Split leaps and surfboards — flipping the tables on perfectionism


Olivia Hewang

There will never be an absence of perfectionism in gymnastics; that’s just not how the sport is built. The “perfect 10” is, ultimately, the goal. But with her discovery of surfing, Allie found a way to enjoy gymnastics by letting her success be defined by improvement, not scores.

I pressed my toes into the beam and took a sharp breath in. Stay grounded. Trust it. In a moment of pure focus, the roaring arena was silent inside my own head. It was just me and the beam. Flipping into my dismount, I squeezed every muscle in my body. Boom. Stuck. That was my best beam routine of the season. My arms shot up and I threw my head back, swelling with pride as I basked in the product of a full year of hard work, early mornings and bloody hands. But when I stared at the scoreboard, I quickly deflated. 0.3 points away from perfection.

Believe it or not, Allie could look at this picture and find a million things wrong, analyzing the curl of every toe and the separation of each finger until her eyes hurt. But surfing serves as a reminder that scores are subjective and there’s no use agonizing over such minor details—it’s better to just go with the flow. (Courtesy Allison Bricca)

Perfectionism: one of the worst things to be attached to and the hardest to let go of. I should know. I’ve been a gymnast for over eight years, and for so long, all I wanted was to be perfect, to get that “perfect 10.” 

Being put in front of a judge and summed up by a number really does something to you. Sure, gymnastics has some elements of traditional team sports like providing a support system, but you take that number on alone. There’s no team to take the fall with you. You can’t blame an imperfect score on another teammate or a bad pass. The weight of failure falls on your shoulders, and your shoulders alone.

But with this fear of failure also comes the thrill of success. Growing up, I tried a number of other sports — soccer, softball, basketball, swimming, dance — but none of them had that danger, that spark, that I craved so badly. To this day, the adrenaline rush of standing on a four inch wide beam and chucking a standing backflip energizes me more than anything else I have experienced. 

For years, I just enjoyed the thrill of the sport and didn’t take practice too seriously. I was a steady person, supported by a strong set of edicts that I was constantly fed during training. Trust yourself. Shut up and work. Be a good teammate. Don’t be dramatic. And most importantly, be perfect. It took me a long time to let go of my perfectionistic views on gymnastics, and one of the biggest things that helped me with that was the discovery of another passion: surfing. 

With saltwater in her eyes and wind slapping her face, Allie allows the wave to be in control as she cuts through the water. The days she spent on her board taught her that she could enjoy something without the pressure of having to be perfect. (Courtesy Allison Bricca)

I remember the first time I caught a real wave. As it carried me forward and I wobbled to my feet, it felt like a huge hand was sweeping me through the water. After complaining about my tired arms and the saltwater in my eyes during the whole paddle out and nearly giving up, just one wave made the whole experience worth it. Even though gymnastics remained my first priority, the days I spent on my board taught me that I could enjoy something while having absolutely zero pressure to be any good at it. For once, I didn’t have to be in control of every single variable. In fact, I couldn’t be. I couldn’t control the choppy little waves that crested on  top of my board or the wind slapping my cheeks. The wave had the power; I just had to go along with it. 

Out in the open ocean, I wasn’t scanning the horizon for score cards or analyzing the way that my toes didn’t curl to a perfect point. I wasn’t comparing myself to the people around me, either, so I never felt self-conscious of my body or my ability. As I returned to the beach again and again, full of excitement, I also found myself going back to the gym with a new sense of joy and purpose. I was finally able to focus on my own improvement without comparing myself to my teammates or letting scores define me.

There will never be an absence of perfectionism in gymnastics; that’s just not how the sport is built. But I’ve learned that, just as I embrace the uncertainty of each crashing wave, I can embrace the thrill of every soaring flip unburdened by the numbers that are bound to follow. And the occasional fall doesn’t mean I’m a failure. It just means I’m human.