Dear Ann Carr(-Tunney) of Penn State,
I just watched you in the 1980 AIAW National Women's Collegiate Gymnastics Event Finals. I'm about 35 years too late in writing this letter, but in my defence I wasn't alive in 1980. Regardless, sorry for the delay in this letter. I know that's no excuse.
But those 35 years make a huge difference. I see you in your blue leotard, dressed up with white curved streaks in a flippy pattern throughout the body, and think how dressed-up you must have felt. You were twenty-two, at the top of the world. First woman to be awarded a full athletic scholarship at Penn State. US National Team member. Gold medals galore in the 1975 Pan-American Games, winner of three Broderick Awards, but today at 57 years old, none of that is bragged on your LinkedIn profile. Instead, you've quietly made 10 connections and modestly mention your 27 years of service with the School District of Philadelphia.
I think of Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, daughter of another gymnastics legend 15 years younger than you. You paved the way for Brandy Johnson and Brandy paved the way for Sydney--down the generations you've passed on levels of difficulty and expectations for one, two, three somersaults in the air before landing back down to the women who came after you. And they're so young now. Sydney Johnson-Scharpf is nearing 16. She's tired in the 2014 Secret US Classic, after coming back from three injuries, so young, so old, the weight of fame siding with gravity to keep her down.
Gymnastics is so different now. Your floor exercise in 1980 featured large amounts of ballet incorporated in your exercise. Growing up as a dancer, I'd always thought gymnasts were just doing it wrong, with their hands splayed out into what we call "competition hands" in the studio dance world, their ribs sticking out, their backs arched too much. The older I got, the more I separated gymnastics "dance" exercises from my own. They were a different species. Gymnastics did not equal ballet, and that was okay.
But then I saw you, and realized I was wrong. Or, at least I would have been in 1980.
I recognised your movements. Your core is engaged, your spine straight, elongating the line up to the top of your neck, elegance I recognise from the Royal Academy videos I so fervently tried to emulate in my beginning stages of ballet. Your hips are square, your parallel deliberate; you transition seamlessly from ballet to gymnastics and back. Your music is a lively piano, something old like from a calypso scene reminiscent of Bioshock Infinite, but more strict. You come from a classic tradition of gymnastics--or what we call classic now. We're too young to think of it as modern, we laugh at your generation's poofy hair and dress up in your modern spandex for Halloween.
But perhaps that tradition was too old, too strict. Or not good enough. If we'd stayed there, there would have been no room for Kerri Strug's one-footed landing, no room for Beth Tweddle's innovative bar choreography. No room for Shawn Johnson's stuck landings and sturdy, complicated beam routines; no room for McKayla Maroney's insanely high-flung vaults; no room for Gabby Douglas's 2012 all-around victory, nor Simone Biles's imminent one. Everything has to evolve.
Sydney is the modern girl, the girl who comes from the legacy you built. Her name is in lights, the world's expectations for her are high, she's already signed to the Florida Gators for her college career. Sydney's leotard is aqua and spangly, the rhinestones everywhere announcing her youth, held to an adult standard while she's still a kid. Her movements in the floor exercise resemble So You Think You Can Dance's version of "jazz" (lyrical butt-wiggling) more than the classical ballet your routine executed; her music sounds like '80s instrumental pop.
This is how we've evolved: her movements are higher than yours, faster than yours. She turns more times in the air. And she's younger. Faster. Better. Stronger. Like electronic music compared to Madonna. Like Buffy compared to Lucy. In another 35 years, we'll look back at this as something classic. The new girls--women--will peer back at these great victories, and marvel about how they want to achieve something so sleek and controlled.
The distance from 15 to 22 is a large one, and yet the world criticises everything today. The commentators on your 1980 video are focused in their commentary on the gymnastics, are positive when a landing is too low, never suck air through their teeth when someone falls. The commentators today (who am I kidding, it's Tim Dagget and Nastia Liukin, there are no others) focus on the history, the celebrity, how marvelous someone is (and Tim is forever asking Nastia about her own history and being her father's daughter). We as a generation are focused on spectacular things, star-spangled everything. We forget easily about analogue, about the things we had to push through to get to Today. Today, with wifi in planes, coming from the past, when we had wars where we sent all soldiers and no drones. Today, we are better than ever and worse than ever. Today, we have the richest who've never been wealthier and the poorest who've never been poorer. Sometimes the wealthy--whom everyone criticises, the commentators are everywhere and never stop--forget what it was like to build solid building blocks. We forget that AOL gave us fiber optics, that LiveJournal led to SnapChat.
Of course, if we get stuck in the past, then there's no room for the future.
The legacy that has been left for us was already so strong, so high. We have to be better, or we won't succeed.
Or we'll die trying, and that will be the legacy we'll leave.
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