You can spend a decade learning something, but what happens when you lose that skill. Max Hauptman on learning to move on from a lifetime dedication.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a gym in Brooklyn. Over in one corner, there was a set of rings suspended from the ceiling. I used to be a gymnast in school, and even though I’m 29 now and haven’t competed in years, I decided to try and do one of my old moves, an iron cross. You know the one—you’ve seen it in every commercial for the Olympics. The gymnast with his arms extended out from his shoulders, suspended in midair by the rings. It…didn’t go so well. And at that moment, I realized for the first time that I’d never be able to do that again. The heart may be willing, but for a gymnast age betrays you.
I started gymnastics when I was ten. I picked it up pretty quickly, and soon enough I was at practice after school 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. I couldn’t get enough. For each of the six events–floor, Floor, Vault, Rings, the High Bar, the Parallel Bars, the Pommel Horse–I liked the joy of mastering each new routine, each new skill. Having such control over your body makes you feel like you have control over everything else in your life. It gives you the confidence to do anything you want.
There were weekend competitions all over the northeast in the winter and spring. Syracuse, NY. Allentown, PA. Waterbury, CT. When I was 14 I was the New York State All-Around Champion for my age-group, and I displayed that gold medal on my desk for years.
With gymnastics, there is a pretty small window in you’ll ever be really good—elite. Every year you get older, that window closes some more. By the time I was 20, in college, it was shut for me. I had hours of physics homework waiting after practice, and I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to master another skill, another routine. So, I stopped, going. April, 2007, almost exactly 10 years ago this month.
All those skills I’d spent weeks, months, years training for disappeared. Something that had been such a fundamental part of my life was just…gone. And all of those hours I’d normally spent at practice were filled with new experiences, new challenges, new things I wasn’t necessarily as good at and couldn’t control as much. Like being an Army officer, responsible for the lives of other men and women.
My body still carries some physical reminders. The exaggerated curve on my ring finger from the time I broke it and set it with a popsicle stick a week before Nationals. The way my right leg still gets sore at the spot I broke it in 10th grade, right below the knee.
When you lose a physical skill, it can’t be replaced– it’s like a part of you dies. That might sound a little exaggerated, but it’s true. That part of your life doesn’t exist anymore, except as a memory. And you can only wonder how much better you might have been. Sometimes, I’ll still have dreams where I’m at practice or a competition. I remember my routines perfectly. I think what I miss the most is the sense of purpose that it provided. I’ve been searching for it ever since. And letting go of gymnastics means learning to accept that I can’t have that kind of mastery over my life ever again.
That gold medal is still at Max’s old home, his mom won’t hesitate to show it off.