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Chalked Up: My Life in Gymnastics

Chalked Up: My Life in Gymnastics

4.4 31
by Jennifer Sey

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Fanciful dreams of gold-medal glory led Jennifer Sey to the local gymnastics club in 1976. A natural aptitude and a willingness to endure punishing hard work took her to the elite ranks by the time she was eleven years old. Jennifer traveled the country and the world competing for the U.S. National team, but the higher she set her sights—the world


Fanciful dreams of gold-medal glory led Jennifer Sey to the local gymnastics club in 1976. A natural aptitude and a willingness to endure punishing hard work took her to the elite ranks by the time she was eleven years old. Jennifer traveled the country and the world competing for the U.S. National team, but the higher she set her sights—the world championships, the 1988 Olympics—the more she began to ignore her physical and mental well-being. Jennifer suffered devastating injuries, developed an eating disorder, and lived far from family and friends, all for the sake of winning. When her parents and coaches lost sight of her best interests, Jennifer had no choice but to redefine her path into adulthood. She had to save herself.

Chalked Up delivers an unforgettable coming-of-age story that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt not good enough and has finally come to accept who they were meant to be.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Sey writes of her career in internationally competitive gymnastics, which culminated when she won the 1986 U.S. national championship at age 17. From the start Sey was an underdog, ever the second-best athlete on the team hoping to prove herself with tenacity and toughness. She endured numerous injuries-including a broken femur, which could have ended her career-as well as an eating disorder, depression, isolation and tremendous strain on her family. With each new sacrifice that her parents and brother made to support her, the stakes crept higher, inuring them all to gymnastics' inherent physical and psychological trauma. After claiming the U.S. title, Sey was "shell-shocked and exhausted," suddenly robbed of her lifelong motivation. "I'd always been a fighter, a come-from-behind girl. Now that I was on top, the battle would be unwinnable." The memoir's poignant glimpses at Sey's adult struggle to reckon with her past are regrettably sparse, and her prose occasionally lapses into wordiness, but overall, she has written a courageous story befitting a comeback kid-a timely release for the 2008 Olympics. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This is a cautionary tale if there ever was one. Written by Sey, the 1986 U.S. National Gymnastics Champion, it is not a journalistic survey of the sport but rather Sey's personal story. Here, she describes how her innate competitiveness, which helped her become an elite athlete, turned destructive as she used self-inflicted pain to curb anxiety. Later, against her better judgment, she succumbed to coaches' screams about "fat athletes" and developed an eating disorder. As she rose in the ranks, Sey writes, she became somber, cheerless, totally dedicated, and grossly obsessive about her body. Meanwhile, her parents, oblivious to these signs, cheerily drove her to daily five-hour practices (since she was ten!). Sey writes with vivid, clear-eyed candor; she doesn't blame others, instead feeling that all the pressure came from within. She clearly explains the politics of judging, how anorexic urgings develop, and the athlete's mindset on both "good" and "bad" days. To this day, this former athlete, now a highly successful businesswoman, is haunted by feelings of failure. Young athletes and their parents would appreciate Sey's book; recommended for all public libraries.
—Kathy Ruffle

Kirkus Reviews
From an eight-time member of the U.S. Gymnastics Team, a cautionary tale for children, parents and gymnastics coaches alike. The author lived her young life for the balance beam, the uneven bars and the mat. From the age of three, when she did her first cartwheel, Sey slept, breathed and ate gymnastics. (Actually, sometimes she didn't eat.) Her determination to push her body past its limits and maintain her disconcertingly tiny build eventually led to obsessive-compulsive behavior and anorexia, but her physical (and mental) ill health didn't keep her from competing successfully at the highest level. In 1985, at 14, she qualified for the World Championships, only to see her dream almost end when she fell from the uneven bars and broke a femur. Against all logic, Sey successfully rehabbed from an injury that would have ended many careers; she came back in 1986 to become the U.S. National Gymnastics Champion and was named the U.S. Olympic Committee's Athlete of the Year in gymnastics. In 1990, her body and soul ravaged, she limped away from the sport, graduated from Stanford, got married, had babies and wrote a book that will scare the hell out of many an aspiring gymnast. Sey's coverage of her competitions are sparse ("I take a deep breath. Exhale. Calm my breathing. Slow. Slow down. This is it."), but that's fine. It's what goes on outside of the spotlight and inside her head that makes the book so crucial for stage mothers, malleable preteens and obsessive teenagers. It's admirable to aspire to become a champion gymnast, but Sey's depiction of her roller-coaster adolescence makes the point that it's far more important to have a happy, healthy and sane childhood. Harrowing, creepy andcompelling. Agent: Kathy Green/Kathryn Green Literary Agency

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Chalked Up

Chapter One

I learned to turn a cartwheel when I was three years old. We lived in a white stucco ranch house on an air force base in Turkey that was connected to the neighbors' by a carport. Stephanie Manning, a strawberry blond hippie-haired thirteen-year-old, lived next door. She babysat while my mom visited with the other wives on the base. She taught me to turn my body into a wheel, my arms and legs the spokes, in between our Fiat and her family's station wagon. I felt unfettered and invincible. Special. Other kids my age could barely run, and I was turning perfect cartwheels on the cement without ever suffering so much as a scraped knee.

We went to Turkey in the fall of 1972, during the waning days of the Vietnam War. My father was sent there on the Berry Plan, which required that after completing his residency, he serve two years as a physician in the service, thus avoiding combat. He requested a remote assignment that allowed him to take his family. He was appointed as the pediatrician in the infirmary on the air force base near Istanbul, tending to the children of the families stationed there.

We moved halfway around the world, an adventurous prospect for my mother, who had envisioned a more traditional life as an upper-middle-class doctor's wife. They'd been high school sweethearts, and she'd put him through medical school, drawing blood from rabbits' hearts in a biology lab. A comfortable suburban existence was the least she could expect. But she embarked on the adventure, seven months' pregnant with her second child. Upon arrival, we lived in a trailer until being assigned housing. I liked the trailer becauseeverything was miniature, perfectly tailored for me.

In December, after we moved into our base housing, my mother was airlifted by helicopter to the nearest birthing hospital, in Ankara. When she came home just before my first white Christmas, she brought my brother, Christopher. We had no long-distance telephone service. The phones only allowed us to call the other houses on the base. My parents sent audiotapes back home to my grandmother in Atlantic City, New Jersey, laughing about how fat and ugly this new baby was. They also sent pictures of me. My grandmother wrote a letter back scolding my Jewish parents for illicitly naming my brother after Christ while praising her first grandchild as a Joey Heatherton look-alike. I didn't know who Joey Heatherton was, but I assumed she was pretty.

When the snow cleared in the spring, my single cartwheel turned cautiously on the asphalt between the automobiles transformed into endless rows down the steep hill in our backyard. I loved the feel of whirling so fast that I was on the brink of losing control. I'd lose my bearings, spinning from bodily memory and sheer gravity, landing in a heap at the bottom of the dell. I'd tear back up the hill and do it again, audacious and exhilarated. When I'd yell for my mom, she'd come to the back window and watch me spin myself into giggly, dizzy fits. But mostly she left me alone, free to play without parental interference. I'd pass whole afternoons turning down that hill, invigorated by pure speed and independence.

I'd return home at dusk, ready for dinner. I'd make my famous pretzel-and-cheese salad. Not very saladlike, this concoction consisted of torn-up yellow processed cheese and pretzel sticks. My parents indulged me and served this with our meal every night. They even pretended to eat it.

I was permitted to make many of my own decisions. And live with the consequences. My parents were committed to not overprotecting their children, to teaching us lessons by allowing us to make mistakes. They did this in small ways, not dangerous ones. When I chose to wear my red raincoat in twenty-below-zero weather, I was cold. When I refused to go to sleep until they did, I was tired and grumpy in preschool the next day and the teachers were short-tempered with me. When I said I wanted more broccoli with dinner—all the broccoli in the bowl on the table—I was forced to eat it all and became sick with an unbearable stomachache.

Heavily influenced by the popularity of Dr. Benjamin Spock and his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, my parents were avid practitioners of his philosophy: treat your child as a person, an individual, rather than a thing to be trained and disciplined. By the time I was four, I was the embodiment of Spock-fashioned, parental-inspired spirited individualism.

In 1974 we returned to the States and bunked with my maternal grandmother in Atlantic City. Nannie, as we called her, was hesitant to take us in, compulsive about the cleanliness of her home and particular about the designation of knickknacks in her living room. She kept plastic runners on the lime-green carpet at all times to prevent wear-out. She covered her white vinyl couch with green piping (it matched the rug) with even more plastic to avoid stains on the stainproof fabric. She followed drink-wielding guests (her family in this case) around with a can of Pledge and a damp dishrag, wiping up tables to prevent glass rings.

When I demanded a fruit-adorned decorative plate for my postdinner cookies, my grandmother was flattered. I'd taken note of the carefully-thought-through details of her decorating scheme. Though the plate was perched high on a frieze adorning the kitchen's molding, she obliged me, pulling a stepladder from the laundry room to fetch the dish for her only granddaughter. At sixty, she was agile as she climbed the steps on her tiptoes in glamorous heeled house slippers. I was smug even as my mother urged me to let my grandmother off the hook, tell her I didn't really want the plate with purple plums on it. But I did want it. And I didn't see why she shouldn't go to any lengths to get me what I required. When Nannie pulled it triumphantly from the shelf, I smiled a self-satisfied smile and ate my cookies like the Joey Heatherton–like star of the family that I knew myself to be.

Chalked Up. Copyright © by Jennifer Sey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

The 1986 national gymnastics champion and a seven-time U.S. National team member, Jennifer Sey is a graduate of Stanford University. She lives with her husband and two sons in San Francisco.

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Chalked Up 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 30 reviews.
Trisha2011 More than 1 year ago
Journey to the Top and Down Again If you were to meet Jennifer Sey today you would see a Stanford graduate and successful businesswoman with a husband, and two sons. However, in the 1980's you would have met a completely different person. You would have met a young gymnast who was covered in bruises and on the verge of self destruction. There was never a sacrifice that Sey would not make in order to achieve her dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast. At six years old Sey started gymnastics. She was a natural and her family was willing to sacrifice everything to make her into a champion. She quickly moved up the ranks and by the age of eleven was one of America's elites. As Sey set her goals higher and expected more from herself she began to fall into a deep downward spiral that was ignored by all adults in her life. She endured erratic coaches, long days of hard workouts, and multiple major injuries only to crumble after winning the National Title. While Sey brings to light the dark side of this beautiful sport, you can't help but wonder what her motivation was for writing Chalked Up. Did she write it to show the cruelties that go into the making of a champion, or as a reminder of how dedicated she was and what she had to put up with to make it to the top? Sey deserves praise for all that she went through; but, in this novel she does more boasting about her advanced skills and natural talent than describing what and how a gymnast must push through the difficulties of the sport. Even though the motivation for the creation of Chalked Up is questionable it effectively shares an honest report of the side effects of elite competition on a young woman. Additionally, it describes how gymnastics made Sey into the successful woman and parent that she is today. Sey, was able to put her experiences into a format that keeps the readers attention and leaves them never wanting to set the book down. Sey creatively starts each new part with a detailed and interesting account of an experience that will occur after her achievements and failures of the following section. This book would not be interesting for everyone but if you have any ties to elite sports you will find it gripping and easy to relate to. The author provies an inside look into a sport where body image is everything and perfection is expected. Sey reveals the price that is paid by young athletes to achieve their dreams and the dreams of their families. If you enjoy gymnastics or find Chalked Up to be enlightening or moving, other good reads are Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, a book about the making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters and Letters to a Young Gymnast, about the life Nadia Comaneci the first gymnast to receive a perfect 10.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am only thirteen but i must say that is the best sports book i have ever read.. i mean for a person my age to say something like that means something right. But u truly have to be into gymnastics to truly understsnd what happening. But i recamend to some who truley loves and are into gymnastics to read because then you will truly unsyand the readers message.
daprasi More than 1 year ago
This is an extremely moving, emotional book about a gymnast obsessed with perfectionism. It covers the story of a young woman who was willing to do anything to be the best. Caution: Don't avoid gymnastics because of how it was portrayed in this book. The author mentions this multiple times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The author is an excellent writer with a will that stands up to anything. This book is both timely and an important read for parents whose children are extreme 'excellers' in sports. And a must read for sports lovers, even non-gymnasts.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Gymnasts who may dismiss this book as a negative portrayal of the sport will be pleasantly surprised. Jennifer's experience should be a cautionary tale to coaches and parents who fail to recognize eating disorders, overuse injuries, obsessive behaviors, and plain old unhappiness in their gymnasts. It's a fascinating account of her childhood memories, and it's well-written. As she says, it's not 'an indictment of the sport,' yet it's something that everyone in gymnastics should be aware of. I'm still a huge fan of gymnastics...but you don't have to be pro- or anti-gymnastics--or involved in the sport at all--to enjoy the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awsome book if you like the olympics, im really loving this book
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Insightful look at the sport. Author does a great job of illustrating how easily self-destructive tendencies in a young girl can be exacerbated by the pressures of this level of competition. She doesn't blame the sport or the people involved but rather draws a vivid picture of what a combustible brew combining overachieving but vulnerable young girls with an injury-inducing sport can be. A sport that for "women" is over before they even truly reach womanhood. I finished this book feeling for any parent who has ever tried to lead their child through that quagmire of fame, injury, ruthlessness and discipline and glory.
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