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How the Summer Olympics Helped Me Face My Gymnastics Fears

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Confession: I am obsessed with the summer Olympics. Between beach volleyball, running, gymnastics, and swimming (not to mention boxing, rowing, and soccer), I'm not ashamed to admit that I make sure to finish my workout in the morning so I can tune in during the primetime events. But above all, gymnastics has always been the one sport that's really grabbed my attention. I've always been in awe of gymnasts (both men and women) and their sheer strength and the insane techniques that seem impossible to master. When I was little, I'd dream about being one of them—how I would launch myself into twists and turns off a vault, tumble flawlessly through a floor routine, and go 'round and 'round on the uneven bars. (Watching them do their thing is inspiration enough, but we also tapped U.S. Olympians to Share Their Motivating Morning Mantras.)

Too bad I've never actually tried gymnastics. Sure, I did the whole roll-around-and-look-cute routine when I was four, and I was a cheerleader in high school, but that's as far as it got. And at 5'8" you'd find me throwing girls into the air rather than flying myself, so learning how to do a backflip just wasn't necessary. And I thought, why risk breaking my neck when a girl half my height could tuck herself into a tiny little ball and do it instead?

Fast forward to the this year's Olympics, when fervor for world-class athletes such as Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Carli Lloyd, Allyson Felix, and Kerri Walsh-Jennings was at an all-time high. (Outside of the Olympics, these 15 Fitness Muses Will Inspire Your Workouts.) This is also when Sky Zone, a trampoline park with locations across the U.S., reached out to see if I wanted to try a workout. Hmm—a plan started to come together. I told them of my aspirations and was told they had a team member who could help me nail not only a front flip but a back flip, too. Plus, I'd be on a trampoline, rather than the hard, unforgiving ground, so they told me I had a higher chance of success. Count me in! But of course, that enthusiasm was replaced with anxiety when it came time to walk into the park. What did I think I was doing? I had no idea how to do a backflip. A front flip was hard enough and I hadn't done one of those in years—not to mention they usually involved a swimming pool. I was going to break my neck. I mean, just look what happened to a professional gymnast while competing in the Rio.

When I walked in with my husband—there was zero chance I wasn't going to document this on the off-chance I happened to nail it—the jitters started to disappear. My coach, Chelsea, walked up with a smile, got us each a pair of bright orange trampoline socks, and walked us over to an area of wall-to-wall trampolines. "Just get comfortable jumping," she said. Cool. I can handle that.

 

It's #Monday, so I thought I'd share. Because bouncing makes me smile. And smiling's my favorite

A video posted by Samantha Lefave (@samanthalefave) on

After jumping for a while, working on keeping my core tight and tucking my knees into my chest so I could catch some air, Chelsea said it was time for the front flip. The key, for me, was to quickly move through the rotation because of my height. Chelsea told me that most people tend to rotate through the air slower than they think, which is why it's tough to stick the landing. The first few times, I did exactly what she told me not to do—slowly rotating through the air and launching myself forward into the flip rather than up and forward. So yeah, I landed on my butt more often than I care to admit.

Eventually, though, I nailed it. And while I'd like to say my landing looked as graceful as this:

backflip-500.gif

It was actually more like this:

The backflip was up next. As soon as Chelsea said we were going to start practicing, my chest tightened up and palms got sweaty, but I told myself I could do this. I just needed to get comfortable with falling backward first. Chelsea had me bounce straight up again but then added in a backward fall so I landed between my shoulder blades. Once I got comfortable with the fall, I added some height to the jump and started swinging my arms a bit. More importantly, I started channeled my inner Simone Biles. I told myself that if the 19-year-old could launch herself to nearly twice her height when she performs The Biles (a double layout with a half-twist move named after the superstar) without the help of a trampoline, then I could certainly do just one backflip on a trampoline.

With a final deep breath, I tightened my core, took a big bounce, and swung my arms back with all my might. As I swung through the air, I kept my eyes open—Chelsea told me it helps some people avoid a mid-flip freak out if they follow their feet the whole time—and watched as they went from trampoline to up the ceiling back, and back down to the trampoline. Before I knew it, I was back around and—hell yes—my feet were back on solid (albeit bouncy) ground.

OMG— I had done a backflip.

I'd like to say I'm now a backflipping queen who can't be stopped, but that's a lie. There's still a fear of messing up in the middle of a flip or landing wrong and injuring my knee—both of which are legitimate concerns, as the number of injuries at trampoline parks has increased more than ten-fold from 2010 to 2014, according to recent research. But I won't let the fear stop me from trying anymore. After all, there's a risk of injury in any sport or activity you do. And I'd rather take a calculated risk than always wonder, what if I could really do that? And that kind of nerve is gold-medal worthy if you ask me.

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