Welcome back to #FridayReads! This week, we’re reading Break the Fall by Jennifer Iacopelli. Scroll down to read the excerpt!
White-hot sparks of agony light down my spine, scorching over my hips and into my thighs. I grind my back teeth together and clench my fists against the pain, blunt fingernails biting into the palms of my hand.
C’mon, Audrey, it’s nothing. Push through it.
Pounding my knuckles against the muscles of my calves helps distract from the ache as I sit on the floor, legs spread out in a split, waiting my turn.
The only sound in the sold-out arena is the reverberating squeak of the uneven bars lifting up into the rafters. It’s been like this for two days. One by one, we go up to the vault or the beam or the bars or the floor and perform while the crowd holds its breath.
I do too. If I don’t, it might become too much, and I can’t afford anyone noticing how much my back hurts.
Especially not him.
Coach Gibson—or Gibby to those of us on the United States Gymnastics national team—is patrolling the wells between the raised podiums, watching with an eagle eye for any sign of weakness. He’s everywhere all at once, cold and analytical, taking in every hesitation, every flinch, homing in on our weaknesses.
He stands to my left, wearing a red, white, and blue tracksuit, arms crossed over the swishy material.
“How’s the back, Audrey?” he asks.
“Great. Ready to go.”
His eyebrows rise, and he hums in disbelief, but he never looks away from my teammate and best friend, Emma Sadowsky, swinging on the uneven bars.
Gibby can stare all he wants; Emma won’t screw up. He knows it, even as he makes a show of looking critically at her handstands and the distance of her releases. She’s perfection.
Something as small as a wince from me, though? That’s basically admitting I’m in too much pain to go on.
Emma is a great gymnast, but even on her best day she’s not better than me on uneven bars. Of course, she’s head and shoulders better than me at everything else, which more than makes up for it. We’ve trained together since we were three, when our moms signed us up for Mommy and Me classes. Now, fourteen years later, we’re at Olympic trials.
She’s definitely going to make the team. As last year’s national and world all-around champion, she’s the favorite to win multiple golds in Tokyo. So far Emma’s accomplished everything we ever dreamed of as little girls, and now winning an Olympic medal is only a matter of time.
For me, just making the team will be a miracle. The pain doesn’t matter. Not really. Aside from the blissful days following a cortisone shot, my back always feels like this. The doctors said I should probably quit, but I told them to shove it. Then I apologized, and we settled for a compromise: retirement after the Olympics.
I only have a few more weeks of gymnastics left. Or, if my next routine goes wrong, just a few more minutes.
With a thwack of her feet against the landing mats, Emma finishes her routine with a stuck double layout, her body arched through the two flips in that satisfying way that makes my fourth vertebra twitch. Or maybe that’s just from the roar of the crowd, screaming in approval for their golden girl.
Joy for my best friend floods through me as she salutes the judges and then waves to the fans. A spike of excitement courses through my body. The pain fades to the background. It’s almost time to compete, and my body and mind are on the same page.
I still have a few minutes to breathe because about twenty yards away, Chelsea Cameron, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, is about to start her floor routine. They keep the routines staggered for the TV broadcast, making sure the fans at home can see everything.
“You nailed that,” I say, standing as Emma jumps down from the podium, a fake smile plastered across her face. I’ve known her long enough to know the difference.
“I know,” she says, smoothing back her hair, hands still encased in chalky grips. She’s a ginger-headed white girl, and the chalk leaves a streak in her hair just a shade or two paler than her skin. I smile at that. It’s usually my own dark hair streaked with the chalk and not hers. “You’ve got this, Rey.”
She smiles, a real one this time, and some of the tension in my shoulders loosens despite Gibby still being right here. It might seem like his focus is on Chelsea, tumbling across the floor on the other side of the arena, but I don’t doubt that his attention is at least partially on me.
I swing my arms in circles and then stretch them above my head, trying to pretend I’m not completely aware of Gibby’s presence, that I’m totally dialed in on the routine ahead of me. He’s not much taller than I am, being a former gymnast himself, but the sheer totality of his power in my world makes him seem gargantuan.
He runs a hand through his thick brown hair graying slightly at the temples. “Show me what you’ve got here, Audrey,” he says. Or else, I add in my head.
Chelsea lands her final tumbling pass. Her days as a top all-around gymnast are long over, but her name still carries the weight of Olympic gold and million-dollar sponsorships. Plus, even at twenty, she’s still badass on vault and floor.
I take a deep breath, pushing Chelsea out of my head. Gibby wants to see what I’ve got on bars, and I have to show him that I belong on the Olympic team, that I’m worthy of my dreams.
Okay, Audrey, hit this routine and you go to Tokyo.
The crowd has finally settled after Chelsea’s floor, just in time for the announcer to call out, “And now on uneven bars, representing New York City Elite Gymnastics, Audrey Lee!”
My heart leaps at the sound of my name, and a frisson of excitement spreads over my skin. If it’s the last time I’m going to do this, I want to remember every detail. I lock eyes with my coach, Pauline. She’s chalking the bars exactly the way I like: just a thin layer, nothing that will clump into my grips. A tight smile plays across her face, and I return it.
There isn’t time for all the words I want to say to her about how thankful I am and how much I love her and how no matter what happens, she’ll be like a second mom to me, forever. Actually, I’m pretty glad there isn’t time to say all that. Crying right now would suck.
The crowd buzzes, but not loudly enough to drown out the thumping of the blood pounding in my ears. The light near the side of the podium is still red, so my eyes flicker over the arena, everyone’s devices reflecting the glare of the lights, cameramen hovering at the edge of the apparatus, attempting and failing to be unobtrusive while bits of chalk hang in the air, clinging to everything.
The judge at the end of the row gives me a green light, the sign to begin.
Everything else fades away. I lift one arm in salute, the other out to the side, an affectation I developed from obsessing over Russian gymnasts growing up. Then I turn, eyes on the cylindrical fiberglass bars that hold my ticket to the Olympics.
I swing up and into a handstand, holding to show control, but not nearly long enough for the blood to rush to my head, and then fold my body in half, legs straddled in a V and extended fully, all the way through to the tips of my pointed toes. There’s barely time to breathe during a bars routine, especially mine. It’s one of the most difficult in the world, every element linked to the next in a smooth melody that flows with the creak of the bars and the twang of the wires. Up on the high bar, I release and catch, and then back down to the low, a swing around the low bar and then straight back up again.
It’s not flying, but it’s as close to it as a human will ever achieve. Now, a giant swing up to a pirouette and down, and then a release into a back layout, my body held stick straight with one, two, three twists, and land, controlling the smallest step, barely a flicker.
A hit routine and a massive sigh of relief. I clap my hands together, the grips sending a cloud of dust up into the air, and salute the judges, maybe for the final time.
Hopping down from the podium, Emma hugs me before I really find my feet. Coach Pauline is next, a woman who knows me better than even my parents. Over her shoulder I catch Gibby’s eye, but there’s no emotion there. No pleasure or satisfaction, only an unidentifiable steeliness. He looks away.
I’d done what he’d asked, hadn’t I?
Was it enough?
“C’mon,” Emma murmurs as our coach lets me go. There are tears in Pauline’s eyes when I pull away. Tears of joy? Sadness? Both?
I grab Emma’s hand and squeeze.
“I knew you had it,” she says, squeezing back.
That’s what breaks me. I yank her hand and pull her close, the tears starting to gather in the corner of my eyes. “I’m so proud of you. So proud of us.”