Tumbling, Treatment & Tenacity

By Vanessa Dickinson


My entire childhood, I had one identity, that one identity was a gymnast. That’s all of who I was, or so I thought. At the age of four I started gymnastics fell in love with it. I loved wearing leotards with a matching scrunchie in my hair. I’d rather be putting chalk on my hands than playing on a playground with kids from school. My nights were spent working on developing new skills and conditioning in the gym as others hung out with friends. While I was in gymnastics, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that me being a gymnast would still impact me to this day.

In USA Gymnastics, there are ten levels and beyond that there is elite. Elite is the level that Olympians compete at. I reached Level 10 by age 13, which meant I was in the gym at least forty hours a week, including two a days a week as a freshman in high school. Athletes reading this may be thinking, what’s the big deal? A lot of sports did two a days. Well, I had an abbreviated schedule in school to accommodate my gymnastics practice schedule. I was at the gym by 6:30 AM and had a two-hour practice. I went straight to school and after school I went straight to practice from 3-8 PM. On the weekends if I wasn’t traveling, I was in the gym practicing for when I did travel. Like I said, gymnastics was me and I was gymnastics.

I have been 5’6’’ ever since I can remember. I stopped growing in high school. In gymnastics at the time, the average height was around 5’1’’. So, for someone who had my weight, the “fat” word was thrown a lot at me a lot. I was “too big” to be taught certain skills. For a while, that motivated me. I was determined to use my size to my advantage. I was going to use my longer legs to run faster toward the vault. I was going to use my muscular build to try harder tumbling passes on the floor. After a while, I needed more encouragement. I needed someone to tell me that they noticed my effort being put in.

 The Reality

My coach had the best of intentions with all his gymnasts. There were about six level tens at the time including me. He gave us our best chance to succeed. I even go to travel to Italy with him to compete. One day at practice, I was learning a new vault. This vault was scary to me because I couldn’t shake how much could go wrong. He promised he would “spot” me. Spotting is where a coach aids you through a skill while preventing injury. With that confidence in mind, I sprinted toward the vault and performed it the best of my ability. As I was soaring and twisting through the air, I got lost. Which isn’t completely uncommon for a new skill. As a result, I landed with my face in the mat. As most gymnasts will tell you, landing on your face isn’t uncommon either. He wasn’t pleased with this attempt.

“You would’ve made that skill if you weren’t too fat to make it around. Go hit the treadmill for the rest of practice,” he yelled at me.

As I walked toward my cubby to grab my tennis shoes to begin my treadmill run, I looked up at the clock and felt shame. Practice was another three hours. As I turned the treadmill on, I could feel my teammates eyes on me. I couldn’t tell if they felt bad for me or were judging my body. That was the first day that I grew a hatred for my body. I felt disgusting and wanted to disappear. By hour two on the treadmill, I decided that I would no longer give my body the fuel it needed to perform at its best. I was going to give myself meals when I had earned them. Earning meals meant when I was 10 pounds lighter, and only I was going to know about this. 

A New Identity

Flash forward to my early twenties when I was addicted to having an eating disorder, and a professional at hiding it. I knew what appeared to be normal. I knew when my opportunities were to participate in the occasional binge and purge. I knew when I could “secretly” workout when everyone was asleep. I knew that I could stash food in my room and no one would know it was there. Every night when I would lay in bed, I would grip the sides of my stomach to feel how “fat” I was. I was deep in this disorder and I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out without help, so that’s what I did, I got help.

When I first moved into the residential treatment center, I was scared. Scared to give up my control to the staff, but I did. I cooperated and followed everything they told me to do no matter how uncomfortable it made me. I listened in group instead of talked, and listened to other people tell their stories. It made me realize something. I wasn’t alone. My eating disorder in the real world was scary and it alienated me from everyone and everything, but at the treatment center, I was part of a community; a recovery community. I trusted this community with my most painful memories that I finally gained the courage to share. I grew as a person when I finally let down my walls and let others help me. It will always be the best decision I’ve ever made.

The Difference Is Me

It’s a few years since I’ve been out of treatment and eating disorder behavior free. The eating disorder thoughts still creep in from time to time. The difference between then and now is me. I am different, and I choose to live my life differently.

Speaking about this at a What’s Your Story (WYS) event made me realize how far I’ve come. For the longest time, I was ashamed of my story and didn’t want to tell it. It took me stumbling across a Facebook posting for a “What’s Your Story” event for me to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve always wanted to tell my story, I just wasn’t sure what the right time or place was. I was so lucky that I found WYS and event that was so welcoming for me to share my story for the first time.

If any reader has any questions, please contact me via email at vanessadickerson@hotmail.com or follow me on Instagram @vanessadickerson.

Rachel Hyman