People who follow my life have been hearing about The Handspring for the better part of two years.  This is a story about The Handspring.

The Handspring actually starts with something only tenuously related – I had a really bad Christmas.  After The Bad Christmas, I started making some changes in my life.  These changes involved: (1) stop conforming; and (2) do things I wanted to do.  In other words, live instead of exist.

One of the things I did in the post-Bad Christmas time frame involved taking my training seriously.  I am not athletic.  I have never been athletic.  Somehow, by dumb luck, I had ended up in martial arts (my friend Carr’s fault), and I went twice a week – mainly because I paid for two classes a week.  For reasons I hadn’t been able to figure out, I hadn’t quit yet and I had somehow managed to make it to black stripe belt.  (That’s two belts before black belt).  I actually liked taekwondo, so in my pursuit of living, I started to go to the gym on days I didn’t have class to work out.  I would run, do jumps, and use the two machines in the weight room that I knew how to use.

In February, Carr (she probably forgets this bit) told me that such a thing existed as “Adult Gymnastics Classes.”  Now, as a kid, I wanted to be a gymnast.  I would watch the gymnasts in the Olympics and pretend to be one of them.  My dad made me a little balance beam out of a two by four, and I had an old tumbling mat that I would play with.  The gymnastics unit in gym class (yes, I’m that old) was one of my favorites.  I also knew that we did not have the money for gymnastics classes, so I never asked for them.  As an adult – one who was trying to do things to live life instead of just exist – I googled.  Adult Gymnastics Classes were real.  There was one near me.

Now, keep in mind, I was an overweight 30 year old.  One of the things we learn in taekwondo, however, is that we should focus on what we CAN do, not what we CAN’T.  I was perfectly capable of walking through a door into a class, so why not try?  I got permission to attend the gymnastics class, and off I went.

To say I was “bad at gymnastics” is kind.  I could not do anything.  No – wait – I could do a rebound, because “rebound” is a cool sounding word that means “I can hop on two feet.”  Other than that…not so much.  In my first class, I began to learn cartwheels.  That night, I woke up around one in the morning and was in excruciating pain from muscles I did not know I had.  I lay in bed and made whimpering noises.  The next few days, I moved around like an old woman.  Nonetheless, I went back to class the following Monday and learned more about cartwheels.

It took two months, but I learned how to do a cartwheel.  I was proud of my new skill – despite it being scary – and decided I wanted to do a cartwheel at my bodon test (this test earns you the belt that means ‘I am now preparing for the black belt test’).  I figured out that I could do a cartwheel and then turn on my foot and break the board with a side kick.  I told my master about my plan at breaking class the night before the test.  She said “I need you to show me you can do the cartwheel before I let you try this.”  That was fair – see “overweight, non-athletic 30 year old.”  I got into my lunge with my hands up to do a T, hyperventilated a bit at the thought of “oh my god I have to go upside down,” and did the cartwheel.  She let me do the break.  I repeated it the next day at the test.  (I also broke my hand on one of my hand technique breaks, but that’s another story).

Time passed.  I kept going to gymnastics.  I got my black belt.  I decided I wanted to try to learn a front handspring.

You remember earlier, how I said I was not athletic?

Yeah….

It took me two years to learn a front handspring.  Two years.  That is not hyperbole.  Here is a short list of the things I had to learn how to do so I could do a handspring:

  • Proper bridge (teardrop shape)
  • Handstand (entry)
  • Tick Tock onto mat (slow motion training for body shapes)
  • Handstand to bridge (more slow motion training for body shapes)
  • Walk up and down a wall to bridge (training back muscles for standing up)
  • Stand up from bridge (standing up)
  • Limber (this is handstand, bridge, stand up)
  • Do handstand to bridge down wedge mat
  • Do handstand to bridge to standing off a pile of mats (this was the end of year one)
  • Learn hurdles (the concept of a hurdle was the hardest thing ever)
  • Hurdle into a cartwheel (get used to hurdling and putting hands on the ground)
  • Hurdle into a cartwheel off the tumble track into a pile of squish mats
  • Hurdle into a handspring off the tumble track into a pile of squish mats (this happened the week of my 33rd birthday)
  • Hurdle into a handspring on the tumble track
  • Hurdle into a handspring onto the crash mat at the end of the tumble track
  • Hurdle over a mat into a cartwheel (I actually like this drill)
  • Handspring onto a folded up tumbling mat and onto a squishy mat (this was Summer and Fall 2015).
  • Handspring onto a folded up tumbling mat and onto the floor
  • Handspring

Through much of this, I was an uncoachable mess who became easily frustrated with herself.  My gymnastics coach is a saint.

Sometime during all of that training noted above, I learned about freestyle poomsae.  Freestyle poomsae is what happens when taekwondo and gymnastics get together and have a baby.  It’s basically gymnastics floor exercise, but with taekwondo.  There are a set of compulsory moves that have to be shown – mostly trick kicks, but among them is an “acrobatic action.”  In between the moves, you place poomsae choreography.  The whole thing is set to music.  I got it in my head that I needed to do this.  I needed to do it, and I needed to do it with The Handspring.

Something you need to understand about doing a handspring is that it is terrifying.  You have to throw your body head first at the ground.  Every time I go into the handspring, as my feet push off the ground, my head goes I AM GOING TO DIE!!!!  It is scary.

Another thing to know is that the acrobatic portion of a freestyle routine has to come at the end of the routine.  That meant that The Handspring would be one of the last things I did.  I actually did not know if I could do my routine and land a handspring after becoming exhausted.  I wrote it in anyway.

I have been practicing this routine for several weeks.  I have not once cleanly hit the handspring.  In fact, as the competition got closer, my handsprings got worse.  In practice this past week, my gymnastics coach – still a saint – helped me fix what I was doing wrong.  I started landing the skill on the spring floor again…but it was still a hot mess on dead floor.  I woke up yesterday not knowing if I was going to be able to land the skill in competition – and knowing that I’d find out right fast.

Of course, it was the very last event of the day.  And, of course, there were all sorts of technical difficulties (thanks in large part to my computer deciding to update to Windows 10 at the moment it was supposed to be playing my music – fortunately, another competitor let me borrow his computer. That’s one of the really cool things about the freestyle community; it is so incredibly supportive.  I have never felt like I was “competing” against any of these people.  It is as if we are all climbing a mountain, and we’re all excited when each person makes it to the top).

When it was my turn, I felt like I wanted to back out, run away screaming, and/or throw up.  Maybe all the above.  Life, however, is like a handspring.  Sometimes, you have to throw yourself head first into it and trust that your training will carry you through.

I nailed The Handspring.

There was a moment as I sat into my last move where my brain went “I did it,” but it didn’t sink in until I stepped off the mat.  Then I cried.  I cried for the two years of struggle that took me to that moment, and for the little girl who wanted to be a gymnast getting to be a gymnast, and for climbing that mountain.  Next month, I will be 34 years old.  I started martial arts at 28.  I started gymnastics at 30.  My whole life has been a story of being someone who is not athletic.  And I did that.

I finished second out of two – but I finally understood what Kirsten Dunst meant at the end of Bring It On.  It felt better than first.

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