As all gymnasts know, their sport does not come without trials and tribulations. Vanessa Atler knows this as well as any other gymnast. Touted as one of the best gymnasts from her era, she dominated the junior rankings in 1996, and went on to win the national championships in her first year as a senior in 1997. In awe of her brilliance and confounded by her inconsistency, fans did not miss a chance to watch her gymnastics. Known for her explosive power and difficult skills, Vanessa appeared to be a key player for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
After her successful run in the post-Magnificent Seven era, Vanessa began experiencing problems. Her powerful vaults, impressive tumbling and dynamic beam routines were no match for her difficulties on the uneven bars. Time after time, she would be in the midst of a great meet, until it came time for the uneven bars. After mishaps on bars at a few important competitions in 1999, causing the all-around gold to slip from her hands, Vanessa switched gyms. She left her life-long coaches, Beth and Steve Rybacki, in California and moved to the now famous home of Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin, World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas.
Vanessa’s fans followed her career by reading her online journal, which tapped into her thoughts and feelings. By doing so, fans grew even closer to Vanessa the person just as much as they loved Vanessa the gymnast. This sense of intimacy contributed to the disappointment fans felt with her inconsistency when they watched her on the podium or on their television screens.
Some may remember another talented gymnast who struggled through what were supposed to be the most successful years of her career – Tatiana Groshkova. The USSR dynamo shined in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but was not trusted to represent her country in a World Championships or in the Olympics due to her inability to hit four for four. Talent was pouring from her fingertips, but Groshkova’s inconsistency kept her fans from seeing her shine on the world stage. In some ways, Vanessa Atler seems like our very own Groshkova.
At the World Championships in 1999, Vanessa Atler was battling injury as well as a new coach, and placed 31st in the all-around. After Worlds, Vanessa got surgery on her ankle in an effort to heal her body for the Olympics. Once recovered, she performed fairly well at the U.S. Nationals that year, placing 4th in the all-around. After Nationals, Vanessa competed in the Olympic Trials, which could be looked at as the worst meets of her life. She had disastrous routines, one of which being a scary dismount from beam that made even legendary coach, Bela Karolyi, jump up and down in fear. Even after all of the mini-disasters, Vanessa placed sixth in the all-around at trials. However, due to her inconsistency, Vanessa was left off the 2000 Olympic team. Afterwards, Vanessa did not appear upset, some even noticed her smiling. In a New York Times article, she is quoted as saying, ”I just didn’t have any fun here. I don’t know, I just wasn’t into it. The performance I put out there is not Olympic material. Maybe that’s why I’m not as upset about this as I could be. That’s why I’m not taking this too hard.”
After not making the team, Vanessa switched gyms again, moving to Rohnert Park in California. However, in 2001 at the age of 19, Vanessa announced her retirement from gymnastics. Vanessa wrote in an online journal, “I felt it was in my best interest to retire from gymnastics because of personal struggles I have been dealing with for about a year.”
A few years later, in 2004, Vanessa appeared in a TV series called “Starting Over.” She delved into her gymnastics past in order to expose her breakdown in 1999. When asked how she felt when she did not make the Olympic team, Vanessa replied, “I felt embarrassed, and then I felt relief.” She came to terms with her feelings about losing her drive for gymnastics, which she discovered may have been as early as thirteen or fourteen.
Gymnastics is a sport of physical endurance and mental toughness. Vanessa Atler’s story, one that she freely shared with her fans, bears witness to the obstacles and decisions gymnasts need to make every single day of their careers. The disappointing career of the phenomenal Tatiana Groshkova reminds us every day how gymnastics is just as much a mental sport as a physical one. These two gymnasts had that perfect combination of power and grace, but could not seem to conquer that all so important aspect of gymnastics- the mental toughness it takes to be on top.
Article: Samantha Fletcher