“Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders and Elusive Olympic Dreams” by Jennifer Sey
Gymnastics, Olympics, women’s sports
October 23, 2009
4 of 5 stars (very good)
Jennifer Sey was the 1986 U.S. Women’s Gymnastics champion and the road that she took that eventually led her to this championship was filled with drama, heartbreak, injury and eventually triumph. Everything that she and her family went through to get to that pinnacle is chronicled in her memoir “Chalked Up.” It is an honest look at the life of elite gymnastics, a sport in which many participants retire from the sport before obtaining a high school diploma.
Sey covers a lot of topics in the book as the title implies. While this was a book that I found as a bargain book a few years ago, I was intrigued to finally read this when the actions of a gymnastics coach toward his gymnasts made recent news. The book read as I expected considering the nature of the topics and the fact that it was a memoir by an athlete that has long retired from her sport.
The Parkettes are an elite gymnastics team that trains in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That is a two hour commute from the Sey’s home in New Jersey, but between Sey’s obsession to be the best gymnast and her mother’s willingness to do anything to help her daughter obtain that dream, that didn’t stop them from getting Jennifer a spot on this team. It is there that her experiences with debilitating injuries, abusive coaches and eating disorders begin. She talks about the way coaches demean the gymnasts while the owner constantly reminds them of how “fat” they are.
How Sey continues to thrive in this environment is something she explains through the emotions she felt and her constant fear of failure. More than her competitive drive or her skills, I was taken aback by how freely she was able to write about her emotions, especially her fears. This passage from a practice session on the balance beam while a Parkette was one of the most powerful expressions of this fear: “ The fear never abates. It is constant, relieved only in the instant I have landed on my feet. It surges again and again and again. Agitation and fright is my perpetual state of existence. But I ignore it as I climb back up onto the beam and begin rocking.”
This book received much scrutiny when it was published, including pushback from some of Sey’s Parkettes teammates. While I read these reviews and comments, I felt the book was simply an honest assessment by her of her life as a gymnast, both the good and the bad. It wasn’t the best written or most powerful memoir I read, but it was a revealing look at the world of gymnastics that paints a different picture than that shown every four years during the Olympics telecasts, which is usually the only time many sports fans watch the sport. It is a book that is recommended for any reader who wants to learn more about the world these young girls live in in order to entertain the television viewers around the world.
Book Format Read: