Thursday, August 9, 2012

A tribute to a caring coach

Today is my former gymnastics coach's birthday. In honor of the occasion, I'm going to write about a little anecdote that illustrates, contrary to popular opinion, how being tough on an athlete does not mean that the coach doesn't care deeply for her as a person.

In my book (more shameless plugging--Heresy on the High Beam can be purchased here), I wrote about how I learned about embodied feminism from my coach "Nina." But she was also the first to spot my scoliosis and alert my mother, which set into motion the whole chain of events leading to my spinal fusion surgery in Boston.

Needless to say, I was despondent. Not only was I scared about undergoing risky surgery on my spine, the sort that carries a small risk of paralysis. I was also devastated that I would no longer be able to arch my back anymore. This would rob me of many basic moves including back handsprings.

My mom and I spent over a week in the hospital in Boston so I didn't get many visitors. (I'm from Brooklyn but we went to Boston Children's because that's where one of the best surgeons was at the time.) On Saturday, at the time known as Shabbos in my life, a nurse poked her head in to let us know about a visitor calling up from the reception area since we didn't pick up our phone. My mom and I looked at one another, confused. Who could be visiting us on Shabbos of all days, we wondered. The nurse informed us that it was someone named "Nina."

Instantly, I perked up. And Nina didn't come alone. She brought her friend with her, not merely to keep her company during the five hour drive from New York in July heat in a car with broken A/C. Her friend was a dancer who had also undergone fusion, but was happy, healthy, and a dancer. This woman tried to lift my spirits that the surgery hadn't sapped her of all of her physical talents and abilities. She had learned how to adapt and move on. I didn't take her advice immediately--I still tried to return to gymnastics--but eventually, I started dancing and found the experience to be a healing one.

Years later, if you bring up Nina's name in front of my mother, she immediately recalls this incident and asks how she is. (Weirdly enough, we ended up living near one another in Brooklyn.) She may have been tough on me and everyone else she coached, we all knew that she cared about us deeply regardless of whether or not we could flips on demand.

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