book reviews

I reread Jennifer Sey’s book, Chalked Up…

Back in 2008, when Bill and I were living in Germany the first time, I used to order actual physical books from I’d wait a few weeks for them to get to me, then eagerly plow through them so I could review them on Epinions eventually died in 2014, so I continue to read and review books for my blog.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books about gymnasts and women’s gymnastics as a sport. Most of the books I’ve read recently are about gymnasts who were victimized by disgraced former doctor, Larry Nassar, who now sits in prison for the rest of his life. One of the books I most recently read repeatedly mentioned former elite gymnast, Jennifer Sey, who published a book called Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams, back in 2008. I read and reviewed Jennifer Sey’s book just after it was published.

I reposted my original review of Chalked Up on my original blog, back in 2014, for one of my regular readers who was curious about my opinion. I’ll repost the review in today’s post, just for reference. One thing I noticed off the bat is that I read the physical version of the book in a matter of hours in 2008. It took me a lot longer to read the Kindle version, but that’s probably because in 2008, I didn’t get constant distractions from Facebook, like I do in 2020. Sometimes physical books are more expedient to read because I’m not also on the Internet being pestered by emails and such.

Sey is a few years older than I am and was competing in the 1980s, before the time when I paid attention to gymnasts (that didn’t happen until around 1988). In 1986, Jennifer Sey was the United States National Champion. A year later, her desire to train and compete for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea had completely fizzled. She quit the sport before the trials, which I do remember watching live as they happened in Salt Lake City, Utah. Although Sey was never courted by Bela Karolyi because she was too old and not enough of a hot shot, she did train with the Parkettes, another well-known club out of Allentown, Pennsylvania, owned by Bill and Donna Strauss. I remember Hope Spivey, who was on the 1988 Olympic Team and eventually was a gymnast at the University of Georgia, trained with the Parkettes. Hope Spivey was from my neck of the woods in southeastern Virginia. Sey repeatedly referred to Spivey as a “girl from West Virginia”. I noticed that was wrong, since I distinctly remember Spivey being from Tidewater, and a quick Google check confirmed that my memory was correct.

The next thing I’ll comment on is that in 2008, and in 2014, we didn’t know anything about what Larry Nassar was doing to elite female athletes. Jennifer Sey’s career happened before Larry Nassar was a threat, but there were still some creeps in the women’s gymnastics world. For instance, former elite coach, Don Peters, was rumored to be having an affair with one of his gymnasts. Sey writes about it in her book. Later, the rumor proved to be true, and Peters was eventually banned for life from coaching, because he was having sex with three gymnasts (though I doubt he was doing it at the same time). One of Peters’ victims, Doe Yamashiro, is mentioned in Chalked Up. I remember watching Doe at the ’88 Olympic Trials. I seem to remember her, and her teammate, Sabrina Mar (who went on to be an animator on South Park) had to drop out of the competition because they were injured.

Other than that, my opinions about Sey’s book remain similar to what they were in 2008. I think her book is well worth reading, particularly if you have any interest in what women’s gymnastics were like in 80s, and what it’s like to work so very hard for a goal like the Olympics, only to burn out a year too soon. It sounds like Sey was pretty miserable during what should have been the best time of her life. She did eventually go to Stanford University and is now a successful career woman living in San Francisco. She writes articles about elite gymnastics, including this one for International Gymnast Magazine, in which she writes about the imbalance of power that occurs between coaches and gymnasts.

Jennifer Sey has since divorced the man she was married to when she wrote her book, and now has two more children with her current husband. Below is my original review of Sey’s book, Chalked Up. I’m bolding the text to separate it from today’s comments, since twelve years have passed.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve had kind of a morbid fascination with the sport of women’s gymnastics. Never having been able to turn so much as a cartwheel myself, I usually experience twinges of jealousy coupled with amazement as I’ve watched the sport. The tiny women (or girls) who participate in gymnastics seem to have the ability to fly. It’s easy to forget that in order to “fly”, women who participate in elite level gymnastics often pay a hefty price. I was reminded of the price elite gymnasts pay when I read Jennifer Sey’s 2008 book, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.

Jennifer Sey was an elite gymnast in the 1980s. In 1986, at the age of 17, Sey was the United States National Gymnastics Champion. She had reached the pinnacle of her career and had aspirations of attending the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. But like all of us, especially like all elite female gymnasts, Jennifer Sey was a slave to Father Time. The years of endless practices, disordered eating, depression, and serious injuries took their toll. Sey’s Olympic dream ended a year shy of the 1988 Games.

Now in her late 30s and married, Sey is a successful career woman and the mother of two sons. She begins her memoir from that perspective, with the dream/nightmare that she’s gotten a call from the head of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, asking her to go back to the gym and start training again. At the ripe old age of 38, having gained over 40 pounds since her gymnastics days and birthed two children, Sey imagines what it would be like to attempt an uneven bars routine or the simplest moves on a balance beam. I have to admit, this “dream” intrigued me and I was immediately hooked. Then *poof* the dream is over and we’re back in reality. Sey begins the story of her ascent up the ladder of elite competitive gymnastics, detailing how gymnastics went from being a way to get some exercise to a driving obsession that ended with a sudden crash at the end of her adolescence.

Sey’s background 

The daughter of a successful pediatrician and a stay at home mom, Sey had a relatively privileged upbringing, with parents who were willing to devote a substantial amount of time and money to their daughter’s gymnastics career. Sey’s younger brother, Chris, was also a gymnast, though he did not have the same amount of success in the sport as his sister did. Consequently, Chris had a somewhat “normal” upbringing by comparison. Sey is a bit confessional when it comes to her relations with her brother. She knows that he was jealous of her success as an athlete. However, she points out that at the same time, she was jealous of his ability to be normal, to socialize with friends his own age from school.

Jennifer Sey had a number of coaches throughout her career, but during her heyday, she was trained by Bill and Donna Strauss of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Strausses, with their team, The Parkettes, are well known in gymnastics circles. Sey doesn’t present her former coaches in the most positive light. In fact, she reveals that most of the assistant coaches she encountered had never actually participated in the sport themselves and more than a couple of them were young men who seemed a little too eager to spend time with little girls. I was a little unnerved by this revelation, though I guess I wasn’t too surprised. Sey also dishes a bit about a rumor that went around when she was still competing. A well known gymnastics coach was supposedly having an affair with one of his gymnasts. I was a little put off that Sey chose to include this little tidbit since it was apparently never substantiated.

Throughout the book, Sey explains the impact her gymnastics had on her family, particularly her mother, who eventually bought into the investment aspect of the sport. When Sey started to burn out on the sport as a teen, her mother insisted that she keep up with it, even ignoring the signs that her daughter was engaging in dangerous practices to stay thin enough to compete. I guess I can understand why Sey’s mother was so eager to see her daughter win. Again, the family had invested a lot of time, money, and energy into seeing Sey succeed in her sport. But I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for the fact that Sey never had the chance to appreciate her accomplishments, since there was always another competition around the corner and always the threat of a competitor overtaking her. Before she had reached the legal age of majority, Jennifer Sey was over the hill and looking at a scary future. Gymnastics was all she knew.

A clip of a bad fall Sey took on bars at the World Championships in 1985. Don’t watch this if you’re squeamish. She was badly hurt.

My thoughts

I managed to read Jennifer Sey’s story in a matter of hours. I found her story very compelling, even as it echoes the tales told by other elite gymnasts who left the sport with nagging injuries and bruised egos. It seems to me that this book was very cathartic for Sey. At times, she comes across as bitter and angry, as she remembers some of the less pleasant aspects of life as an elite gymnast. It didn’t seem to me that she ever really enjoyed the sport much, though she was evidently very good at it. Overall, I got the sense that she only competed because it was expected of her and because not competing meant that she would have to find something else to do. I also got the sense that Sey is the type of person who would not be satisfied with doing something else if it meant she would be mediocre. It occurred to me that in order to make it as an elite gymnast, a person has to have incredible drive, a very high tolerance for pain, and more than a liberal amount of pride. That sense of pride also must be tempered by a personality that will withstand susbtantial abuse from other people as well as the desire to please them. I remember myself as a teenager and can imagine being subjected to some of the verbal abuse that Sey alleges in this book. I probably would have been kicked out of the gym because I doubt I would have taken it gracefully.

Jennifer Sey’s floor exercise to Maynard Ferguson’s jazz trumpet version of “Nine to Five”… Her ankle is taped up because she was badly injured prior to this competition.

While I sometimes felt this book was a bit self-indulgent, I also felt a little sorry for Jennifer Sey. It’s easy to be jealous of elite athletes and overlook what they go through to become elite. It’s also easy to forget that elite gymnastics is very much a dog eat dog sport. Everyone is a competitor, even when gymnasts compete in teams. Everyone has dreams of glory, but that shot at glory seems very elusive and, in my opinion, hardly worth the aggravation in the long run. On the other hand, some people may think Sey has no right to complain, having lived the dream that many have. Sey also discloses that though she wrote some very negative things about her parents (particularly her mother), she did not make this book available to them and writes that if they want to read it, they will have to buy their own copy. I don’t know Jennifer Sey’s parents, but I imagine they might not have appreciated her disclosure of some of the less flattering details of her upbringing, especially without prior warning. Moreover, even though Sey writes negative things about her parents, they don’t come across as monsters. In fact, they seemed to be good parents who got caught up in the circumstances. By that token, it seems like they had their daughter’s best interest at heart.

And at the pinnacle of her career.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I also appreciated the generous photo section. I thought Jennifer Sey’s writing was very candid; indeed, writing this book was probably very therapeutic for her, even though I sense that she still harbors some anger and resentment over the whole ordeal. Just looking at the title, I can see that Sey still has some strong feelings.

I would recommend this book to those who like memoirs. It might also serve as a warning and reality check to anyone who gets carried away by the prospect of an Olympic dream. Of course, now having read this book, it will be hard for me to continue looking at female gymnasts in quite the same way.

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book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.

Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simone Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.

Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s stories. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.

It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.

The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.

Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.

I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.

And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!

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