Many of the experiences I had during the next five years were unrelated, but all my memories during that time began to prepare me for bigger things to come. Although I was unaware of it happening, a support network was developing around me, which would be vital during the following stage of my life.
While I was still living in Mountville, I was always involved in sports of some kind. I played little league baseball for a couple of years and basketball for a season but struggled in both. I liked and did well in soccer. I probably would have continued in soccer had I not found my way into gymnastics. But once I got started in gymnastics, I had little interest in anything else. I took saxophone lessons for a short time but quickly decided that I didn’t have time for it, especially during the school year. Maybe it was an excuse because I didn’t want to practice, but the amount of time I spent in the gym seemed to justify my decision nonetheless. Even though I hate quitting anything, gymnastics was taking top priority over everything else.
That first year in gymnastics, as I quickly progressed and improved, was like a whirlwind sweeping me along, and I loved every minute of it. Over the next five years the schedule of my gymnastics practices and competitions primarily determined the direction of my life. What I remember of that time, especially during the school year, was going to school, doing my homework, eating, sleeping, and spending as much time in the gym as possible. Our scheduled practices were between two and three hours long, and I was consistently in the gym between twelve and fifteen hours each week.
I grew up going to church on Sundays and went to youth group on Wednesday evenings. Competitions were mostly on weekends and frequently on Sundays. There were many occasions that I took my gymnastics attire and equipment to church, after which we changed and headed straight to a competition. Other weeks we did not make it to church at all. I feel like I was able to have a developing relationship with Jesus during that time, but I have to admit that my primary focus during those years was gymnastics. Still, God was developing a foundation in my life on which a lot of trials would later pile. I developed an interest in Christian apologetics—the defense of the faith—and learned early in my life that the entire Bible is true and trustworthy and able to stand up to scrutiny and critical analysis. I believed firmly in the inerrancy of Scripture, salvation through Christ alone, and that all things happen according to God’s divine plan and knowledge of things to come.
We attended Calvary Church my whole life, and I used to joke that I began attending Calvary nine months before I was born. The church grew quite a bit during that time, and my faith was also developing. Growing up in the church, I had many friends in the youth group. Although I had a couple of good friends, I didn’t develop many close friendships. My relationships with peers at school were not much different. I got along with and related to just about everybody to one degree or another. I had many acquaintances, but few, if any, were more than surface relationships. That’s not to say that I didn’t have genuine friends who cared for and about me and I them, but I rarely let anyone get too close. Because of this, I have little significant contact with most of my peers from that time in my life and find now that I have little in common with most of them.
I enjoyed school and was motivated to do my best. I always planned to go to college and tried to make my academic schedule difficult. I took as many advanced placement (AP) classes as possible, thinking that if I was capable of doing the work, I should. To do otherwise would be second best. I was always interested in art and thought that I might choose an art-related career. I was not the best artist in the school by any stretch of the imagination, but did enjoy it and did pretty well. My creations were usually a little unordinary, and I liked to stretch my imagination. One project I still have sitting on my desk at work is a whistle I made out of clay. We fashioned clay whistles; mine formed into the head of a flamingo, glazed white with black spots, and dubbed a flaming-cow (pronounced similar to flamingo). I spent many hours drawing with paper, pens, and pencils, but that aspect of my life has mostly disappeared over the years. My creativity, however, has emerged in other ways as I have needed, on numerous occasions, to find unique solutions to life’s problems.
Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, I also enjoyed expressing myself through dance. I listened to pop, R&B, and rap music and enjoyed imitating and practicing the dance steps and routines popularized by many performers. (I would have loved having YouTube back then!) For a short time, I also delved into break dancing and hip-hop, with an occasional backflip and other skills I learned in the gym. I enjoyed going to school dances and, when able, teen dance clubs. I also tried writing and performing rap music, but more for personal enjoyment than public display.
In gymnastics, my teammates soon became my second family and the gym my home away from home. My parents dropped me off just about every weekday evening and Saturday morning and picked me up a few hours later. Gymnastics had quickly become the most significant part of my life. When I first started gymnastics, a New Holland industrial park warehouse housed the gym. Less than two years after I began, a devastating fire burned the warehouse, the gym, and everything in it to the ground. Unable to comprehend the future of the gym at that time, I wondered if I would ever do gymnastics again. But the gym soon reopened in a temporary location, a small building in the heart of New Holland. During that time, we also visited other gyms to use their equipment, especially their floor exercise areas, as we prepared for competitions. At our temporary facility, we did not have a full-size floor exercise area, just a tumble strip, making it difficult to do full routines. Eventually, however, we moved into a new facility where the gym resides to this day.
During each competition season, we worked with our coaches to develop our routines. Each season consisted of eight to fifteen meets in which we executed two different routines. Compulsory routines designed by the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) differed according to class, but everybody within each class did the same skills. Scoring was dependent on who did the skills most cleanly and with the best execution. Coaches worked with each gymnast to develop optional routines to showcase what each gymnast could do on an individual level. The season always began with competitions in which we performed strictly compulsory routines. Later in the year, the format shifted to include optionals as well. Some events were one or the other, and in some, we competed both.
Competitions were frequent, and we saw consistent, repeated competition with gyms each season. Members and coaches of other teams, as well as the judges, became a sort of extended family. I was accustomed to being on the podium after each competition and enjoyed the recognition. My accolades were building, and I was becoming known among my peers as one of the best.
During those years we did a lot of traveling within our region, consisting of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, and became accustomed to spending nights in hotels. Sometimes we traveled with our families. At other times we went as a team in our coach Larry’s van, no seats or seat belts, just a big open carpeted van into which we all piled. As you can probably guess, regulations were a lot less strict than they are now. The first year I went to nationals, held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was more for the experience than having any expectation of winning, and we traveled without families. It was just me, my teammate Keith, and our two coaches for the only time I ever needed airfare to travel to a competition.
Summertime afforded more time to spend on other activities, and I enjoyed swimming, biking, skateboarding, street hockey, fishing, video games, and other recreational activities that varied from year to year. One Christmas, my brother and I received freestyle bikes as gifts, and we enjoyed doing tricks. One trick that I could do well was surfing, in which I coasted, standing straight up with one foot on the seat and one on the handlebars to steer. My brother had more time for biking than I did and was much better than I was. I always enjoyed watching him on his bike. Each summer, my family would spend a week or two at the beach. My brother and I spent at least one, sometimes two weeks at various church camps, and most summers I also spent an additional week at a gymnastics camp with my teammates.