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B E E N  T H E R E:  D O I N G   I T   M Y   W A Y

Jessica Davis

December 1997

"Halfway is like doing nothing."

A conversation with Olympic Gymnast, Jessica Davis

Jessica fell in love with rhythmic gymnastics at the age of 7. She trained to be the best in her nation and in 1996 was part of the United States Women's Gymnastics team at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. What did it take to get to the Olympics? What "normal" teen stuff did she have to give up along the way? Jessica, now 19, has learned a lot about setting goals and accomplishing them, not just in her sport, but in life.

Jessica DavisThe InSite: What first got you involved in gymnastics?

Jessica: When I was 7 my Physical Education teacher invited some kids into the gym. She was an artistic and rhythmic gymnastics coach. I was in a general gymnastics class for the first day, then I saw rhythmic... I can't even remember it that well now but for some reason I just felt that that was what I wanted to do.

TI: As your interest grew, what did you do?

Jessica: I joined a local club that my gym teacher taught at. I took a general gymnastics class and then moved to a rhythmic gymnastics class specialized for preteens.

TI: How often did you practice?

Jessica: Two or three days a week for a couple of hours each time. It just kept progressing. I moved up levels. I was one of the youngest competitors.

TI: How did that feel to be watching girls who were older, stronger and had better endurance?

Jessica: I remember it being so nice to have someone to look up to. Someone to envy and admire. [Watching those girls]...you knew what working hard was! There were girls in my gym who were on the National Team so I think it helped my motivation. I can say this now that I've made it somewhere, but I don't know if I would have had a different point of view if I hadn't made it to the Olympics. Because of what happened to me I can look back and be happy about most of the stuff that happened.

TI: Did working out with girls who were on the National Team help make that a goal for you?

Jessica: I don't set goals beyond the next day. I don't want to be disappointed. That's my biggest fear... disappointment. So I make easier goals for myself. That's what works for me, but for some people, they need long term goals, like when they're 10 years old they'll say "I'm going to go to the Olympics when I'm twenty five." I couldn't do that. I'd have to say to myself each day. "My goal is to have a good practice. Give everything I have in me for that practice."

I don't set goals beyond the next day. I don't want to be disappointed.

TI: That's a pretty mature and realistic way to look at things for a young person!

Jessica: [laughing] I'm not sure if I thought about it consciously then, but that's how I thought, especially for my last couple of years.

TI: Okay, so back to your road to the Olympics, you progressed up the levels...

Jessica: The first year I was able to make it to the National Championships I didn't make it. (There is a Junior National Team, for kids under the age of 14 and a Senior National Team for kids over 14.) Everyone on my whole team [but me] made it.

TI: Wow! That must have been a major disappointment!

Jessica: I was disappointed, and I was sad because everyone got to travel to Miami, Florida and I was at home. And just because of one competition, one bad day... I didn't make it. I worked a long time for this one day and it didn't happen. But I think it was meant to be. It taught me a lesson. It taught me to work harder. In order to succeed you have to fail. That was one of the many failures I had before I actually made it somewhere.

It taught me a lesson...
In order to succeed you have to fail.

TI: And if you hadn't failed that first time?

Jessica: I think I would have taken everything for granted. I can't say that one thing changed my view of how I trained, but it did tell me that I'm not going to get it by sitting on the side thinking "I don't have to do anything. I'll just receive everything."

TI: What kind of reaction and support did you get from the other girls on the team and from the coach when you didn't make the National Championships?

Jessica: Everyone kept saying, "Next year." And especially since I was the youngest on the team it was "Oh, you'll make it next year."

TI: Did hearing that make you feel any better?

Jessica: It did. But it also scared me. "What if I don't make it next year?" And still to the last National Championships, when I was 18 years old, I still had the fear that I wasn't going to make it to the National Championships! Even though I had been the National Champion the year before.

TI: So what happened the following year?

Jessica: I worked hard and I made it to the National Championships. I got 19th (out of 40 in my age group.) I tied with my team mate who had made it to the National Championships the year before, so she was a little upset. She said to me "I should be beating you! I've been to more National Championships than you have."

TI: She obviously wasn't feeling very friendly at that moment, but you must have felt great!

Jessica: I was proud of myself. I was just happy to be there. I was with some of the top gymnasts in the country. Just to be able to see them was enough.

TI: What was the next step for you?

Jessica: You train all year, and you have competitions from January to about June. The National Championships are in June of every year. So I was 19th in June of 1990 and the next year I was 8th!

TI: Let's step back from the gymnastics part of your life for a minute. You were still going to school throughout this, right?

Jessica: Yes, I was still going to school.

My parents were supportive...they never pushed me too hard.

TI: Now how often were you training?

Jessica: Five days a week for three hours each day.

TI: And then you'd come home and do homework?

Jessica: I went to a private school, so I did have a lot of work. But throughout my life I have been able to budget my time. My parents helped me a lot. I'm fortunate because a lot of people don't have their parents to help them out like that. My parents were supportive but they never pushed me too hard. They always said, "You can quit if you want or you can go on." You hear a lot of parents push their kids way too hard, and I never allowed my parents in the gym. Still, to this day, I don't allow them in the gym [during practice].

TI: How about during meets?

Jessica: I allowed my parents [to watch] during meets because I didn't know where they were [sitting]. But I never allowed anyone besides my parents and my sister come to competitions. None of my aunts or uncles or anyone.

TI: Being on a team with girls who have different degrees of determination to reach a goal, I'm sure you learn a lot about what makes people tick.

Jessica: Coaching has really showed me how people train. I am coaching these kids now, and I look back on my experiences and I say, "These kids see me work out every day. Why don't they have the motivation?" I actually did this today! I went up to one girl and asked, "Do you really want to do this sport? Because you cannot do it half way. You either have to do it all the way or not at all. Half way is like doing nothing." I don't think you can give it just a little. In everything you do you should give it your all.

...you cannot do it half way...
Half way is like doing nothing.

TI: And what did the girl say when you asked her that?

Jessica: She said, "Yes" (this is a twelve year old girl). And I said "Well, why does it look like you're not trying? And she said, "Well, I'm tired." And I said, "You have to fight through your pain and how you're feeling to have a good practice."

TI: Have you been in that situation where you were really tired or in pain?

Jessica: [laughing] Almost every day of the last year of my gymnastics competitive career was like that!

TI: How do you "work through" that and have a good practice when your body is tired and hurting? Or your mind is somewhere else?

Jessica: A lot of it is goals. It's so hard because I didn't want to consciously think that "Oh, God! The Olympics is right around the corner." But I think that somewhere inside, that's what was pushing me. And although the practices were hard, and yes, I wanted to do good, but I [also]loved to do gymnastics.

TI: So there you were on the Junior National Team, what was the next step to get to the Olympics?

Jessica: Then I had four years on the Senior National Team. And I was National Champion for two of those years. People don't know what a long and hard process it is. It's not just the day before the Olympics they say you can go.

People don't know what a long and hard process it is.

TI: [laughing] Somehow I just knew they didn't do it that way!

Jessica: First of all, you have to have experience at the World Championships and in other competitions around the world. So people see who you are. Because name does matter. There are World Championships. European championships. Pan American Games, between North American and South America. So it's very important that three years before the Olympics you get good experience. No one knows who's going to go to the Olympics. So the judges... from the National Championships, decide who's going to go to the World Championships. But the person who goes to the Olympics could be someone completely different from the person who went to the World Championships three years before. It's good if you have that experience, which I did.

TI: It sounds like you go through a series of hurdles and get to a certain level. Then what happens?

Jessica: The third World Championships I went to was in Vienna [Austria] and that determined how many spots each country got at the Olympic Games. You have to place in the top 40 and I was the only American that did. The other American had a horrible meet and got 55th. So that meant the United States only had one spot on the Olympic team [in rhythmic gymnastics].

TI: Was that other girl someone you knew?

Jessica: Yes.

TI: And did she feel terrible?

Jessica: She did. But it was her first World Championship that she had ever been to and she had a lot of pressure on her. She had not had that much experience and to go in and have that pressure and try to get a second spot for the United States... and she was very young, she was only 15. I was 17.

TI: Part of it is the physical training, but part sounds like it's psychological.

Jessica: So much of it is. It's so hard to stay focused and not think about the fact that you have so much pressure on you and that it's all up to you. After the World Championship, that meant that I got the U.S. a spot but that didn't mean that I got myself a spot! Then I had to go to competitions throughout the year and then I had to go to the National Championships. The top 8 from the National Championships go to the Olympic Trials. So I won the National Championships and made it to the Olympic Trials. And whoever won the Olympic Trials was to go to the Olympics. You couldn't get anything less than first.

TI: And you did!

Jessica: Yes.

TI: Talk about pressure.

Jessica: I have to say it's very political because they knew I was a two-time National Champion. I had more experience than the other girls. A lot of them were younger and when they see that they don't have a chance, it's sad but it's true, a lot of the girls, when they saw they were 4th or 5th on the National Team and knew they had to get 1st at the Olympic Trials, they started dropping off. They didn't want to make it to the last couple of months knowing they didn't have that much of a chance.

...in the back of their minds, they say "This person knows how to represent her country well."

TI: Who are the judges at these things?

Jessica: At the National competitions, there are 8 [American] judges and they've all seen you before.

TI: So they are not really basing their rating of you on this one day?

Jessica: They say it is, but I think, in the back of their minds, they say "This person knows how to represent her country well."

TI: "She knows how to stand up under pressure, because we've seen her."

Jessica: Exactly.

TI: So you got to go to the Olympics! What was that like?

Jessica: Overwhelming. It was a lot of fun. Our sport was the last 4 days. We had to go through the whole Olympics where everyone was competing and finishing and we're at the very end.

TI: Were you still training while you were there?

Jessica: Oh, yeah! We trained 2 or 3 times a day. Everyday at Atlanta. We were all tired out, and a little burned out. So we went to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. That was a lot of fun.

TI: What happened to you at the Olympics?

Jessica: I would never give excuses but I know that a lot of it was political. We didn't have an American judge at our competition. Because our judge didn't qualify; the judges have to qualify too.

TI: What do the judges have to do to qualify?

Jessica: They have to give scores at the World Championships that are in the range of all the other judges. New Zealand had a judge there [at the gymnastics Olympic competition] but they didn't have an athlete there. And I think that some countries even had two judges! It gets to be really difficult.

TI: How'd you feel about your performance?

Jessica: I'm a little disappointed at my performance. But I didn't really know what to expect. I would have loved to place higher, and in some ways I don't understand why I didn't. I know I wasn't near the best gymnast there, but I do wish I could go back and do that all over again. I think if I knew I was going to get a Gold Medal, then I would be able to go through the pain of 11 years of training for that...

I do wish I could go back and do that all over again.

TI: But no one ever knows that, Jessica!

Jessica: [laughing] I know! I say I wish I could do it all over again, but then I remember those days when I came home from practice crying saying, "I don't want to do this! This is too hard! I can't handle the pressure." So... I don't know. The Olympics was definitely not my peak. I was tired. I had a peak earlier in the year, at the National Championships, then I went downhill, because I just couldn't do anymore.

TI: What a tremendous honor, though, to get to the Olympic Games. And I'm sure you feel that way too. How many millions of girls around the world aspire to that, and you made it! You said earlier that you did all of this hard work, because you loved to do gymnastics. Did you find any girls on the team that you suspected did NOT love it for themselves.

Jessica: Definitely! There were about five or six girls who were my same age when I was going through my training and then they got to high school and suddenly their focus changed. Right before high school I said, "I don't want that to happen to me." I wanted to be focused on my education but I didn't want to get carried away with the social aspect of high school. I wanted to focus on something that I could achieve. Some kind of goal, that I could be proud of myself when I finished.

TI: It doesn't just happen that one's social life becomes more important, that's a choice. And you chose to stick with your sport. Did you go to school dances? Did you date? Or did you give up that part of high school in order to focus on gymnastics?

I knew I had the rest of my life to do those things... I'll be able to say "I was in France during prom!"

Jessica: The weird thing is that a lot of people say that they had to "Give it [a social life] up." I could have had a boyfriend but I didn't have time. And I didn't really want to make time. I knew I had the rest of my life to do those things and although I'll look back at high school and say "I never went to a prom." I'll be able to say "I was in France during prom!" But then I look at kids who give up all of that [high school social stuff] but they won't be able to say "...but I went to the Olympics." For me I felt it was the right choice, but for a lot of people maybe they wish they didn't. I know a lot of girls who do home schooling, and I looked at that and I was thinking, I'd have more time for practice, but I think you do still need a balance of interaction with kids.

TI: How about the social stuff that's not romantic... you know, friends. Was that something that you were able to make time for?

Jessica: I had a couple of close friends in high school, but no one understood what I was going through. Even my teammates... I'm a pretty competitive person so I was pretty competitive with my teammates. We had a good relationship outside of the gym, but inside of the gym it was competitive.

TI: Sharing common experiences is the basis of most high school friendships. You know that you're all kinda in the same boat together, but you really weren't.

Jessica: I felt like I always had to explain myself, and things I was doing so I just left it alone.

TI: I've heard a lot about gymnasts who have eating disorders. Is that something you have ever encountered around girls you knew who were involved in the sport?

Jessica: Definitely! Any time you're in a sport that is subjective, you're going to be that way. Anytime you're in a leotard and [the judges] are looking at your body, you're going to be self-conscious, especially for a girl. I cannot say that I was anorexic or bulimic, or anything like that, because I wasn't, but I was very conscious of everything I ate. And it wasn't from my coach, it was from myself! No one ever pushed me, though I do remember, when I was younger, I had heard so many things from older teammates about that age 13, when you go through puberty, things change. That was always their excuse why they got bigger. And I wanted to stop myself from getting bigger.

I know stories of girls who were anorexic...
a lot of it was their coaches who called them
"...fat and stupid and ugly..."

TI: How do you do that, when nature says, "It's time for you to turn into a woman."

Jessica: In [the book] "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes"... they blow everything out of proportion.

TI: You don't think the descriptions in that book about gymnasts and eating disorders are representative of the sport in general?

Jessica: No. I think they took a lot of the bad cases. If you took the people who won the Gold Medal at the Olympics, then they will not say "I was starved." But there are a lot of problems, I can't say that there aren't. I know stories of girls who were anorexic, especially, and girls who took laxatives, and a lot of it was their coaches who called them "...fat and stupid and ugly..." and things like that. My coach never did that. It was definitely for myself that I wanted to stay thin and in shape and represent the U.S. well.

TI: What are you up to these days?

Jessica: I'm traveling on this John Hancock Tour of World Gymnastics Champions now. And I'm with the Olympic Gold Medalists like Shannon Miller, Dominic Dawes, Dominic Moccianu and all the girls on the Wheaties box! Traveling with them, I listen to their stories about their training and I feel there are so many similarities [between what they went through and what I went through]. Except they did have a lot more pressure with the media. But the things that they gave up are so similar to what I gave up and yet they have a Gold Medal in their pockets. And sometimes it makes me feel like anything compared to them is never enough. Because they've achieved so much that it's difficult, you know? But I've had the most amazing experience. We're almost at the end of the tour now. I wish I could do it forever, but it doesn't happen that way.

...the things that they gave up are so similar to what I gave up and yet they have a Gold Medal in their pockets.

TI: And when the tour ends, then what?

Jessica: I've been thinking a lot about that lately. I would continue to do gymnastics competitively forever, but I know there are a lot of young kids coming up and at 19 I don't think I'd be able to compete with them.

TI: Is 19 considered old in this sport?

Jessica: It's just how long your body can last. And also how long you can stay in shape. Like I said, for me, I have to give it everything, and I don't think I can go to college and have a fulfilling, satisfying, gymnastics career, competitively.

TI: So what's the next step for you?

Jessica: There are some professional competitions in the beginning of the Spring [1998]. After that, I don't know what's going to motivate me to keep up my gymnastics, but I would like to keep it up as long as I can.

TI: If there was something you could say to the teens of the world about selecting a goal for yourself (no matter what that might be) and finding the strength within yourself to keep working towards that goal, what have you learned?

Jessica: Whatever you do, make sure it's something that you love. Because if you're going to give it everything that you have in you, you should love to do it. You shouldn't do it for your parents or your coach, you should do it for yourself because you want to achieve something and be proud of yourself.

Whatever you do, make sure it's something that you love... if you're going to give it everything... you should love to do it.

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