The Perfect 10

Young female gymnasts devote their lives to achieving perfection. Perfection. Think about it. How often are most of us striving for perfection? Doing well, yes. Doing our best, yes. But absolute, Perfect 10, perfection? It probably doesn’t happen much in a normal life.


For a young gymnast, perfection is the ultimate goal. Of course, they do make mistakes, but they are given a very small margin for error. Consider other sports, like tennis. Just like gymnastics, it is an individual sport. But a tennis player can make many mistakes and still win; it’s just a matter of which player makes the fewest mistakes. A match is not won or lost because of ONE mistake. A gymnastics meet can, and often is, won or lost because of one mistake. One stumble on the floor exercise, one balance check on the balance beam, one step on the landing, that’s all it takes and you lose. Not only that, but these girls are completely and totally responsible for their performances.

This all rests on the shoulders of very young girls. The average age of an Olympic gymnast is about 16. Attempting to be perfect when you are 16, or even 18, seems almost cruel. The perfection isn’t just technique, they are also judged on how they look, especially at the International level. Girls with the right look, the right “lines”, often score better than those without that particular look. It’s not enough to have perfect execution, you have to have the right lines.

I have the utmost respect for these young girls. They train hard. They suffer from terrible injuries and go through heart-rending rehab. They do this knowing that the end result is elusive.

I’ve watched and loved gymnastics since I was 8 years old. I watched Nadia receive the first perfect 10 in the 1976 Olympics. I watched MaryLou Retton get several 10’s in 1984.

(I never tire of watching this bar routine. Such grace!)

The gymnastics community then thought it was too easy to get a 10, and they changed the rules and the judging. So, now it’s even harder to earn a perfect 10! The girls now do such difficult tricks that Nadia’s 10 of ’76 and Mary Lou’s in ’84 would not even qualify them for the Olympics. They wouldn’t have gotten near the Olympic team with those routines! The routines are even too easy for a lower level gymnast.

To my knowledge there has not been a perfect score in gymnastics since the rules changed. Perfection has now become even harder to attain.

This weekend, when I watched the 2013 National Championships, I felt sadness. I remember Nadia’s ease and innocence, MaryLou’s brilliant smile and unbridled joy. I didn’t see that this time around. The routines and tricks and tumbling are SO HARD that it takes every ounce of strength and skill and endurance that these young women have. Girls as young as 15 suffer from debilitating injuries, have had surgeries on their knees, achilles, elbows, or shoulders. Perfection seems so far away. This is the first time I’ve ever watched gymnastics and felt sad. I think the quest for perfection is creating a bar that is raised too high.

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