Vaulting back in time

A 46-year-old takes up gymnastics again

MY MIDDLE finger was dislocated on my last back-handspring attempt. Now it's 29 years and 45 pounds later.

There’s a huge difference between weightlifting and exploding a front tuck off a trampoline. Or launching a vault. Or landing, for the first time, that alluring back-handspring.

Instead of just watching Olympic television, I’m taking a private gymnastics lesson.

I call Olympic Gold Medalist and NBC gymnastics analyst Tim Daggett for advice. Tim now runs Tim Daggett Gold Medal Gymnastics in Agawam, Mass., and will be with NBC in Beijing.

Tim and I once competed against each other in high school in ’79, my first and only year of gymnastics at age 17. Despite a broken, dislocated wrist, Tim wins the floor and vault. His West Springfield Terriers beat our Minnechaug Falcons. Tim doesn’t remember competing against me.

His key advice? “Stretch your stomach muscles.” Stomach muscles? There’s mucho stretching going on there: It ain’t all muscle.

Tim talks pre-lesson meals: “You’re going to want carbs. When I was competing, the night before I’d have a huge meal of pasta. On the mourning of, just a little bit of something for breakfast then a light lunch and I’d go at it.”

At midnight Friday I’m carb-loading: A mountain of spaghetti with ground chicken pasta sauce. Then blueberry pancakes on Saturday. At lesson time I’m energized. My stomach is stretched. I’m way confident.

The location: Summit Gymnastics here in Savannah. The gym’s well equipped (the floor for floor exercise is spring mounted!), comfortably air-conditioned, and clean. It’s the right place for me to succeed. (Thank you, Shelley Davis, for the use of your gym.)

My coach is Melinda Leigh Schmidt. Melinda, who has been teaching gymnastics for 13 years, was Pennsylvania all-around State Champion in 1989. Her Summit Gymnastics students finished first as a team in the novice division at the 2008 Georgia AAU gymnastics championships.

After stretching and warming up she demonstrates handstands, cartwheels. She’s good. Me? Not so good. I need help staying vertical on handstands. Cartwheels are smooth.

We move on: I need to get everything in. I’ll have to handstand in Forsyth Park. Round-offs I do well. Front handsprings? I’m slow, un-balanced. My posture: Poor. Repeated landing impact jars my spine.

After rapid fire attempts Melinda gives key instruction: “It’s how strong you are at pushing away from the floor and kicking your feet over your hands as you fly through the air.”

In 29 years of showing off handsprings on dates I hadn’t been pushing away from the floor! The next attempt I push, fly through the air, and don’t fall. But it isn’t good. I go again. Melinda gives more instruction, spots me (just a little?) and YES! I land it. Thank you Melinda!

Enough basics. It’s big, bad, back-handspring time. Melinda calls it “The gateway to all of the major gymnastics tumbling skills.” I want this skill.

We use a special “Pac-Man” training device until I’m comfortable. Away from the device Melinda spots me, helping me complete the skill. I’m not even close to trying it alone. Despite Melinda’s clear instructions, I fail.

Next I’m on a trampoline runway for a front tuck flip: I chicken out attempt number one. Number two is a very slow rear end splat onto a hugely cushioned mat. Again and again: SPLAT!

Finally I soar and land painfully flat on my back. My pulse is 144 beats a minute. I move faster, tuck tighter, everything meshes. I land on my feet, then crash ballistically forward onto my face. What a blast. I ignore the neck pain.

Almost landing the flip confidently returns me to back-handspringing on a three-foot thick, immensely cushioned mat. There’ll be no spotter. Unless I land on my head I shouldn’t get hurt.

I thrust with my legs, power through the flip, and land on my head. My necks twists. No pain! Again I land a back head spring. Again my neck twists. No pain!

And then it happens: Focus, determination, fearlessness, a springy mat and some skill lands on my feet. And that’s it. No more floor skills. I’m there. Exhilarating. I hit and hold a handstand!

There’s one thing left: The Vault. At Summit Gymnastics there’s a pit filled with squares of impact-cushioning sponge, a safe landing zone. Melinda’s impressive. I chicken out: A lazily attempted straddle vault ends in a belly flop. I’m angry at myself, but confident. The day has gone well.

Another attempt, another belly flop-face plant. It’s like I’m watching from outside my body as my head whiplashes backwards. So what? The pain is scary but I know I’m not injured. I want this. I crawl out of the pit. No panic, no hesitation. I’m laughing now, having fun.

Finally on my fourth attempt I’m in the zone. I fly through the air, push away from the vault, execute a handspring and land on my feet, sort of, over-rotate forward to my knees and then on to my backside into the sponge.

But no more. My legs are wobbly with excitement; my pulse rushing. I’m tired. I’m in full body pain. Glorious, wonderful, injury-free, “I pushed myself and survived” pain.

I’m ecstatic, and disappointed. I never tried round-off back-handsprings. My legs were too spent. But I did things at 46 that I couldn’t do at 17. Wow. And I got great instruction on technique and safety. And I had fun.

Would you like to try this for yourself? Do you have a daughter who might want to learn gymnastics or cheerleading? Give Shelley or Melinda a call at Summit Gymnastics.

Or if you just want to step away from televised Olympics August 23-24, Summit Gymnastics will be hosting the Summit Classic gymnastic meet at their Montgomery Cross Road location. If there was a Men’s Masters category I’d be getting my floor routine and vaults ready.