Monday, May 5, 2008

Analysis on Chalked Up and the Parkettes

Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams

OMG The Drama! It seems as though people who have read this book either have loved it or hated it. On one hand, it can be seen as a beautiful, candid memoir with a young woman (Jennifer Sey) who is struggling to find her way, in gymnastics and in life, through all the rigors of one of the toughest sports in the world and the pressure to be the best. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a gymnastics-bashing horror story intended so that Ms. Sey can get a little extra cash and fame. I finished the book two days after it came out (Ha Ha I know I'm crazy) and I came to find it being in the middle of all the different praises and criticisms that it has gathered. Sey's memoir was in-between horror story and coming-of-age story; some statements made I found to be easily true while others seemed entirely bogus. Before I analyze the book in-depth I will give a brief bio of Sey and the Parkettes.

Jennifer Sey

Inspired by Nadia's perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics, a young girl named Jennifer Sey quickly went toward her own pursuit of perfection. After failing to make the '84 Olympic team, she made the 1985 world championship team, where disaster struck. Sey fell on the uneven bars and broke her femur (thigh bone), but came back less than a year to win the '86 U.S. National title. Loss of motivation, and succumbing to the pressure, led Sey to give up the sport without attempting to make the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.


The Parkettes are a longstanding and controversial gym located in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Existing since the early 1970's, the Parkettes have a had a few girls that have gone on to Olympic teams, notably Hope Spivey and Kristen Maloney. The Parkettes coaches, Bill and Donna Strauss ("the Mrs.") are known for their do-anything-to-win attitude when coaching gymnasts, in particular Donna. Chalked Up has only added to the bad reputation the Parkettes have as a gym club, which was brought mostly to light by the chilling CNN documentary, Achieving the Perfect 10, aired in 2003. However, Parkettes' lack of political favor amongst USAG has been around long before the CNN documentary ever set foot on a TV screen. At the '92 Olympic trials, Wendy Bruce suffered a fall in her optional beam routine, and Kim Kelly, a Parkette, took advantage with a clutch performance to finish ahead of Bruce. Despite Kelly making the "selection squad," the coaches took Kelly completely off the team, likely due to her crazy coaches, lack of good form and incredible inconsistency (she fell 4 times on floor at the 1990 Chunichi Cup, one of them on a triple turn). The Parkettes appear to be wearing down a bit, they didn't have any team member or alternate on the '04 Olympic team and things are likely to be the same in '08.

Chalked Up Analysis

The Good

Jennifer Sey avoids going all-out with the Parkettes ruined my life OMG Drama that I was expecting her too. She actually seems to blame much of her problems on herself and the pressure that surrounded her gymnastics, not as much as she certainly could have on her coaches and parents. Ms. Sey explains pretty much everything there is to explain about her gymnastics career, ranging from her early life, progressing in gymnastics, her devastating injury, her incredible comeback and her ultimate retirement from the sport. However, my favorite topic Ms. Sey addresses in this book is the burden of never feeling good enough. Sey seemed to always not be the most talented and never was #1, and when she finally came to being #1 she simply didn't know what to do. As a dancer, I sympathize with her on this topic especially. Not only is it the pressure of body image, but it is also the feeling of always knowing someone out there that is better than you, that there is always something to improve on. Sey's obviously been a perfectionist from birth, and her poignantly describing this desperate anxiety is something that makes the book worth reading.

The Bad

Ms. Sey goes out of her way to talk about the rumor that Don Peters was sexually abusing another female gymnast. She describes it as though Peters really had an affair with this gymnast, even though it was never really proven and this incident had nothing to do with Sey personally (i.e. she never suffered it or witnessed anyone suffering from it). The book's subtitle includes the term "Overzealous Parents." Overzealous means that one has intense devotion to a cause or idea. Sey's parents were unable to know when to let her stop, but much of that was Jen Sey's fault herself. Sey always insisted to her parents everything, within reason, was fine and refused to let them know about her hell with training and also the host family she lived with. (The host family's house was apparently cold and had little food or recreation of any kind) She described her parents as being mostly very supportive, up until she quit gymnastics. Obviously through all the sacrifice the family had been through: financially, emotionally, I think Ms. Sey calling her parents "Overzealous" is an untrue statement on Sey's part toward the mostly supportive personalities of her parents. Others, like Chelle Stack (who actually made the '88 Olympic team but was known for her TRULY overzealous parents) probably would've killed to have Sey's parents. The book delves into the grim, and we lose sight quickly as to why Sey loved gymnastics to begin with and why she would go through all hell in the sport and still stick with it after so many years. This adds speculation that Ms. Sey deliberately dramatized the events in her gymnastics life to sell more books. Ms. Sey often fails to write in an eloquent, purposeful style. Comparing to dance once again, former ABT principal ballerina Gelsey Kirkland's horror memoir, Dancing on My Grave, had me to near tears during several sections of the book. Unfortunately, Sey often fails to answer the "why?", and by only answering the "what" I am not triggered with much emotion.

Final Thoughts

  • Jennifer Sey is brave, but also strategic, for putting her story onto book shelves. Her release date (just 3.5 months from the games), the overly dramatic subtitle and lack of gymnastics memoirs out there made this book sure to get all the publicity it has gotten.

  • Not a must-read, but an interesting book still. It is intriguing to read from someone that was NOT an Olympian, media darling, or was hugely popular in the sport. Learning about a gymnast that is not as well-known provides much more interest for the reader because of the more candid looks, thoughts, and emotions going on in a regular elite gymnast's life.

  • I commend Ms. Sey for overcoming the disappointment of not making it the '88 Olympic team and turning into a successful businesswoman, getting married and having children. This is something that remarkably not many gymnasts, successful or not, can say. Many gymnasts are all like "I'm making a comeback to make the Olympic team at 35," but Sey has taken the initiative upon herself to be successful and happy beyond gymnastics.

Next Post: My thoughts of the new code of points

That is all.

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