Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This post was written by gymnast, trainer, and Greatist Expert Kristy Wilson. The views expressed herein are hers.
Growing up in Australia, fitness became a big part of my life at a very young age. My parents were both very involved in sport. My father played football and my mother played grass hockey. I was always being dragged along to their practices and games, which I really didn’t mind because I would always entertain myself by trying to flip around and stand on my head while watching them play.
To say I was an active kid is an extreme understatement. I really wanted to play sports, but there were not many sports offered for three-year-olds. I was always flipping around my parents house, so they decided if I was going to do that I should at least be taught how to do it properly. So they enrolled me in gymnastics, then little athletics, netball, and grass hockey.
I got to the point where I simply could not be four places at once, so I had to choose a sport to focus on. Since gymnastics was by far my favorite, and the one sport I excelled at most, it was an easy decision for me. I went to practice, would go home and practice more. I really couldn’t get enough of the sport. I competed at the regional and state levels and was winning most meets I entered.
Right after I turned eight, I was competing at a local meet where some members of the Australian Gymnastics Team were visiting doing a display. The National Women’s Gymnastics Coach was also there, and little did I know she had her eyes glued on me the entire meet. She approached myself, my coach, and my parents immediately after the meet and asked me to go to the Australian Institute of Sport for a camp with 64 other girls from across the country. I packed my bags and headed across state to the National Training Center.
As an eight-year-old I became the youngest athlete to ever be offered a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport— the Australian National Training Center for many sports, including gymnastics.
I began training seven to eight hours a day, six days a week. I would wake up at 6 am, head to the gym train from 7:00 am-11:00 am, go to school, go back to the gym and train from 3:30 pm til 7:30 pm or 8:30 pm. I’d then head back home and finish my school work for the day. This was a lot different than the seven hours a week I was used to at my local gym!
Training was extremely tough. We focused a lot on strength and conditioning as well as skill development. However, the toughest part was keeping my weight the number it was supposed to be. I was weight morning and night before training sessions. If I was not my weight I was punished with strength training, or kicked out of the gym and sent to the track or sauna to go and lose the weight. Once I could come back and show the number on the scale I was supposed to be then I could train. Beautiful gymnasts were supposed to be skinny, and if I wanted to be a beautiful gymnast, of course, I had to be skinny. It’s not surprising that by the time I turned 10 years old, I had developed what I would later learn was an eating disorder, and a pretty severe one at that.
At 14, I had three knee surgeries in a period of about six months. Again, not surprising. How can a malnourished athlete stay healthy or competitive for very long? They can’t, and my gymnastics career was over.
After taking some time off to recover from my surgeries and live a normal life for a while, I left Australia and moved to Orlando to join Cirque du Soleil as a powertrack/trampoline performer in 2001 in the Orlando-based production, La Nouba. Our work schedule was pretty demanding. Most days were long. We performed two 90 minute shows a night, five nights a week. In addition to that we had stagings, workouts, and practice each week.
Being on stage and having to perform at your best day in and day out is extremely demanding. This is definitely not like a sport where it’s fine if you have a bad practice or two each week. As a performer, you need to be ON your game every single time you step on that stage. So not only does this profession take a toll on your body if you do not look after it, but it is also extremely demanding mentally. Needless to say, my old gymnastics habits came back in full force, and my eating disorder came to it’s absolute worst point a few years after I had joined Cirque. I had no energy, the shows were so hard to get through, I was moody, I was depressed, I was in pain, and I was sick. I was miserable and seemed to be going through surgery after surgery. Another knee surgery, elbow surgery, Achilles surgery— something had to change. I had finally reached a point of being so sick and tired of being sick and tired that I decided that I wanted to get healthy. I didn’t want to feel horrible anymore. It was a process and definitely not smooth sailing, but I eventually picked myself up and got myself to where I wanted to be: strong, fit, happy, and healthy.
It’s amazing to me how good it feels to be strong. I no longer weigh myself, and honestly, I don’t care what that number says. It does not dictate my moods or my life anymore. And what does that number on the scale mean anyway? I can drink a glass of water, jump back on the scale and it will read a pound or two more. Does that mean I’ve gained weight? Of course not! A number on the scale does not tell the whole story. It really tells us nothing about our body composition. Use it as a guide if you want, but please don’t become so obsessed with numbers that you let them control you.
If you are someone who weighs yourself every morning and has a particular number you like to see, or that you are aiming to see, then think about this: What does that number mean to you, and why is it important? Will it be a bad day if you don’t see your ideal number? It always was for me. Not seeing that ideal number would completely ruin my day. Think about how and why you chose that particular “number” in the first place. Wouldn’t you rather focus your energy on the more important things in life such as living a healthy lifestyle and being the best you can possible be? Focusing on exercising regularly and following a well-balanced and well-rounded diet will leave you full of energy and feeling amazing, I guarantee it. Not to mention looking amazing, too.
Almost everyone I work with and talk to has a certain scale number they desire to be. Knowing how unhealthy and untruthful scale numbers can be, I really encourage my clients to measure results in other ways such as body fat percentage, measurements, how their clothes fit, their energy levels, and also by how they look and feel. You may have heard the saying that “strong is the new skinny.” This really is true, and it feels a hundred times better to be strong rather than skinny. Skinny will not make you happy. Skinny will make you tired, irritable, and breakable. Strong, on the other hand, will make you feel amazing, like you can conquer the world.
To perform at our best, whether in sport or in life, we need take care of our body by exercising regularly and fueling it with the adequate energy and nutrients it requires. The human body is an amazing machine. We only get one, so treat it well. Throw the scale away and focus on living your best life possible. Workout, choose to eat healthy foods often, and enjoy the occasional “treat” meal.We all have the power to choose what we want in life. Choose to make yours the best, most fulfilling journey possible!