As you likely already know, my name is Jennifer, and I am 38 years old. I have a husband, a 3 year old daughter, and a baby girl who is 9 months old. Over my life, I was a musician, a high-performance athlete in multiple sports, a professional race car driver, gymnastics coach, certified personal trainer. I am currently a professional ballroom dancer, high-performance trampoline coach, trampoline judge, and wellness coach. This is the story of my journey from past to present, part 1.
I have suffered through bouts of depression throughout my life since 12 years old. I am hopeful that through sharing my story, I can inspire others. It’s my hope that others see you can overcome adversity no matter how far you think you have fallen.
Or how dark of a place you are in.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”— Lao Tzu.
I was a lucky child
Growing up, I came from a very loving home. We were not rich by any means, but they managed. I was fortunate to have parents who fostered my love of everything.
They always found a way to make sure I could try anything I wanted. My parents put me in piano when I was 3 years old and started me on the Saxophone when I was 11years old. I also participated at a competitive level in almost every sport I was in. This included gymnastics, hockey, soccer, baseball, volleyball, horseback riding, tennis, basketball, bowling, and swimming.
I competed in piano competitions starting at the age of 6 and competed with my jazz band when I was 14.
Although I loved to compete at everything, I took gymnastics and hockey to a high-performance level.
My parents never pressured me into anything and always double-checked that I was sure about my decisions to commit most of my time to 1 or 2 sports. At 11, I decided I wanted to focus on gymnastics. I would train 30+ hrs per week. I still played other sports, but that meant attending many different activities in 1 day. My Saturday schedule would consist of bowling first thing in the morning, followed by hockey, followed by gymnastics. I would squeeze in volleyball before school, and a piano lesson after school before training started for gymnastics. Depending on the time of year, activities would get added, and the schedule would change, but I was always busy every day, and I loved it.
When I was 13 years old, I suffered a terrible ankle injury. I tore the ligaments on my right ankle from a bad vault Landing.
I remember the black and blue running from my foot to my mid-shin. My ankle was never the same after the injury, and I suffered from chronic ankle swelling and pain.
The reality of a toxic culture
As my hopes and dreams of making it to the top faded away, I had to face a crushing reality. I needed to be realistic about my situation, which is hard for any teenager to do. I knew I wasn’t the most talented athlete, but I had an excellent work ethic and thought my dedication would get me where I wanted to go.
My physical limitations were not going to allow that to happen. My parents sat me down and we had the “talk”.
They pointed out that I wouldn’t make any national teams, and dreaming about going to the Olympics one day was no more. My parents hit me with the hard questions: “So… are you wanting to put yourself through this any more?”.
This question was about the toxic environment I was exposed to at the gym.
The injury was a way for my parent to get me to agree to leave. My parents knew I was exposed to an abusive environment, but I would not let them pull me out. I would eat, sleep, and breathe gymnastics. This was THE high-performance centre for gymnastics, and I really believed that it would be my chance at being the best (so I thought).
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I was willing to put up with ANYTHING to become the best.
If my parents knew the true extent of what I went through, they would have pulled me from the program long before the injury. I finished up the year and decided I could not give up gymnastics entirely, and I would just cut back my hours. My current club only offered high-performance, so I said goodbye to my friends and switched gymnastics clubs to continue to train “for fun” and only 10 hrs a week.
This was difficult because I had to leave a gym I was all too familiar with, and I had to leave my friends.
Reflecting back on my experiences, what the rest of the athletes and I went through was not acceptable by today’s standards, but that’s just how it was back then.
Looking back, I can see how bad things really were. Having my legs, feet slapped, and arms hit. Or yelled at across the gym was nothing compared to the emotional abuse we all suffered at the hands of the people who were supposed to look out for our best interest. It seems there was an organized system behind it. We were emotionally broken to become obedient.
In hindsight, I believe the coaches felt that they had to emotionally break us to give them 100% of ourselves.
I can tell you that every athlete I trained with always gave everything they had and more regardless of the abuse. We all just took it because we were afraid that we would be singled out, punished, or kicked out the program if we spoke up.
To give you a sense, it was like being a contesting on Gordon Ramsay show Hell Kitchen but 100-times worse.
There were always comments about our size and weight, and YES, they did weigh us. Some girls ended up with eating disorders – from anorexia to bulimia. Some developed extreme cases of body dysmorphia along with other conditions. We were also pushed to train through our injuries. We were told you have to keep going. We would get taped up and continue with our training. The day I hurt my ankle, I was taped up and trained for another hour.
It was so painful, but I could not say anything.
When I was picked up from training, I showed my parents, and they took me right away to the hospital for an x-ray. Turns out I had an avulsion fracture and torn ligaments. My parents were shocked that I could even stand on it. I’m sure I caused more damage by continuing to train that day. It took 4 months to recover, and I could do some physical activity.
Throughout the years, I reconnected with some of my former teammates. We reminisced about the past, and I can say that we all experienced the same abuse to one extent or another.
We talked about how we are so glad that the program was finally shut down. An athlete at the gym had a severe accident, and they tried to cover it up. Needless to say, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the program was shut down. Although the program is no more, we are still saddened by how many athletes were negatively impacted over the years. I can say that this gym had one of the worst gym cultures that I can recall.
However, I can say they were not the only ones. I still experienced abusive coaching at the gymnastics facility that I attended next.
When you are an athlete, you tell yourself that this is just how it is and it’s part of the sport. These experiences drove my desire to become a coach in the first place.
I was determined to prove that positive reinforcement can have the same or better results.
I believed you didn’t need to emotionally strip down and break an athlete to get out their best. An athlete doesn’t need to fear you for them to want to please you. In my opinion, they needed to admire and respect you as a coach. My goal was to positively impact as many athletes as possible and support and foster their desires and dreams. I wanted to make them the best they could be, not just in sport but in life. So, I started my journey to becoming a coach. I began coaching everything from rec, advanced rec, birthday parties, camps, etc. But I wanted to make more of an impact, so I started coaching pre-competitive girls ages 5-6 years old after a few months.
More in Part 2: The Revelation
Thank you for visiting.
— Jen Lee