“Next up on Vault, representing ‘West Texas Gymnastics Academy’, Declan Gardner.” The announcer’s voice boomed throughout the gymnasium, his body and his heart.
From the sidelines, his teammates cheered words of encouragement. Slowly, he began to tune it all out; the crowd, the other gymnasts, his teammates... Everything.
He finished chalking up, cracked his toes and stared down the table at the end of the runway. He envisioned himself performing his vault one last time before attempting it.
The scoreboard next to him bared the numbers “3.37” indicating he was to perform a handspring tucked double front vault valued at a 6.6 difficulty. However, due to his teammates’ lackluster performances, he was going to have to go for broke and perform a harder vault. Not that the double front wasn’t hard; it was one of the hardest in the code.
The more difficult vault, .4 higher in difficulty, was a variation of the handspring double front that included a half twist in the second somersault.
Although he’d practiced it into the foam pit, he had only actually landed it twice before in practice, so it was no where near competition ready.
In spite of that, he knew that if he landed it, it would prove he could compete at a higher level. Conversely, if he didn’t, he would surely cost the team a place in the rankings. He weighed his options heavily, before making a decision.
He glanced over to the judge’s table waiting for the signal to go. The judge raised the flag and nodded. He took in one last, large, breath, saluted, and positioned himself.
“You’ve got this,” he said to himself. He licked his chapped, chalk laden, lips. The bitter, hollow, taste lingered in his mouth. His eyes narrowed down the runway and everything blacked out.
The haze was a familiar one; he never feared the isolation it brought. It wasn’t unlike the one he experienced while he listened to music. It was as though this single moment made all the troubles back home seem insignificant.
He ran down the runway, skipped, jammed his feet into the spring board, and threw his hands onto the table. He felt himself rebound off and began to flip forward. At the last minute, he kicked out, and twisted his body through the air with all his might.
His feet drilled into the mat, his body completely absorbed the landing. He opened his eyes, and gradually abandoned the haze to which he had succumbed.
“I landed it,” he thought to himself, “I did it. I landed it. I landed it.” he kept repeating in his head.
However, he wasn’t done, just yet. In order to qualify for vault finals, he would have to perform a different type of vault.
Once more, he began the process of blocking the entire world out. He returned to the beginning of the runway and waited for the judge’s signal. He didn’t bother checking the scoreboard. He knew that if he did, he’d psych himself out, and risk underperforming; It wasn’t an option.
His vision narrowed, and his feet began the run that would, hopefully, qualify him for the following days competition, and, more importantly, aid the team in the rankings.
The judge signaled for him to go, he nodded, saluted, and took off running without missing a beat.
As he neared the mat before the springboard, he rounded off the mat, onto the springboard, and exploded off the table. His fiercely over pointed toes hooked into the air granting his body the torque to twist once, twice… In the midst of the adrenaline, he lost count of the twists he’d made. Panic mode set in, he pushed his body harder to make one more twist, one last effort before he opened his body and made contact with the mat. He landed, locked legged, and uncomfortable forcing him to take one large pace backwards.
The haze vanished, and he came to realize the scene before him; instead of facing the vaulting table, as he’d intended, he was facing the opposing wall. Unsure of what had actually happened in the air, he saluted, and grimaced once he made contact with his teammates.
He walked off the podium wide-eyed, in disbelief.
“I let them down.” he thought to himself, but Coach Johnson’s smile indicated otherwise. He ran towards him and lifted him down to the sidelines.
He looked into his coaches’ eyes and shook his head.
“I have no idea what just happened.” Declan mouthed, his mouth dry with shock.
His teammates all ran to where they were and began hugging and congratulating him. Declan looked up at the scoreboard, and saw his score hadn’t been posted, yet.
“Fag!!! What was that?!? THAT WAS GREAT!” Tommy patted his back.
He was still speechless. Had he really done it? Had he faltered, or had he pulled through for his team? Suddenly, there was a huge outburst of applause, he imagined another gymnast had landed something, but as he rechecked the scoreboard, his vaults had averaged a 16.1.
He scored a 16.4 on his first, and a 15.8 on the second. Confused, he analyzed the second vault’s score and realized the D score was a 6.6... That meant he’d performed 2.5 twists, not a double as he had intended or 1.5 as he thought he had mistakenly done, giving him the average he now saw before him.
With that score, he had, not only, put his team back in medal contention, but qualified for the vault final as well. The scoreboard flashed the cumulative scores, and to their delight, they had risen to second place.
His teammates huddled around him, bouncing up and down out of excitement. Jason, the team captain for this meet, finally calmed them down.
“Alright, guys,” he started, “Next up is bar. I’m counting on good, clean, hit, performances from each of you. I’m talking to you three, fag, Sky, and Tommy.” he nodded.
“Wait, I’m up on bar?” Declan asked in disbelief.
“Yes. I’m giving my spot to you. You have two tenths on me, and if you add the Weiler full into the jam-pop and then dismount, you’ll have almost a full point above me. I’ve seen you work on it in practice. You can do it. Now, Sky...” his voice trailed off.
Competing a vault he’d been practicing off and on was one thing, but adding a different ending to his routine? One he’d worked on… Twice? If that? His stomach dropped. He looked toward Coach Johnson, panic-stricken. He motioned him over.
“Coach, Jase wants me to connect the Weiler into the jam, into the double front. I haven’t connected them before. Ever.” He responded.
“I know. He’s going into damage control mode, you know how he is,” Coach Johnson shook his head, “You don’t have to do it. If everyone else hits, you’ll be fine,” he continued, “What separates the good from the great is courage and determination. If you don’t feel ready, don’t. You know the skills you have in your arsenal. You already qualified into the vault final.”
“It wasn’t my plan to. However, this is my, what… Eleventh meet back? I want to go out, do my routines, and cheer on my teammates. Sure, it’d be cool to qualify to another final, but… I don’t think I’m ready,” Declan seemed rattled. If he went for broke he could secure the Team gold, but if he missed a release move he could fall, not qualify, hurt the team score, and worse... Get injured. “
“Look, kid,” Coach stared deep into his eyes, “I know I’ve failed you… I’ve failed all of you, but… You underestimate yourself so much. I’ve seen you land your shit in the gym. You’ve got it. You know you do. You’ve shown us… Now, it’s time to show them.” he motioned towards the crowd and the judges.
“Okay.” the teenager nodded in agreement. He had never imagined he’d compete any of the skills he’d performed today for a while, if ever, but there came a time for everything.
As the rotation ended, the squad made their way over to the High Bar. They huddled up before going into their touch warm up.
“Guys, we got this,” Jason encouraged with his arms around them, “Don’t freak out, and don’t get ahead of yourselves... If you’re going to throw hard skills, throw them. Go out there and do what you’ve done in the gym all those times before. Look at it like just another day at the gym.” he smiled as the rest nodded, “Alright, WTGA on three. One, two, three... WTGA!” they chanted.
As Tommy walked away to chalk up, Skylar pulled Declan aside.
“You okay?” he asked him with a concerned look on his face, “You don’t have to go for broke.” He added.
“I don’t know. I want to. I guess, I’ll just feel it out during warm up.” he smiled back at Skylar.
As Tommy came off the bar from chalking it, he immediately fell on his back, and grasped his ankle in agony. His yelp evoked gasps from the those around, and elicited murmurs from the spectators.
Coach Sterling ran over to assess his ankle, and without missing a beat, he motioned in the direction of the on-site athletic trainer. The trainer jogged over to where Tommy was and quickly called for a wheelchair.
“Coach, I can’t feel my toes. My ankle... AGGHHHH!!!” he screamed in agony, as the trainer attempted to bend his ankle.
His foot had quickly inflated; it was visibly broken. In mere seconds, the skin around his ankle darkened into a deep scarlet.
“He needs to be evaluated by a professional.” the trainer concluded.
Jason hurried towards Declan and Skylar, as they rolled Tommy away,
“I guess, I’m back on then...” he bowed his head, “Are you guys okay? Don’t let this get into your heads. Freak accidents come with the territory of this sport. Both of you know that.”
Skylar and Declan looked at each other, then back towards Jason. They nodded in acknowledgment, and returned to their chalking regimen.
Due to Tommy’s injury, Jason would compete first, then Skylar, then, finally, Declan would anchor the three up-three count format. All three of them did quick touch warm-ups and returned to the sidelines.
Jason’s routine went fine. Nothing too flashy or risky. It was a hit routine and that was it to it. After letting out a deep breath, Skylar walked cautiously onto the podium.
He seemed noticeably shaken up. His eyes were laden with apprehension, and when the judge motioned for him to start, he went back and chalked up for a rather long time. It wasn’t until Coach Johnson approached him, that he neared the apparatus.
Finally, he went for it. He mounted with help from Coach Johnson, and began with a series of Weilers and inverted giants. As he prepared for his first release move, it was evident something wasn’t right. He released, and under rotated, causing him to miss the bar, hit his back, and fall.
The crowd reacted with hushed conversations and expressions of agony throughout the entire gymnasiums. After what seemed a short eternity, he stood up, rechalked and remounted the bar.
He finished his routine, but was visibly upset after his dismount. He nodded towards Declan with a sad smirk, almost as if he were begging him to go for broke.
It seemed like an eternity before the judges flashed his score, and the longer they took, the longer Declan had to wait. Then, a 14.5 flashed upon the scoreboard’s façade. Skylar grimaced, and neared Declan.
“Sky, I can’t. I don’t know. I forgot my bar routine… I can’t breathe right. What if I fall?” Declan rambled worriedly, before Skylar could get a word in edgewise, “I’m freaking out.”
Skylar grabbed the teenager by his shoulders.
“Declan, Declan, Declan,” Skylar smiled at him, “Calm down; breathe,” he instructed.
Declan looked deep into Skylar’s eyes. His steel blue eyes filled him with the same unparalleled sense of serenity as the day he first laid eyes upon them.
The nerves were gone, his mind stopped racing. In that moment, he knew the feelings brewing within him weren’t conducive towards something positive.
“How’re you feeling?” Skylar asked, his eyebrows raised in genuine concern.
“I’m good. I can do this.” Declan nodded, expelling another rushed breath.
“Good, I believe in you; don’t psych yourself out. Just visualize, concentrate, and do it. Give it your all.” He smirked.
Declan shot him a smile, before turning to the podium.
“You’re up,” Coach Johnson nodded towards Declan.
“You got it, Decs!” Skylar lauded.
“C’mon, fag; normal.” Jason encouraged him from the sidelines, and with that bit of validation, the rest of the guys joined in and began to cheer him on.
Declan walked up the steps onto the podium, Coach Johnson close behind.. He took a few last breaths before stepping towards the chalk bucket.
“Alright, Declan,” Coach began beside, “Just think of this like another practice. If you’re going to go for broke, make sure you keep your wits about you. Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t overthink it. I know you can do this, your teammates know you can do this… Just believe in yourself.”
Declan nodded. He knew what he had to do to retain their standings. He had to do it; he had to throw everything but the kitchen sink into this routine. He visualized it routine over and over again, before stepping towards the apparatus.
“I can do this,” he repeated to himself, “I need to do this.”
He positioned, and adjusted, a spring board a little ways away from the bar. Coach looked at him quizzically, and then his eyes widened. He knew what Declan was about to attempt to do. The judge cleared him to mount a few moments later.
The apparatus before him scared him unlike ever before. What if he fell? What if he made a mistake? He looked toward his teammates and one by one they yelled words of encouragement. A sigh escaped him, and a devious smirk snaked across his mouth.
He fidgeted, secured his grips, and stretched once more. The judge to his right signaled him again, making it clear he had ten seconds to mount the apparatus. The same haze as before overcame him once more; nothing else mattered, except the springboard before him and the bar above it. It was now, or never.
Declan took one last deep breath, and saluted. He ran towards the springboard, did a round off and went for the straddled Arabian mount.
His fingertips barely circled around the bar, but he used the momentum to swing up above the bar, pasted his legs together and added a half pirouette before reaching a full vertical. He, then, swung his body into a full pirouette to land in inverted grip.
As he began to swing before his first release, an incredible sense of serenity enveloped him. The haze wasn’t as ominous as it’d been all those times before.
This time, it was different; welcoming. Every skill after that came with relative ease, he swung with effortless rhythm. Each pirouette connection and under bar transition that had proven to be a nightmare seemed a walk in the park, in this very moment.
Immediately after his body reached the pinnacle of the second giant, he sent his body flipping over the bar one and three quarter times, but, much to his chagrin, only one hand caught the bar. He panicked, but his body remained in control, and before he knew it he was above the bar. He kept his legs glued, and toes fiercely pointed.
He kept the swing going and was able to connect his next two releases, a Tkatchev into a full twisting jaeger. As he completed another pirouette, he decided to go for it, he did the Weiler full, immediately into the jam, followed by the double front dismount.
The soles of his feet slammed upon the mat beneath him, a jubilant and thunderous roar escaped him. He’d done it; he’d stuck the dismount. His entire being prickled with excitement. It was such an intoxicatingly awe-inspiring feeling. He felt accomplished. He felt powerful.
“That a boy, Declan!!” Skylar yelled as he ran to meet him at the stairs.
The others joined and huddled around them, cheering.
As they awaited his score, Declan felt a sense of relief. He’d knocked out bar and vault in great fashion. Surely, he thought to himself, he’d qualify for the next day and, possibly, Nationals. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was very difficult without doing the All-Around.
He looked up at the scoreboard, and winced. 15.3 flashed upon it. His difficulty score was a 7.1 followed by an 8.2 execution score. Amongst other things, the judges must have deducted him for the loss of swing after the Kovacs, because he’d caught it with one hand, he was sure of it.
It was, slightly, unfair in his eyes, but his team remained in second to the team from Plano. However, his name flashed into the second place slot, showing he had qualified into the bar event final.
“Atta boy, Decs!” his coached cheered. Why was he happy? It was a huge deduction and not something to be proud of.
Something he would never understand was why his errors were celebrated. He had faltered. He had let himself down, and felt he’d let his teammates down. It wasn’t acceptable. Even, if it was because of him that they retained their standing.
“Smile, Declan.” Skylar squeezed his shoulder, “You did great.”
Little did either of them know, that would be the last time they’d bond over a successful meet.