was home.

Most of the main gym was taken up with equipment and multicolored mats. A giant pit of large blue foam squares was in the center of the gym. The forty foot square blue floor exercise mat took up most of one side of the gym. Around the other three sides of the pit were the uneven bar sets, a couple of high bars, a TumblTrak, two vaulting tables, and a bunch of balance beams at various heights. The carpet that covered the floor was blue, but there was also a cacophony of multi-colored mats, exercise balls, and other gymnastics equipment scattered around the gym, producing a vibrant chaos.

As usual, there were seven other girls working out with Jane and Alexis. Their group was made up of the level 10s and elites. Jane and Alexis were the most advanced gymnasts in the group and had been for some time. They were best friends and although they both enjoyed working out with the larger group, they usually just hung out by themselves outside the gym. Occasionally, they got together with Heather Bainborough and Morgan Anderson, two of the junior elites, for larger group activities.

At this time of day, a Monday evening, there were several classes going on in addition to Jane and Alexis’s practice. Besides Jane’s group, there were three groups of younger kids, all at different levels, each using a different apparatus. There was also a recreational adult class practicing back handsprings on the TumblTrak. The gym was loud and crowded. People talked to each other constantly and there were frequent shouts across the floor. Someone’s floor exercise music was usually playing. There was chalk dust and commotion everywhere. Jane loved it.

And she loved Mel, who she had trained with since she’d started gymnastics ten years before. Mel ran her gym with a simple philosophy: positive reinforcement and open communication. She believed that she could produce champions without the rigid, uncompromising coaching that many gymnasts had suffered through in the past. Where some coaches believed in being harsh and pushing gymnasts to succeed through strict rules and authority, Mel believed in being understanding. In the ten years that Jane had been at Mel’s gym, she couldn’t remember Mel ever raising her voice in anger or frustration toward a gymnast. She knew that Mel would always be there for her and her coach had become like an extended family member to both her and Alexis, attending birthday parties, giving rides, travelling to competitions, and spending long hours training them at the gym.

Having caught her breath, Jane practiced the mount the required five “good” times. She ended up falling on two attempts and missing her hand on a third, so she had to do the mount eight times in total. Next, her group moved on to practicing dance for thirty minutes and ended their workout with tumbling and floor exercise.

“Seriously wishing we could have started with floor today,” Jane said to Alexis. She glanced at the clock. It was seven fifteen. “I’m beat and we still have forty-five minutes left.”

Alexis smiled as she quickly redid her ponytail of thick, curly, red hair. Her green eyes were sympathetic. “It’ll get better. You’re still getting back into shape. I’ll cheer you on.”

“Thanks.” Jane gave Alexis a grateful smile. They had been inseparable since the age of five when Alexis’s family moved into a house two doors down the street from Jane. Alexis, bored with watching the moving men cart heavy boxes and furniture into the house, had slipped away from her busy parents, wandered into her front yard, and saw Jane practicing cartwheels, walkovers, and handstands. Immediately, without asking permission or telling anyone where she was going, Alexis had crossed the empty yard between their houses and started cartwheeling right alongside Jane. It was soon discovered that Alexis could do the fastest cartwheels, but Jane could fit more cartwheels into the space between the neighbor’s driveway and her own. Jane could also hold her handstands longer when standing still, but Alexis could walk farther on her hands. They had been best friends ever since.

As the girls had grown older, the fact that they lived close to a gym that offered an elite gymnastics program became another blessing. Jane knew all too well that many elite gymnasts were forced to move hundreds or even thousands of miles away from home to train.

Jane took a deep breath and another swig from her water bottle, digging deep inside herself for the strength she would need to get through the rest of the practice. There was a Camp coming up in a couple of weeks and she wanted to be ready. She had missed the last Camp and wanted to show the national team coaches that she was back in condition. There were important competitions coming up. Suddenly, Jane realized that Mel was talking. She snapped back to attention.

“Let’s begin with about ten minutes of basics and then we’ll run through everyone’s tumbling passes four times. Do dance combos on the way back to your corners. If we have time at the end, a few of you can do dance-throughs while the rest of you finish up with some extra flexibility training,” Mel said as they lined up along one side of the floor. Although it was intense, tumbling practice was a blessing in that it went quickly. They began with simple elements: leg kicks, walking in handstand, walkovers, handsprings, and standing tucks.  When they moved on to tumbling runs, they split into two groups at adjacent corners of the floor and charged diagonally across the mat.

Jane chugged a few swallows of water halfway through and then leapt back into the fray. Finally, everyone had worked through their tumbling passes four times. Mel looked at her watch. “We have about ten minutes left. We can run three or four dance-throughs while the rest of you do some extra flexibility. Any volunteers?”

Four hands shot up. Jane was glad Mel didn’t have to choose. She didn’t have the energy for a dance-through, even if it was a bit easier than a full routine. While she would replace the tumbling runs with just jogging across the mat, it would still involve 90 seconds of continuous, high energy movement. Jane didn’t think she could cope.

Mel moved over to the computer sound system and the girls who were not doing dance-throughs set up a thick mat and began working on oversplits. Jane sat in a split with her right foot on the mat, letting her body weight help her split get to  more than 180̊. She watched the routines of the four level 10 girls and cheered for them as they performed.

When the music from the last routine ended, Mel called everyone in the group over and led them through their regular cool down routine. The gym was much quieter, the other classes having ended. Several of the other coaches were up by the front office and Jane’s group was the last in the main gym.

They had their closing circle, where they went over the takeaways from the workout and Mel recapped the announcements. Unlike other gyms Jane had been to where workouts began with all the gymnasts in a line facing their coach, Mel opened and closed each workout with a circle, everyone facing each other. It was part of her open communication philosophy that everyone should feel equal and important.

After their circle, Mel led them through some stretching and ended with the girls lying face up on the floor mat. She guided them through a short meditation. “Close your eyes… Relax your muscles… Start at the top of your head… Work your way down your body.” She paused briefly between each sentence. “Relax your neck… Your shoulders… Your back… Your stomach… All the way down… To your toes…  And breathe… And relax… Your body is healthy… Visualize yourself performing perfect routines…” She began to pause longer between each sentence. “And breathe… And relax... Visualize yourself getting the scores you want… And breathe… And relax… Visualize yourself accomplishing your goal…” She paused for a full two minutes, then broke the silence by saying, “Jane, stop snoring.”

Alexis snorted with laughter and the other girls in the group joined in. Jane cracked her eyes open. “I was not asleep!” she protested, laughing along with Mel and the other girls. They got up from the mat, laughing as they moved to the locker room to collect their belongings and head home. Alexis’s mother, Barb, was waiting for them by the entrance.

“Bundle up, it’s frigid out there,” she told them. Her short body was swathed in a winter parka and her short red hair was covered by the matching purple crocheted hat and scarf that Alexis had made her for Christmas a few months before.

The cold of the March night bit into them as they made their way to the car. Jane and Alexis’s parents had been splitting the responsibility of driving the girls to practice since they had started at Mel’s gym, ten years before. However, since Jane had begun training again, Barb had been the one to drive them to and from practices.

Jane took a deep breath as she approached the car. Getting into cars was difficult now, and it seemed to be getting harder instead of easier. Now, she knew things. Accidents could happen. She set her teeth and grabbed Alexis’s hand for some support. Alexis gave her fingers a squeeze and shot her an encouraging smile.

You’ve got this, Jane told herself. It’s a short ride. Barb is a safe driver and she drives a safe car. You can’t not ride in cars. Before she could begin to imagine all the things that could happen in the ten minute drive to her house, she said, “Thanks for the ride, Barb. I really appreciate it.”

“It’s no trouble at all, dear,” Barb said, smiling and pulling Jane to her side for a quick, one-armed hug.

As she sank into the back seat of the car, Jane closed her eyes and let her head fall back onto the headrest. To keep her mind off the fact that she was riding in a car, she focused on the comfortable aspects: the warm air from the heater that was beginning to melt the chill from outside, Alexis’s warm hand holding hers, and the low rumble of the engine, soothing her worried mind. Once home, she fixed a quick dinner and then fell into bed, too exhausted to do any school work that night.


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