Back in the day, when you had to dial a telephone, I hated the pommel horse.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the apparatus, it is used in men’s gymnastics. It is kind of a saddle with grips. Make that a torture device with grips.
For many schools, gymnastics was a regular offering on your schedule of physical education class skills. I think it filled a notch between square dancing and that parachute you used to pull up as a group, then pull down quick so you could sit under it. You must have lived a little if you understand these activities.
In any event, we learned the rings, the parallel bar, some acrobatics, vaulting, the trampoline and, of course, the dreaded pommel horse. Each year from fifth to eighth grade, they would put a big chart on the wall with each device and the skills we had to perform on each. Swivel hips on the trampoline was easy, a giant on the horizontal bar was not so bad. Moving around that pommel horse by using your hands and swinging your legs was like doing upside-down pull-ups.
The gym teacher would watch the students give each activity a whirl. Performing a basic skill correctly would get you points. If you did everything correctly, you got the magic 1,000.
Even though my arms were more soggy pasta than muscle, I was pretty good at most of the stuff. Each year I would get closer to 1,000, but I never could swing my legs all the way around that pommel horse in one fluid movement. Not until eighth grade.
I finally felt like a regular Viktor Klimenko when I hit that 1,000. OK, Klimenko, an Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union on the pommel horse, isn’t exactly a household name. Like me, most of our elite U.S. gymnasts weren’t very good at the pommel horse when I was a kid.
Since Americans love a challenge, our gymnasts, both male and female, became competitive on a world scale. We did it through private clubs and coaches, and not so much public high schools, which produce most of our NFL, MLB and NBA stars.
I know the reason why gymnastics has floundered in high schools as a whole. It’s really hard.
That point was hammered home when I attended the Columbus East-Seymour girls gymnastics meet on Friday.
Those of you who attend these meets understand. Performing some of these basic skills on the vault, uneven bars, balance beam or floor exercise can represent an enormous victory. We, though, as spectators, have no clue.
We’re spoiled because we only pay attention to gymnastics once every four years during the Olympics.
We see pixies who have trained 24/7 to move around that balance beam like high-elevation, elf steel workers. They do back flips and land the way most of us jump off the dock and hit the water.
They make it look so easy that we forget it is impossibly difficult. So when a high school sophomore releases from that higher bar and successfully catches herself and maneuvers around the lower one, we simply can’t understand the work involved and that the move is a major triumph. We’re waiting for that under-swing with front pike salto dismount.
Add to that fact that most of our high school students are, well, regular people. Sure, you do get some pixies, such as Seymour freshman Alyssa Goen, who is lighter than the feathers inside your pillow. But as a lot, we Americans are bigger, stronger, more muscular than ever. That doesn’t exactly play into the general makeup of the sport.
Then there is the environment of a high school meet. They tell you to turn off your cellphone, yet little girls lie around the floor with their new electronic, beeping games. Some athletes perform in church-service silence, while others are tiptoeing along the balance beam when music suddenly blares to start a floor exercise routine. When East senior Daran Brady landed the only back flip attempted on the balance beam, the Eagles’ “Desperado” was playing in the background.
Brady is fantastic, so her tricks leave us in awe. But the courage and perseverance of these athletes captured my attention more than anything else. Watching a girl do a face plant into the mat on a failed attempt to swing around those uneven bars, then compose herself in front of all those groaning spectators and climb aboard for another try, melts your heart. Dealing with that kind of adversity and embarrassment builds integrity.
When I watch that kind of effort, I hope that gymnastics sticks around high schools. Yes, even if it means keeping a pommel horse around.