Two recent events have made me pause and ponder, so if you don’t mind a little philosophy…
By now, pretty much the whole world has seen the video of gymnast Katelyn Ohashi scoring a perfect 10 at the Collegiate Challenge. If this somehow got past you, go to the UCLA Gymnastics Twitter feed and watch a minute and a half of near-physical impossibility. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Is that not phenomenal? As many have noted by now, part of what makes Katelyn’s routine so irresistibly fun is her obvious enjoyment. This is a gymnast having a good time at competition, taking delight in what she has trained her body to do.
For those of us who normally watch gymnastics only during the Olympics, this is not something we’re used to seeing. There, we see a deadly serious business conducted by unsmiling teenagers (except during their floor routines) who appear to have traded a childhood for a shot at a medal.
Here, let’s watch Katelyn again, enjoying herself every bit as much as she moonwalks through a 9.950 score, this time putting her team over the top to win the Pac-12 Championships last year.
What I notice in this video, besides the eye-popping skill and the contagious joy, is that Katelyn’s entire team is doing the routine with her. Just watch them dancing and shuffle/clapping through the Michael Jackson “Thriller” move. That is really something you don’t see in elite competition.
It wasn’t always like this for Katelyn Ohashi.
At one time, she seemed destined to sit atop the heap of elite gymnastics. She was on the USA Gymnastics team for four years, winning the junior championship in 2011 and beating teammate Simone Biles to win the American Cup in 2013. The next step was the Olympics.
It all fell apart when her body did. Sixteen years old at the time, she had been competing with a torn shoulder. Recovering from that, she returned to competition and suffered a fractured back that required surgery. By the time she emerged from that setback, she had decided to retire from elite gymnastics.
Her path changed dramatically when she met Valorie Kondos Field, head coach of the UCLA Gymnastics team. “Miss Val,” as she is affectionately known, offered Katelyn a scholarship and a completely different philosophy of competition: one built on teamwork, authenticity, and true care for her athletes.
In this new environment, Katelyn thrived — and rediscovered her joy in gymnastics. It was a joy that had been missing for a long time.
This 6-minute video is very much worth watching, as it tells the story of Katelyn’s journey from promising junior gymnast to sensational collegiate success. One of the things I noticed while watching: Katelyn does not smile in the early footage. Miss Val changed that.
“I look up to my coach so much,” she says in the video. “My mom wasn’t exactly happy when I quit elite gymnastics to go to college. Miss Val asked her why she had, like, a change of heart. And she said, ‘I see how happy my daughter is.'”
This got me curious about Valorie Kondos Field, so I looked her up. Guess what? She’s not a gymnast. She has never been a gymnast. She hasn’t done so much as a flip. What she has done is ballet: at the Sacramento Ballet, the Capital City Ballet, and the Washington, D.C. Ballet. Yet she is considered one of the finest gymnastics coaches of all time, having taken the Bruins to seven NCAA national championships and fifteen PAC-12 conference championships.
How does a ballet dancer go on to become one of the winningest gymnastics coaches of all time? Miss Val just published a book that shares her methods: Life is Short, Don’t Wait to Dance. From her book page:
Valorie Kondos Field — or Miss Val, as she’s affectionately known — has never even tumbled, flipped, or ever played any type of organized sports and yet she has been able to craft a legendary coaching career through curiosity, creativity, intention to detail, and unwavering care for the overall well-being of her athletes. For Miss Val, it’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about choreographing your life and owning the choices you make.
Choreographing your life, prioritizing well-being…these resonated with me, along with Katelyn’s restored joy, because I made a choice last year that has had similar results.
I was putting a great deal of pressure on myself to “succeed” as a novelist — meaning, sell enough books to make a living at it. As anyone affiliated with publishing knows, this is possible, but so is winning the lottery. One’s best chance is to write romance, which I don’t, and to be extremely good at self-marketing and social media, which I’m not.
After one too many sleepless nights, in which I woke in the wee hours and couldn’t get back to sleep due to the mental hamster wheel whirling uselessly — you should be doing X, and learning how to do Y, and why haven’t you done Z yet? — I arrived at a realization: I could define success for myself.
And so I have. I succeed when I live my one and only life in a way that brings joy to me and those around me. When I put out the very best work I can, right down to the last individual word choice. When I write stories that are complex enough to reward multiple re-readings, and universal enough to stand the test of time.
I am already succeeding.
It was surprisingly easy to take the pressure off myself, and once I did, a funny thing happened: I rediscovered the joy of writing. Like Katelyn Ohashi, I am smiling through my routine.
Way up at the top of this post, I said two recent events had inspired my pondering. The second was the death of the incomparable poet Mary Oliver.
One of the most famous and oft-quoted Oliver lines, from her poem “The Summer Day,” is what kick-started me into writing novels in the first place. This was the line:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Today I went back and reread the whole poem — and I see it with new eyes. It is not, as my spotty memory told me, a challenge to make the most of one’s life. It is an exhortation to live, to enjoy the tiny pleasures of life, for the limited time we have.
Here it is in its entirety:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
There is wisdom in the world, shared by those who have already learned the lessons. Miss Val teaches it to her athletes, and brought joy to a “broken” young woman as a result. Mary Oliver taught it to millions with her words, and continues to do so after her death.
Perhaps the ultimate success is not just to live in joy, but to teach others to do the same — and to leave beauty behind when we go.