Head Of Global Marketing for Levis is All Chalked Up.
Chalked Up is a coming of age story masquerading as a book about gymnastics. Hence the cover and very long sub-title. But don’t let the sports angle stop you from giving it a whirl even if gymnastics isn’t your thing. It’s a memoir, not an exposé, and it touches on all sorts of mom relevant issues including: mother – daughter relationships, raising children in a hyper-competitive world, eating disorders, how we build self-esteem in our children, maintaining spousal relationships in a world gone mad with kid focus. (On that last point, the book is really more about what not to do. But a lesson is in there nonetheless.)
My childhood was unique in that I came of age in the intensely competitive world of women’s elite gymnastics (nationally competitive gymnastics is actually called “elite gymnastics”, I’m not suggesting that I am extra super special). Like many little girls growing up in the 1970’s, I was transfixed by Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. And I pleaded with my mom to sign me up for classes. By the time I was 8 years old, I was training 4 days a week, 3 hours a day. And by the time I turned eleven, it was up to 30 hours a week. Basically a full time job. I left school early, traveled around the country and sometimes even the world, competing for my rank on the national team. At 14, I moved away from home to practice in a nationally esteemed training center. I practiced 7 hours a day, trained through broken bones and screaming coaches, endured two a day weigh-ins and developed an eating disorder. And then I became the 1986 National Champion. A moment so unspeakably glorious, it made it all worthwhile.
Through all of this my mother drove me to and from gymnastics practice, watched me starve myself and crack my femur on the world’s stage, and listened to my coaches rant that I was a fat, useless loser … all in the name of winning. And please, don’t mistake my mother for a hopeless stage parent. She was a normal Jewish New Jersey mom until she got a tad too caught up in the cult-like world of winning. There were assumptions made about medals equating to happiness, despite the signs of depression in her daughter. Looking back, it was an easy mistake for her to make as I kept those insidious warnings of sadness well hidden. I didn’t want her meddling parenting to get in the way because winning meant everything to me as well, as our culture dictates. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t give all the kids a medal at the soccer game, we’d give them to none. They’d play to play, not to win.
Since I’ve been on book tour, moms often ask, “Was it worth it?” They expect a resounding “No!” but I always surprise them with a big fat “Yes!” I’m incredibly ambivalent about my time spent in gymnastics. Some of the greatest and proudest moments of my life took place when I was a teenaged athlete. But some of the most emotionally and physically devastating transpired as well. Besides the breaking of bones, there was the breaking of my psyche, which led to almost a decade of trying to figure out who I was without a leotard on and a medal hanging around my neck. And with parents who couldn’t see past the devastating disappointment of having sacrificed everything to see their daughter walk away from an Olympic berth, I had a tough row to hoe. Yet I would do it all again. Winning the 1986 national title less than a year after what should have been a career-ending injury was one of the most transcendent moments of my life.
On book tour, I’m also often asked, “How does this affect the way you raise your own kids? Would you let them do gymnastics?” I answer with a joke (albeit not a very good one): “They’ll be too tall. My husband is 6’8”. And they’re boys. So I don’t have to wrestle with that one.” But the fact of the matter is I don’t want my kids to do anything quite so seriously as I did when I was a child. Childhood is a time to have fun and figure out who you are and what you like. Not put yourself in a box. Nonetheless, I struggle with how to raise them. My notion of hard work is just a touch different than most people I know. If there isn’t back breaking toil and more than a dash of misery involved, it just doesn’t seem that hard or worthwhile to me. I want my kids to learn that lesson at a young age. If you want it, you have to work for it. And not kind of hard. Really hard. This is my quandary. How hard is too hard to work for a child? Or for an adult for that matter. Unfortunately, I do not have the answer. But I ponder it in the book and will leave you more confounded than before about the pitfalls of raising kids in a hyper-competitive world.
And finally, I am asked, “How did you write a book, while raising two kids and working a demanding job at Levi’s?” The answer is short: I really wanted to. And that’s the simple truth. I conceived of the idea for the book and I knew I had to write it. I certainly wasn’t going to let the fact that I worked 10 hours a day, had two kids, a husband and no training as a writer get in the way. I was up at 5 a.m. to tap out a chapter before work and stayed up until 12 a.m. to get in a few extra pages in the evening. I banged out a draft in four months and didn’t give up when I got nearly 30 rejection letters from agents. And so it is that I am exceedingly grateful for my time spent as a gymnast. I lived the blessed, proverbial lesson at a very young age that anything is possible if you really work hard for it.
Jennifer Sey is the author of Chalked Up, a memoir about her time spent as a nationally and internationally competitive gymnast in the 1980s. While she was competing she earned the title of 1986 National Champion and was a seven time national time team member. The book chronicles the ups and downs of a young life spent training to be the best in a culture where second place means losing.
Jennifer is now the VP of Worldwide Marketing at Levi's and, in 2006, was named one of the "Top 40 Marketers under 40" by Advertising Age magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.