The back handspring on the high beam was going to be the death of me. I had never tried it, but I just knew the moment my little 10-year-old feet left the beam, I would hurt myself. I knew the skills required of a level 7 gymnast were going to be more challenging and certainly more frightening than those in level 6, but I decided I would simply avoid the high beam back handspring; how important could it really be anyway? Perhaps level 7 competition just wasn’t for me. I came to find great comfort in the monotonous compulsory routines of my level 6, so why not just stay put? Regardless of my desire to remain stagnant, though, I guess I knew this wasn’t an option. I passed level 6 and was eligible to advance to the next level; so the only real way to move was forward.


My level 7 season began and with it came the necessary development of new skills. Giants on the high bar, full-twisting layouts on the floor, tsukahara’s on the vault, but the high beam back handspring remained a stranger to me. Day in and day out, I refused to execute this skill on a beam that felt like it resided one mile off the ground. I stuck to what I knew: the floor beam. A sweet little 4-inch piece of wood that firmly lay on the soft mat of the floor. If I slipped off or fell there, I would safely land on a foam cloud, keeping me far away from the prospect of injury.


One fateful day during warmups, I was doddling around on my floor beam when I looked up and realized nearly all of my teammates were warming up their back handsprings on the high beam. I thought to myself, eventually, I will have no choice but to complete this skill on a high beam. It was a required skill in the level 7 routine and failure to execute it would mean an event start value of virtual nonexistence. The start of competition season was fast approaching, and I could not afford to wait any longer. Today would be the day. Today, I determined, I would tackle this monster. I would successfully complete the high beam back handspring.


To accomplish this seemingly impossible task, I devised a plan. I would start out at my trusty floor beam and work my way up to the high beam. I would allow myself one attempt at each beam height until I reached my nemesis. I would take it one step at a time. One beam at a time. Focusing only on the immediate issue at hand before even allowing myself to think of the next one.


With that I began on the lowest beam of them all, my beam. One back handspring. Did it. Check it off the list. Great. Time to move up. The next training beam was slightly elevated off the floor, maybe a couple of inches up. Not bad. I can do this. I stepped on, put my hands over my head, took one deep breath, and flipped backwards. Stick the landing. Good. Next beam. This one was a foot or two up, slightly more daunting, but not terrifying. I got this. No problem. One deep breath and go.


Now onto the real beams. The first high beam was elevated, yet had a gigantic mat underneath it, one that made it appear as if it was only a foot off the ground. I set my eyes on this next target. Deep breath and leap. Stuck it.

Shannon Miller high beam


Now to the high beam that was set at about half height. Not all the way at a mile in the sky, but still high enough to prove whether or not I really possessed the deep desire to complete the task ahead of me. I climbed up onto the next beam in my ascending ladder of courage, breathed deeply, and flipped. Just one beam left. The highest of them all. The one that kept me awake at night. The one that would haunt me for the rest of my days if I did not find the resolve within to climb up and own it, as if I were always meant to stand atop that 4-inch piece of wood.


Deep breath. Mount the beam. Turn around. Arms raised straight above my head. This is it. If I just let go and blindly jump backwards, I win. Deep breath. Exhale. One. Two. Three. Jump.


I did it. I stuck my landing and presented my arms above my head proudly with a massive smile across my face. I jumped down and was so excited that I could burst. I looked around for someone to tell: my coach, any one of my teammates, the gym owner’s dog…anyone who would listen. But I realized, no one was even looking at me. We were all simply warming up and this back handspring was a skill that so many of my teammates already had. One that, at this point, I should have already had, too. Maybe even one that my coaches were unaware I was afraid to do. Perhaps I was that good at hiding my fears; at making others believe I was at a certain level when I really wasn’t, because I allowed my fear to dictate my entire beam practice every day.


It dawned on me that it didn’t matter who saw my high beam back handspring, every single person in the gym or no one but me. I overcame my fear and I would not regress. I decided that I would successfully complete this skill because I needed to do it. It wasn’t for some external reward, it was because I was sick and tired of having my mind controlled by something that I did not wish to give power to any longer.


The funny thing is, a couple of months later I actually fractured the growth plate in my wrist performing that very skill on the very high beam that caused me so much stress. I flipped backwards, and when I placed my hands on the beam behind me, my fingers slipped off in just the right way to twist my wrist at the right angle and cause the fracture to occur. I was out of commission for a few weeks before I could return to weight bearing skills, and when I finally did, I was ready to go. I never had reason to be afraid of the back handspring again…and I wasn’t. Even though I ended up hurting myself on that skill, because of my mental climb to success, I remained unafraid to flip on the high beam once my cast was removed.


When you decide to accomplish something, when you decide to strengthen your mind against all your fears and anxieties, something truly incredible happens: the fear can’t get back in.


“I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”

-Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire-