I was very young when I went abroad for the first time. I won’t say when, but my first trip to another country was to Russia, or what was at that time called the Soviet Union (okay fine, I just gave you a hint as to my age). It was the year before the Berlin Wall fell (okay, there’s another hint) and I was a gymnast training to be an Olympic star! I was given the opportunity to go with a teammate of mine to train with Russian gymnasts and their coaches. At the end of our training we were to have a “friendly competition” celebrating the amity between the Americans and the “communist” Russians – or at least that’s how I remember it.
The Russian gymnasts were indeed very friendly especially after seeing how much better they were compared to us. Picture training with a bunch of ten-year old boys (okay last hint!) who all had the body of Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock. I thought my 3 hours of training after school each day was tough! The Russians were training all day, every day!
I was jealous. We were clearly not as strong and disciplined as the Russian gymnasts. If we did a full twist, they would do a double twist. If we did giants around the high bar, they would do the same but with no grips. I was exhausted, sore, and my hands bled from large blood blisters, but I had to show them at least one thing I could do better. So, I took the opportunity one day while practicing on the trampoline. They told us to do a double front into a pit of foam, so I decided to do a triple! As I bounced on the trampoline to get enough height, I went for it, full force, no holds barred. But I tried too hard. I curled up so quickly to make sure I could do a triple that I slammed my knee into my mouth causing my lower lip to get stuck in between my braces. Although I looked like my teeth were about to swallow my lips, the other gymnasts looked at me not with horror but with confusion. How does one manage to put his lip in between two braces?
Other than that unflattering moment, my intense Russian style gymnastics training was only secondary to my overall experience there. What I remember most was the food, the history, and the people. I remember walking around Gorky Park trading spearmint gum for little pins of Lenin’s face. I remember drinking water from a communal water dispenser, from a cup that was also communal (something I would never do now). I remember Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the grand fountains of Peterhof, the Bolshoi Ballet, the insanely elegant Moscow metro stations, caviar which I regretfully rejected at the time, and beef stroganoff both day, and reluctantly, night.
I was young, but I remember. I only knew one story: Americans were good and freedom loving and those in the Soviet Union were poor and evil. I couldn’t understand the politics of the Cold War at that time but what I did learn is that things are never as they seem – at that age, this was not disheartening, but invigorating! My trip to Russia offered me a different set of stories that made me realize there was plenty more to discover. I saw, I spoke, I ate, and I observed – at ten years old, I knew I had to do more, and that’s exactly what I did.