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Former competitive gymnast finds her voice and makes peace with the sport

USA Gymnastics has a tarnished past, but the strides being taken to remedy its mistakes make me look forward to where the sport is headed

For the average fan, gymnastics is a popular sport every four years when the Olympics come around. Not me. I think about gymnastics every day. With the Olympics here, I couldn’t help but reflect on my time in the sport and what it’s given me – both good and bad.

This particular Olympic year is different. Putting aside that it’s a year later than originally scheduled. This team, led by Simone Biles, is going to be filled with young women who aren’t afraid to use their voices. Jordan Chiles talked to The New York Times in June about the negative impact her coach had on her confidence. Sunisa Lee spoke to Elle about the hardships of taking care of her recently paralyzed father and what it’s like to possibly be the first Hmong American gymnast on the Olympic team. This year, unlike years before, the gymnasts have more power than ever. Gymnasts are able to stand up and demand to be treated with respect and not fall into the pattern of abuse that has clouded the sport for years. This Olympic year gives me hope for the sport of gymnastics for the future.

This is the first Olympic year since I’ve been alive where the truth behind the sport is out there and being discussed. It’s no longer the norm that “what happens at the gym, stays at the gym.” It’s no longer the norm to only see one or two women of color with different body types in the running for a spot on the national team. That inspires me for the future.

Vanessa Dickerson competed on bars at the Level 10 Junior Olympic Nationals at 16 years old.

Dickerson family

My first day at a gymnastics gym in Maryland sticks out as the beginning of my struggle with my eating disorder, body dysmorphia and self-confidence that would last into my adult years. Artistic gymnastics under USA Gymnastics has 10 levels, Level 10 being the highest before the Elite level. The Elite level is the level of Olympians. I entered this gym as a Level 10 at 13 years old, my first year at that distinguished level.

My parents made a choice to move my two brothers and two sisters from a small town in Virginia to Maryland. This move was in hopes of a better education for all of us and better gymnastic options for my sisters and me. The sacrifices of my siblings and parents have never been lost on me – I knew how much was at stake with making this gym work. My only dream for as long as I can remember was to make it to the Olympics. It was all I thought about. I was someone who was eating and breathing gymnastics, and gymnastics only.

My new coach introduced himself to me and some of the unwritten rules of the gym, such as: “We don’t play around here. This is going to be hard work.” Or, “Gymnastics is now your life. Nothing else matters. I see you more than your mommy and daddy do.” Or my personal favorite, when I asked about wearing biker shorts over my leotard as I did at my old gym, I was told, “No. We don’t wear those here. I don’t let my girls hide it if they have junk in the trunk.” A phrase that I would hear again and again from him. An important detail to note about this is that this was being told to a 13-year-old girl.

I started gymnastics at the age of 3. That age sounds young, but for anyone who knows the sport, that’s the age to start. In a sport where starting at 8 or 9 is considered “old,” my mom set me up to be discovered at the right time. For most coaches, they can tell if a young child has talent in the sport. Gymnasts have a certain hand-eye coordination that can be spotted instantly. They also have a certain amount of flexibility and strength at a young age that can’t be taught. I had all of that, but early on, my race was an obstacle.

I’m a mixed-race individual. My mom is white. My dad is Black. My mom tells this story of when I was in recreational classes and I was the only girl of color. She started to notice my coach putting me in the back of the line for every event, or conveniently “running out of time” when it came to be my turn. My mother decided to confront the owner and she had a conversation with the coach, who denied up and down about the discrimination.

I kept going back to gymnastics anyway.

Gymnastics was my life. I would go to the gym every weekday, most times twice a day. My mom and I would get up at the crack of dawn for my morning workout from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. I would rush to get to school with chalk all over me and kids at my school staring at me because of my defined muscles. After I got out of school at 2:10, my mom would be waiting to take me to practice from 3 to 8 p.m. After I got home, I began my homework, went to bed and repeated it all over again.

When Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin claimed gold and silver medals in the 2008 Games, I remember watching Nastia dance and admiring how elegant of a gymnast she was. She was skinny and lean. She had pretty, straight blond hair that she wore in a ponytail. She was everything I wanted to be when I grew up because that’s what I heard from my coach. I wasn’t Liukin. I was stockier. I had curly hair. I was half-Black.

My coach’s word was like God’s word to me because he had the keys to my future. I thought that in order to be good at the sport, I needed to look like Liukin. Ultimately, that led to an internal battle I would struggle with for years to come.

Vanessa Dickerson salutes the judges at a Level 9 gymnastics competition at 12 years old.

Dickerson family

It’s no secret that over the last couple of years, the curtain has started to be drawn back on the sport of gymnastics. While people are finally learning the truth of how gymnasts were treated in many gyms, the gymnasts themselves are also learning about what they went through in a new light. All of the stories of abuse that have come out – sexual, physical and/or verbal – we were trained to think it was a normal part of the sport.

Last summer during the pandemic, I had the time to think about why I’m so hard on myself and hold myself to an impeccable standard. That led me to a level of strength I didn’t know was possible within myself. The hashtag #GymnastAlliance was starting to become popular on Twitter after the Netflix documentary Athlete A was released last year. Athlete A focused on the gymnasts involved in the Larry Nassar scandal. Reading some of the #GymnastAlliance stories that brought all types of abuse to light brought tears to my eyes. Little did I know that my story would elicit a similar reaction. I remember typing out my story and shaking as I was doing so. It was the same feeling I felt when I was worried about disappointing my coach. Even as an adult, I still worried about my coach’s reaction if he saw it. But I still typed out the story of how my eating disorder began.

The story begins when I was working on a vault called a Yurchenko full at 15 years old. The vault requires doing a roundoff onto the springboard, a back handspring onto the actual vault, and then twisting one full time around and, of course, landing after completing the full twist. To perfect the vault, you start by practicing the skill by landing in a foam pit or on a soft mat. From there, you keep adding harder landing mats to get yourself ready to do it on your own during a competition.

This particular day, I was landing on a harder mat with my coach spotting me for the landing. When my turn was up to do it on the harder mat with his aid, I was terrified. I ran toward the vault, did the roundoff and back handspring onto the vault with no issues. When I pushed off the vault to begin twisting, I got lost and didn’t know where I was in the air. I began to anticipate landing on my face – which is not a big deal as it sounds and quite normal when learning a new skill. My coach messed up his “spot” as I was coming down, yet it resulted in him looking at me in disgust. From there he proceeded to look at me and said, “You didn’t make it all the way around because you have too much junk in the trunk. Go to the treadmill for the rest of practice. I don’t want to look at you.”

I remember walking with my head down feeling like such a failure. My body felt like a failure. My brown skin felt like a failure. My gymnastic abilities felt like a failure. I told myself I was a failure. All of which, I would later learn, were illogical thoughts stemming from my eating disorder.

I got on that treadmill and started running. After a while, I couldn’t tell what was sweat or what were tears falling from my face. My coach would sometimes come by the treadmill and taunt me as I was running. I was scared to get off it, even to go to the bathroom. That’s how much influence he had over me. That‘s how much fear was instilled in me by him.

That same night, I went home and told myself that I’m going to do whatever it takes to look like the other girls. I was going to ask my mom to straighten my hair like the other girls. I was going to eat only when I absolutely had to, and if I was in a situation where I needed to eat a meal in front of others, I was going to go off in private and get rid of it. The day that my eating disorder truly began.

After tweeting this story, the response was life-changing. I had people complimenting my strength. I had people saying they had been through something similar with their coaches. The #GymnastAlliance was a movement that truly changed my life forever. I wasn’t alone, and never would be.

Vanessa Dickerson competes on floor at the Level 10 Junior Olympic Nationals at 16 years old.

Dickerson family

I’m frequently asked, “Are you going to let your child do gymnastics when the time comes?”

And with this question, I always pause and really think. If you asked me that when I was at the peak of my eating disorder and gymnastics career, I would’ve told you, “Of course I would. Gymnastics is my life, and I would love to share that with my daughter.” If you asked me that when I was in recovery, I would tell you probably not. I don’t want anyone, much less my daughter, to go through what I had to experience. You ask me that now, and I’ll tell you my answer is a cautious, yes. This sport has given me a lot of good. My time management skills are impeccable, my ability to take constructive criticism is unmatched, and when I want something, I fight hard for it. All stemming from my history in gymnastics.

One important piece of my history with gymnastics that revealed itself in my eating disorder recovery is what it truly meant to be a half-Black woman in the sport of gymnastics. Before me, there were very few gymnasts of color, such as Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino, but not many. Fast-forward to now and you’ve got diversity everywhere with Biles, Chiles, Lee and others.

I was ashamed for so long that my hair was curly, I was built stockier and that I simply wasn’t fully white. Which, at the time, meant that I didn’t appear to be who many people seemed to envision as “the perfect gymnast.” I can’t wait to share with my future daughter and anyone reading this that being a half-Black, muscular gymnast brought me so much mental and emotional strength in my adult years. Looking back, I was embarrassed and wanted to blend in with the rest of my teammates. I’ve realized with time how much representation matters to young minds. I’m incredibly excited to see all the Black and brown gymnasts who plan to make waves in the sports as the ladies have before me.

The #GymnastAlliance is strong and powerful. Every story is important. I plan on continuing to voice mine as a reminder. A reminder of what valuing medals and winning over the development of young minds can do to future adults. Talking about it is step one, and now all of us have years to continue to learn from mistakes and focus on what’s always been most important: the kids and developing them into happy, healthy adults.

Vanessa Dickerson is an ESPN Next Coordinator in the ESPN Next program in Bristol, Connecticut. She is a retired Level 10 gymnast who qualified to Junior Olympic Nationals during her time in the sport. She is also proud Eating Disorder survivor.