NPR

Elite Gymnastics Not All It's 'Chalked Up' to Be

After breaking her femur in a fall from the uneven bars, Jennifer Sey came back to win the 1986 National Championships. It was a remarkable recovery, but it took a tremendous emotional and physical toll.

Every four years, viewers at home are awed by the grace, athleticism and artistry of Olympic gymnastics. But Jennifer Sey, the 1986 National Gymnastics Champion, says the road to this high level of achievement is paved with unhealthy perfectionism and pressure.

In her new memoir, Chalked Up, she exposes the merciless coaching and aggressive parenting that can push young athletes far beyond their physical and emotional limits.

"My entire life was plagued by thoughts of subparness," Sey writes. "I never felt good enough. Just one notch shy of perfection, one slot shy of number one."

Sey's memoir chronicles the drastic measures she and her teenage teammates took to maintain their childlike frames. Competing as an adolescent at the highest levels, Sey says it was a race against time "to beat the menacing development of my own body... before puberty and curves and weight made it nearly impossible for me to fly through the air, attempting flips meant for younger, lighter girls."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Women's gymnastics is about to resume its quadrennial place in the national consciousness. Every four years, girls and young women astonish us all with grace and power, athleticism and artistry and courage at the Olympic Games. To get to that pinnacle can take a decade of intense training and total commitment, but there can be a darker side, too. Whispered stories of abusive coaches, intensively competitive parents, backstabbing and eating disorders. Jennifer Sey competed at the elite level in the mid-1980s and capped off a tremendous career when she won the national title in 1986. Her new memoir is out today, and she joins us to talk about the glory and the agony of top-level gymnastics in just a moment.

If you've got a daughter in training now, or if you competed yourself, we want to hear your stories, good and bad. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can tell us your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Jennifer Sey's book is called "Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." She joins us from member station KQED in San Francisco, and nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Ms. JENNIFER SEY (1986 National Gymnastics Champion; Author, "Chalked Up"): It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And most people will have just heard that you won the U.S. National Championships and agree that you must have had a tremendous career. I wonder, is that what you think?

Ms. SEY: Absolutely. I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish in gymnastics, and I certainly surpassed any of my, sort of, hopes and dreams when I started the sport at six years old in the mid-'70s.

CONAN: Yet, it was a career in which no matter what you accomplished, you seem to be plagued by an idea that you had to accomplish more.

Ms. SEY: Well, I think, yeah, for me, each accomplishment, as I said, was sort of more than I'd ever hoped for and in raising the bar at every step, I continued to raise it, I guess. And when I won in 1986, suddenly the Olympics in '88, which ultimately I did not end up even vying for, I dropped out before the Olympic trials, but suddenly it became a real - a real possibility for me.

CONAN: And are you disappointed that you did not make the Olympic team?

Ms. SEY: Absolutely not. I mean, I chose to not even compete in the trials, and while my coaches and parents promised me that I would be filled with regret for the rest of my days, I actually had reached a point in early 1988 where I just knew, for me, it was impossible to continue, and I know that with all my heart right now that I couldn't have continued, and I don't regret it at all. I achieved more that I'd ever hoped to. I carry with me the learnings from the sport in terms of what it takes to truly achieve something seemingly impossible, and I bring that with me to my life everyday as an adult.

CONAN: And a lot of what you needed to put up with, well, to somebody from outside the sport, it reads like abuse.

Ms. SEY: It does, and I think you raise a really, sort of critical point there. I think, with the objectivity that comes from being outside of the sport, you know, if you're a parent, for instance, concerned with raising happy and healthy children that become adults that are also happy and healthy and able to contribute to this world that we live in, I think that you can read some of these stories and feel like, wow, I would really never want my child to have to experience that.

I think it's important to note though that inside this, sort of, microcosmic world of gymnastics, it all felt pretty normal at the time. And I think, you know, I think to many coaches that even read it today, they'll be somewhat defensive because I think the point of view exists that this is what it takes to raise a champion, and that was certainly my point of view going in.

You know, when I trained with the coaches that I did towards the end of my career, I signed up, you know, I signed up to be a champion and I put myself in their hands and they gave that to me. So I don't think that they would view any of their practices or their tactics as excessive or outside the norm because they gave me what I asked for.

CONAN: Yet even yourself, as a writer looking back on some of the stuff, you may not have questioned it so much at the time, but for example, describing a meet where a competitor falls on her neck and can't get up and there's a pool of blood underneath and the coach is screaming, get up, get up, what are you doing? And she manfully tries to go on and ends up having a concussion and vomiting.

Ms. SEY: That did happen. It was the 1981 Junior USA Championships, and it was my first competition at that level, and at that time, I had a coach that was, sort of, less aggressive, I would say, in her practices, and I did find that behavior fairly shocking at the time And, you know, hearing it now, it's that much more, sort of, devastating and horrifying, having to look back on it as an adult and write about it. But within the sport, I think, you know, there were certain thing that we did accept.

And I think it's important to note that participating in any sport at the very highest level probably involves these types of practices. I think that the situation is exacerbated in gymnastics because the girls are so young and probably not likely to stand up for themselves and say, you know what? I'm not OK with being treated this way.

CONAN: You also write about girls, including yourself, who are exposed to men who are there, you suspect, because they like being around scantily clad young girls.

Ms. SEY: You know, I don't think that is the norm in the sport, but I do recall, you know, even as a young person competing in the sport, sort of questioning and wondering, you know, why are these men, who largely weren't gymnasts themselves, and if they were, they certainly weren't women's gymnasts, so they didn't participate in women's gymnastics, they participated in men's gymnastics.

CONAN: A very different sport. Yeah.

Ms. SEY: A very different sport. I mean, it's not the same events, et cetera. And I do recall sort of wondering, you know, what their interest was. I think the financial opportunity in women's gymnastics is greater than in men's. It's a far more popular sport, so you're more likely to run a popular gym that makes money if you, you know, coach female gymnasts. That being said, I do think that in some instances, and it's the exception to the rule, that you know, they enjoyed sort of the more untoward aspects of coaching little girls, but I do think it's important to note that was not my personal experience and I do think it's the exception, not the rule.

CONAN: And another aspect of this is an emphasis, and this again varied coach-to-coach, gym-to-gym, in your experience, in your story, but an emphasis on controlling your weight.

Ms. SEY: Yeah, and I think there are two points to make there. One, my coaches were especially focused on this. You know, I think in the broader sport, not every coach pays quite the same level of attention to weight as my coaches did. That being said, I also think it was something in the 1980s that was especially focused upon. The accepted aesthetic when I was competing was, I think, I believe, far thinner that it is right now.

I don't watch gymnastics very religiously at this point. I'm not so engaged with what goes on, but when I do view it in passing, the girls seem to be much more muscular and they have a build more like a Mary Lou Retton, for instance. So I think that it's changed quite a bit. I hope that it's changed.

Something happened in the mid '90s. A gymnast that I'd actually competed with, her name is Christie Henrich, or was Christie Henrich, who had a more muscular build and was told by a judge, and this is sort of wildly - was widely reported that at the time, was told by a judge that she could never be successful at her current weight. Well, she proceeded to sort of whittle her weight down to a point where one, she couldn't compete any more, and two, she ultimately was a full-fledged anorexic and succumbed and died in the mid-'90s, and that was a major event in the world of gymnastics. And I think it was kind of a wakeup call, and I do believe that coaches have changed their practices since then.

CONAN: At the gym you talked about though, you were weighed twice a day and you developed some problems of your own.

Ms. SEY: Yeah. I absolutely did. I mean, we were weighed twice a day, and gaining a quarter of a pound or half a pound was definitely a punishable offense. I do think, at the time, in the mid-'80s, people's understanding of eating disorders was far less sophisticated than it is now. My father, who is a pediatrician, understood very little about the disease at the time, in fact. And I think now, he counsels patients all the time that suffer from anorexia and bulimia. So I believe that there was a belief on the part of both the coaches and the parents that you could enforce restricted eating, you know, low weight, low body fat, and not have it have any long-term repercussions.

So it's not that they were asking us to be anorexic. They were asking us to not eat to maintain the aesthetic required for the sport, and when we were done, we could go back to eating as normal. And I just think that there was a very unsophisticated understanding that that indeed had some long term emotional, psychological and even physical effects.

CONAN: We're talking with Jennifer Sey, a U.S. National Champion in 1986, about her life in women's gymnastics. If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have a daughter in training, if you competed yourself, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can go to a phone call now. Hello, you're on the air.

CHRISTIE (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi. Who's this?

CHRISTIE: This is Christie.

CONAN: Go ahead, Christie.

CHRISTIE: Hi. My daughter is three, and she's in gymnastics. And it's just kind of like a jumping around, playing thing for her. And I'm hoping that she'll lose interest before she gets to the age where they're competing and doing creepy weight ideas and things like that.

CONAN: You hope she'll lose interest?

CHRISTIE: Yes.

CONAN: Because it scares you?

CHRISTIE: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Jennifer Sey, you got into this sport the same way Christie's daughter did, for a little bit of exercise and have some fun.

Ms. SEY: Absolutely. It was purely recreational. You know, I was enthralled with Nadia and Olga Korbut, as most girls my age were in the early to mid-'70s. But I started out, and it was all just for fun. And it stayed that way for quite a while. And I think it was largely fun until the very end of my career or so. You know, I think it's great to put your daughter in athletics. I would try lots of things. That's kind of my point of view. That's what I'm doing with my kids. I want them to experience lots of things and choose for themselves.

My preference for my own children, and I don't, you know, suggest that this is what yours should be, but my preference for my own children is that they're not doing anything at such a high level and with such seriousness while they're children. I think that they should be enjoying their childhoods. And there's plenty of time to be serious when you're an adult.

CONAN: If there's one question that you could ask Christie to ask her daughter's coach, what would it be?

Ms. SEY: You know, I would ask - I mean, she's three. So she doesn't probably have a coach. She has a teacher. And I would say, you know, make sure you're allowed to watch the classes. I'm sure she's having a really great time, and I'm sure you can tell from the look on her face. She's probably laughing and having fun. And I think, you know, all parents just need to pay attention to their child's mood, whether they're doing gymnastics or whether, you know, they're just really competitive in terms of how they approach their schoolwork.

And you know your child better than anyone. And, you know, you should be able to tell. The signs are there, if your child is getting too serious or is becoming depressed. And you know, I don't even think it's a problem if your daughter moves into the competition phase, as long as she's still enjoying it.

CHRISTIE: Right.

CONAN: And that question, though, that comes up a lot in Jennifer Sey's book, parents being excluded from practices because they might not understand why the coaches are so mean to their children. So that's probably a good question to ask. Christie, thanks for the call, and we wish your daughter the best of luck.

CHRISTIE: Thank you.

CONAN: I appreciate the call. Stay with us. We're talking with Jennifer Sey. She's a former gymnastics champion. Her book is called "Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." If you're involved in the sport as a parent, as a competitor, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1986, Jennifer Sey was U.S. National Gymnastics Champion. Almost a year earlier, she'd broken her femur after a bad fall during the 1985 meet. That injury was just one of the ways the world of elite gymnastics took its toll on her body. We're talking with her about her new book. It's called "Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." You can read an excerpt and see photos from Jennifer Sey's gymnastic career at npr.org/talk.

And I wanted to read a short excerpt from your book, Jennifer. "I was 10 years old," you wrote, "I was 10 years old when I began to inflict pain on myself to relieve a constant and growing uneasiness. When I started to compete in earnest, I also started gnawing at the inside of my mouth." Tell us about that.

Ms. SEY: It's a habit that I retain to this day, unfortunately. But you know, I think by the time I was 10, I was competing in state championships, in regional championships. And that's a lot of pressure for a kid that's only 10 years old. I mean, my son is nearly eight years old, and he seems like such a child, a boy to me. And I can't imagine him competing under those, sort of, circumstances and with that kind of pressure.

Now, that is not to say that I did not want to do this. I absolutely wanted to do this. I wanted to be there. I was thrilled with the results that I was getting. But I think that the intensity and the fact that it was so nerve-racking, I kind of turned on myself. I certainly didn't want to convey it to my parents, and I hid as much of that as possible. So it sort of turned inward.

CONAN: You were not just gnawing a little bit on the inside of your cheek. You were raising blisters!

Ms. SEY: Oh, I chewed, yeah, quarter-sized cankers to the inside of my mouth. And like I said, it's something I tend to do to this day. But it was a habit that started right around the time I started competing in earnest. And yeah, I definitely went to town. I chewed some really big blisters into my mouth.

CONAN: And tore up your fingers, too.

Ms. SEY: Yes. Another habit I retain to this day, unfortunately. I picked at the cuticles. I know it's a habit that - I'm certainly not the only one that has this habit, it's a nervous habit I have. And I did it quite a bit back then. And the fact that the chalk is very dry on your hands that you use to compete in gymnastics, sort of made it all the more easy to do because the skin came off in these nice, big chunks. It was so satisfying at the time.

CONAN: And you write about this. You write about, as you mentioned, the title of your book, coaches who can seem abusive, parents who can seem overzealous. You don't blame anybody for this except yourself. "I was," you wrote, "my own tormentor."

Ms. SEY: Yeah. I don't blame a soul. I mean, my dad speaks to this day about the type of driven child that I was and how he could see it in my eyes when I was learning to ride a bike at only four years old. I was an extremely driven, competitive child. You know, I used to wonder if gymnastics is what brought that out on me. But as an adult, I look back and I realize that was something that was always within me. And I just found gymnastics first. So that was the first, you know, thing that I poured that competitiveness into.

And I will say, I've also learned that my approach and intensity, it worked for me because ultimately, I was quite successful. So it's a habit I carry through with me. I guess it's not really a habit, but it's a way of living that I carry through with me into my adult life. You know, my parents could not have stopped me. I was the one that begged to go to better and better gyms. I was the one that begged to move away from home. And I was the one that begged to be back in the gym, training, mere weeks after broken bones. So there's nothing they could have done to stop me.

CONAN: Let's get Joanna on the line. Joanna is with us from Denver, Colorado.

JOANNA (Caller): Hi. I'm very interested in this topic, and thank you for taking my call. I actually have a son. And he's only in second grade, so he's little, but has competed. He just finished his fourth season. And I'm just wondering if you might have some insight into how the boys' gymnastic scene compares. I mean, do you know if it's as intense and crazy as the girls' scene? Or if you have any comments about that I'd really love to hear them.

Ms. SEY: Yeah. I do have a lot of insight into that. My brother, Christopher Sey, was a nationally competitive gymnast. He's my younger brother. And he ultimately competed at Stanford, and they were two-time national college champions, which is pretty fantastic. I will say this sport is fairly different. At least, my perspective is that it's fairly different for men. They mature much later, and the sport requires that their bodies are quite mature. They need to be very, very strong.

JOANNA: Yes?

Ms. SEY: Which means their window of opportunity is greater, which in turn means that the intensity at a younger age is far less. And I recall watching my brother compete. And he always seemed to have quite a bit more fun than I was having. And his training didn't ramp up and become quite as intense as mine until he was in college. So he was much more of an adult and, I think, able at that point to say with authority what was right for him and what wasn't, whereas I was a child. So I do think it's very different within boys' gymnastics.

CONAN: Joanna, how much - how many hours a week is your son working out?

JOANNA: He's working out nine hours a week right now. Which, you know, for him it's hard. It's also hard as a parent because I'm really not a pushy parent. He loves it. I want him to have the opportunity. He seems to have talent. But at the same time, you know, I want him to do soccer and get to, you know, do other stuff. So we're just kind of getting to a point where I think he's going to stop being able to do the other stuff. And, you know, I don't want to be overzealous with him.

CONAN: OK. Joanna, good luck to you.

JOANNA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Ms. SEY: Bye.

CONAN: And Jennifer, that's something that you didn't have any problems with. You write continually in your book about other girls. Donna Mosely(ph), an elite gymnast, for example, who quit, who decided that she wanted a normal life, going to high school, going to the junior prom.

Ms. SEY: Yeah. I mean, a lot of girls did. There's a lot of girls I trained with in my early teens that, you know, at that inflection point when you're moving into high school, that they make a very different choice. And they decide, you know, the outside world called to them, which is perfectly understandable. And they want to participate in normal high school activities. They want to go out with their girlfriends, they want to have boyfriends, you know? They want to work on the school newspaper or just compete on the high school gymnastics team, which is much more fun and less intense, you know, than the type of competitions that I embarked upon.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Gina. Gina, another caller from Denver, Colorado.

GINA (Caller): Hello. Thanks so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GINA: I'm really glad you guys are talking about this because I - being a former gymnast, and now I'm after retirement, running my father's gymnastics program here in Denver for the past 11 years. Gymnastics really gets a bad rap. And I've always had a wonderful, positive experience of gymnastics, even as an athlete. And I competed nationally, at level 10. And it was (unintelligible), you know? My father was my coach and he took the same approach with me that he took with everyone else, that if it was something that I wanted, I chose gymnastics. Gymnastics did not choose me.

And I took it as far as I was willing to take it. And there was really not a lot of pressure for me to continue in college or, you know, take it to the elite level. I was ready. I had gotten everything that I wanted out of this sport. And I think gymnastics really gets a negative, you know, rap, because of, you know, highly competitive athletes at such a young age. And everyone wants their kids to persevere and do well. So I'm really glad you guys are talking about this.

CONAN: Jennifer, do you think Gina's story is more typical, or maybe yours?

Ms. SEY: I think hers is absolutely more typical. I think mine is the exception to the rule. And you know, I'm not making any assertions about what this sport is all about in the broader sense. This is my personal story. And I think her experience is absolutely the more typical experience. I mean, most girls don't compete at the level that I did. And I think a lot has changed in the sport today, I would hope.

You know, we talked earlier about, you know, the approach to sort of body weight and body aesthetics being quite different today. I think that changes the dynamics within the gym. You know, but like I said, this is not a journalistic account. It's not a tell-all. It's not an expose. It's an - I view it as a coming-of-age story. And it was just my personal experience in the world of gymnastics.

And I think if you look at the books out on gymnastics, you know, far more of them are about, you know, triumphant stories and winning Olympic gold medals. Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug, I mean, all of these girls - Courtney Kupets. They all have books about the triumphs that they experienced in this sport, and they're all incredibly positive. So you know, I don't think gymnastics necessarily gets such a bad rap because most of what you read is about those triumphant types of stories.

CONAN: Gina, thanks very much.

GINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Jessica. Jessica with us from Allentown, in Pennsylvania.

JESSICA (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JESSICA: Yes. I trained at the same time and at the same club that Jennifer Sey did, with the same coaches and the same teammates. I also graduated from Stanford University and I attended on a full scholarship for gymnastics. Ms. Sey's story is barely recognizable to me. I think there are numerous inaccuracies and factual errors in the book, which leads me to believe that she wrote this story loosely based on her reality. I believe that this is a gymnastics version of "A Million Little Pieces." If her intent, as she stated, is to generate meaningful analysis of this sport, I'd like to inquire how her book goes about doing this.

CONAN: Have you read the book?

JESSICA: I've read the book in its entirety, and I'm shocked at the statement and the assertions that she makes that haven't even been fact-checked.

CONAN: Well, Jennifer Sey, you have a chance to respond.

Ms. SEY: I just got - yeah, you know, I understand your perspective. You know, my intent, I'm not sure where that's been said or why you feel this way, but my intent is not to create or generate any analysis on the sport. My intent is what I articulated earlier, which is to write a coming-of-age story. So, it's a memoir, it's a story about my growing up. It is certainly not my intent is not to, you know, become a pundit on gymnastics and to generate any sort of dialogue. I think that this sport has changed tremendously. I'm sorry you feel that what I write about isn't true. It's my personal experience. Many of the girls that both of us trained with would say that this happened to them, as well, and they would condone the story.

JESSICA: I think it's important for the public to know that there are - I've spoken to about 20 gymnasts that you describe by name in your book that cannot substantiate the stories that you describe. For example, Mr. Strauss throwing a chair at a gymnast. For example, Mr. Strauss calling an athlete - saying that she's going to look like her mother on the loudspeaker if she gains any more weight. And I've spoken directly with those gymnasts, and those stories cannot be substantiated. So I'm just - I feel that this book is sensational and seamy and is basically a sensationalist tale that is designed to further your writing career.

Ms. SEY: You know, again, I don't know what to say. I'm sorry you feel that way. I've talked to many girls that trained with both of us at the same time that are mentioned in the book, that remember the exact stories. The book was extensively fact-checked. You know, I am in touch with many girls that we both trained with, and many of them have read the book. I didn't want to put anything out there that, you know, that was untrue. And they've read it and they remember many of - they remember the same events. So, I don't know how else to respond.

CONAN: Jessica, thanks for the call. I'm sure you're going to feel differently than this. It's not a disagreement we're going to be able to resolve right here and right now, but thank you for the call.

JESSICA: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: OK, bye-bye.

Our guest is Jennifer Sey. Her book is called "Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email, talk@npr.org. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get another caller in. Sherry(ph), Sherry's with us from Reno in Nevada.

SHERRY (Caller): Hello, good morning, and thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SHERRY: First of all, I can't wait to get the book and read it, because I've had a very similar childhood that I grew up with paralleling, where I did study gymnastics. I also studied figure-skating and dancing. And for me, gosh, I started when I was three-and-a-half. My brothers and I had an act. We were semi-regulars on two children's television programs as dancers.

But for us, it was a situation of growing up where we had to practice our routines and do them three times in a row perfectly before we could go play with friends. So my memory of childhood is (unintelligible) in our front yard waiting for us to do the routine three times in a row perfectly before we could go play. And weekends and after-school hours that were at the studio. So it's - and I went on to be a professional dancer for many years. But, you know, it was where I was getting my weigh-ins, you know, you'd have to go and stand on the scale, you would starve yourself before your performances and then only to binge-eat with drive-through at Dunkin' Donuts on the way home. As a childhood, it's fun to talk about, but it's not one that I put on to my own three children. Nor have my brothers put on to their children.

CONAN: And it sounds, Jennifer Sey, as if you've taken care not to put it on your children, either.

Ms. SEY: Yeah, I mean my kids are quite young and they're both boys. One is seven and one is five, so the gymnastics thing is, you know, not something they're particularly interested in. But, you know, my intent for them is to, like I said earlier, raise happy and healthy children who definitely understand that if you want something, you have to work hard for it, but really put that into practice when they're adults and can make those choices on their own.

CONAN: Sherry, thanks very much for the call.

SHERRY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Here's an email we have from Daphne. "My ten-year-old daughter is the same as you describe yourself at ten. She lives for gymnastics. She leaves a three-hour workout, which I think is crazy, laughing and happy. She can only do gymnastics if she keeps her grades up. She has nearly perfect grades. She has signs of stress that worry me - chewing on her cheek, too, but I do that myself and I've never competed. But she claims she's not worried and has no stress.If she were your daughter, given your experience, how would you proceed?"

Ms. SEY: I mean, I would likely let her continue. If she's leaving practice and she's happy and she's smiling and she's bouncing, then she's having a good time. You know, we all get a little nervous and do things that would show that anxiety, and as you say, you do this yourself. I mean, I probably would have found these habits of chewing my mouth and picking my fingers even if I hadn't done gymnastics. That's my way of sort of manifesting my nerves.

That being said, I think if her mood changes, you know, when I was sixteen, leaving practice I was not smiling, I was not bouncing, I was not happy - I was depressed. And I locked myself in my room and I didn't eat anything. So I think the signs are pretty obvious if you're looking for them.

CONAN: And I want to take you back also to that moment of your greatest triumph in the 1986 World Championships - National Championships, excuse me, where you'd already hurt your ankle and had one jump left, one activity left to perform.

Ms. SEY: Yeah. That was probably one of the two most difficult moments to write about, because it's truly - you know, at this point, I'm 39 years old, it's still one of the most brilliant moments of my life. So it was an emotional thing to write about. It was a truly transcendent experience. Especially after having come back from such a devastating injury at the World Championships the year prior. Most people thought that I wouldn't return to the sport after that. And I showed up at the USA Championships and it was a surprise to many.

I had a new injury at the time, which made it quite challenging to get through the competition. And the fact that I was able to win it after such a terrible injury, and really, after never having even considered that I might be able to achieve such a thing, was just a transcendent moment. I mean, you know, that, getting married and my two children are the best moments of my life. And it's why I don't regret having competed in the sport, despite some of the challenges that I write about.

CONAN: You also say you miss it every day.

Ms. SEY: I do. I miss it every day, which is why, you know, I've said this repeatedly, it's not intended to be a tell-all or a warning, don't put your child in gymnastics. I have tremendous love and respect for the sport. I am who I am because I competed in it, and some of the best moments of my life were in gymnastics. And it's an amazing feeling to sort of defy what your body is, you know, formerly thought capable of. It's - that's the feeling I miss, because it's the feeling of being young, quite frankly. You know, we're all constrained by our bodies as we get older, and I miss that even more than the feeling of winning, to be honest.

CONAN: Jen Sey, thanks very much for time today. Appreciate it.

Ms. SEY: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Jennifer Sey's book is "Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams." She joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco.

When we come back, we're going to be talking about teaching science in Reno, Nevada. Earth Science, a lot easier when there's, what? Five hundred earthquakes a week? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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