Inner Circle of Hell: the Inter-House Gym Competition

Last night England took all three medals in the ladies’ individual gymnastics something-or-other. Well done, ladies!

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I watched with baited breath as they flung themselves around before nailing landings. How do they do that? How do they make that first, literal, leap that allows them to have the faith that they can FLY, whilst turning somersaults and flips and so many many shades of what-the-heck?!!!

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It makes my palms sweaty with nerves just watching.

But maybe this Pavlovian sweaty response is also due to something more personal. To an experience deeply routed in my adolescence. The INTER. HOUSE. GYM. COMPETITION.

Oh my God. I feel sick just thinking about it.

Imagine it. You’re 14. You’re at that age where your body is doing weird shit: sprouting and sweating and just not being what you want it to be. Your face is pimply, your hair a disaster of a dodgy perm (in my defence it was the late-80s, plus my mum was still 100% in control of my hair since she was paying for it) and your mind hates it all. Why couldn’t I be more like Emma Calloway, with nice hair, a pretty face and boobs? What had Emma Calloway done to weather the puberty storm so well?

But my strategy for life, to get through puberty and school and all of the hideousness (including some merciless bullying for being so very far away from cool, but not so far – ie with enough attitude – to pull my quirkiness off as uber-who-wants-to-be-mainstream-anyway-cool) was to keep my head down and not draw attention to myself.

So it wasn’t great when I got a request to go to see the head of my house. I wasn’t sporty. The inter-house competition was roughly 99% about sport. It wasn’t going to be good.

Oh, but there are layers of not-good. Being on the netball team I could just about manage, although for a non-contact sport netball can be vicious. But netball season was over. Tennis maybe? Again, I had the skills (in that I wouldn’t spend most of the lesson just trying to hit the balls out of the tennis court and into the road) but I had no competitive spirit. I’d be crucified. Besides, it was a bit early to be hauled in for that one.

No, it was worse. Worse even than the swimming gala (swimwear, lack of boobage, but plenty of unwanted hair, spectators, but at least most of the time you were underwater). It was the gym competition. Lycra, lack of boobage, but plenty of unwanted hair, spectators and NOWHERE TO HIDE!

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Plus there was my complete inability to do gymnastics. A fairly major detail.

But there was a space on the squad. Someone had seen sense and pulled out and thanks to my gobby, sports-friendly friend, the head had been made aware that I danced, which was the ability to prance around more than the cooler girls had. Damn and blast not just hanging around the bike sheds with a fag in hand. There’d be practice sessions. It’d be fine.

Except it really wasn’t. Despite the practice by competition day I still couldn’t pull off a handstand, never mind tumble my way to glory. I could – would – probably tumble my way to disaster, but not with the gravity-defying acrobatics they’d want; more the clumsy, uncoordinated arse-over-tit tumbling of your worst nightmares.

Up in the changing room I put on my red tap leotard, minus the leggings. Instant sweat patches under the arms. And the need to raise both arms in the air to make my entrance onto the floor. Great.

Still, at least the dark patches under my armpits might detract from the stray hairs down below. At least until I’d have to cartwheel. Seriously, what mad man invented gymnastics? What perv then decreed the outfit choice?

Then I clocked Emma Calloway. Oh my God, so it’d be the sort of perv who envisaged all teenage girls look like that. I could sort of see where they were coming from. She was Jessica Rabbit meets a bit a Lycra.

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And we walked out into the gym hall and OH. MY. GOD!!! So many people. All around the perimeter of the floor area. People. Boys! Teachers!! All wearing clothes. My armpits started to flow like rivers. My hands clammed up (for heavens sake, who invented sweat?!). It was a nightmare made real.

I took my place and watched. There were some amazing routines. There were others, like me, just there to make up numbers. I couldn’t fathom out why they needed two girls per house per year group when most obviously weren’t gymnasts. I suspect that Suzanne Collins may have had to take part in her school’s gym contest too, but wanted to write about something comparable but less cruel in The Hunger Games. The weak were definitely fodder to make the real gymnasts look even better.

By turns I’d feel better, then sick to my stomach, then better, then ‘Holy Cow! I shouldn’t be here!’

They called Emma Calloway’s name. The theme to Howard’s Way started (late ’80s, remember). She glided around the floor. She executed each move with grace and precision. She flipped and cartwheeled and looked amazing. She didn’t have any sweat patches. What deodorant was she using?!

She finished to massive applause. Arms raised, serene smile, her forever legs stretched her back to her place, hips wiggling, boobs just perfect. Why couldn’t I just have her boobs? Or, right now, her ability to do a handstand into a backwards walk-over?

And then I heard my name. My name? Right after Emma Calloway?! They were kidding right? It’s shit before shovel after all, isn’t it?!?! Is it possible to throw up at the same time as fainting?

God only alone knows how I made it onto the floor. I stepped forward, raised my arms – the burgundy patches on my leotard were so large now they could be mistaken for a badly conceived leotard design. A metaphor for my badly conceived inclusion in the competition. I pulled out a wedgie. How could my leotard set out to humiliate me in so many different ways?

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Not a soggy pit between them! It’s witchcraft, I tell ya!

The music started. The theme tune to All Creatures Great and Small. So very far away from cool. The next 2 minutes of my life was a blur of ‘please don’t make this worse than it already is’ and ‘how could it possibly be any worse than it already is?’

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I very much didn’t look like this.

But I got through it. I finished without falling on my arse or wetting myself, both a distinct possibility. A heartbeat later (or in my case 100 heartbeats – I was racking up some serious BPMs, to an extent normally only observed in the drug-induced) the music finished.

I think there may have been some applause. Maybe only the polite ‘we’re glad that’s over too’ kind, but at least it wasn’t stunned silence.

I was done. Although, I still would have preferred not to have done it.

My score was mediocre, but I wasn’t last. I can’t tell you how grateful I was for that. I must have scored mercy points, the judges aware that I didn’t need to suffer further indignity by coming last.

Emma Calloway picked up a medal. But of course she did.

At school the next day – because the organisers didn’t have the good grace to allow us competitors to run away and hide over a weekend, the gossip of the competition replaced by whatever party had got out of hand on Saturday night – I got some kind comments. There wasn’t even any bullying, the bullies surely realising that they couldn’t do any worse to me than I had done to myself.

And because I’d been a sucker that year I got instantly roped in the following year. I still had sweaty armpits, issues with pubic hair and a distinct incompetence at gymnastics.

My biggest relief was when the school sports hall burnt down. My first reaction was ‘Great! No gym competition!’ I don’t know if they ever caught the arsonists responsible, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a reluctant gymnast with a desire to avoid social suicide behind that lit match. Whoever it was, I really couldn’t thank them enough.

I’m sure I learnt some important life lessons that afternoon. Finding the right deodorant matters, perhaps? No matter what life throws at me I could never feel as self-conscious as I did at that moment? I’m not quite sure. But I do know I can’t watch gymnastics without some kind of post-traumatic stress response.

So well done, Claudia Fragapane et al. I admire your ability to fly. But I admire your ability to even step out there with dry pits even more.

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