In less than a month The End of the Perfect 10 will be published and as my anxiety mounts over its publication and reception, it helps to remind myself why I decided to write this book in the first place.
Like many gymnastics fans, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about the sport when I was growing up. This was in the pre-internet days so there were no blogs or Tumblrs or message boards. In short, there was no gymternet. The literary pickings for an ardent gym fan were quite slim. I had to rely on whatever the public library had to loan. I took out the same books over and over again. There was a biography of Mary Lou Retton that I hid under my bed rather than return it. (My mother caught me and made me bring it back and pay the fine.) There was a how-to gymnastics guide that had diagrams for basic skills like handstands and walkovers, which is how I first learned how to do, or, to be more accurate, attempt those elements. (That book also contained a bit of history and I assiduously studied the index for gymnasts names.) And then there was the classic, A Very Young Gymnast, which followed the adventures of Torrance York, an aspiring gymnasts in the late 70s and early 80s. Aside from the odd gymnastics article here or there–I didn’t discover the existence of International Gymnast Magazine until I was around 12, a full five years after I started doing gymnastics–that was it. It was only around the Olympics that my thirst for gymnastics reading material was fully quenched.
When I was younger, I didn’t read critically. There were no bad books about gymnastics; just books I hadn’t yet gotten my grubby little hands on. But as I matured, my reading tastes evolved too. I still loved gymnastics but I wanted to read articles and books that were as interesting and complex as the sport itself. Also, I had a coach so I no longer needed the diagrams and how-tos. (Besides, diagrams are really shitty at spotting for back handsprings.)
Though there were good pieces here and there, most of the coverage tended to be very superficial, always focusing on the basics–who is the new adorable superstar, how wide the balance beam is, and the Olympics. (In its obsessive focus on the Games, gymnastics was not considered an entity that existed year round in its own right; rather, it was only something worth analyzing or discussing in the context of the Olympics.) Or there were memoirs riddled with cliches about hard work and overcoming obstacles.
I still continued to read everything I could find about gymnastics, a task made easier when I got online and connected to the wider fan community on message boards and social media. In the online space, fans and experts were able to have interesting conversations about the sport that couldn’t be found in regular coverage. I learned so much in those early years reading about gymnastics online.
Even though I now had a better reading outlet for gymnastics, I was still disappointed with the mainstream coverage of the sport. I believed that it could be so much better and detailed without sacrificing accessibility. I really believed that we could bring more people into the gymnastics tent if we contextualized the sport in the greater athletic world as opposed to treating it as an Olympic “other.”
Around the 2012 Olympics, I decided to stop grousing so much (but not completely otherwise I would not be me) and be the change I wanted to see in gymnastics writing. I was really gratified by how my work around the Olympics was received and very grateful to editors at places like Slate and Deadspin for trusting me and letting me write without much interference. These editors let me assume a certain level of intelligence and competency in the readership, that even if they didn’t know a lot about gymnastics, they could read about it as they did the other sports they followed and enjoyed and find it relevant. I hoped that these readers would enjoy my work the way I enjoyed journalism and analysis about sports that are unfamiliar to me, which, at last count, was almost all of them. If I could read a really good, complex article or book about tennis then why couldn’t the average sports fan read an interesting story about gymnastics if it was well crafted?
I wrote the book with a similar idea in mind. In my perfect world, I want mainstream readers to appreciate the book, if not all of the particulars, and find it relevant to other sports, to gender, to politics, etc. Gymnastics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of the greater sporting culture even if this fact is rarely recognized.
And for the gymnastics fan, who is near and dear to my heart (BECAUSE I AM ONE OF YOU), I wanted to offer a book that contains some new information and analysis (though I doubt that I can totally surprise the most passionate gymnerd). But more than anything, I wanted to present the sport we all know and love holistically–its past and its present, its good and bad, its beautiful and ugly. I only hope that the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters in the book are as rich as the sport itself.