The Balancing Act

How student gymnasts push through adversity to achieve inner strength

The Balancing Act



Freshman Charlie Getz, a former gymnast of four years, spoke with a resigned smile, one that conveyed the intricacies of gymnastics. It’s a sport of pride and pain, all of which Getz experienced until it became impossible to continue.

“Gymnastics is such a complex sport that many people don’t realize everything that goes on in the background. It’s insane,” Getz said. 

Freshman Alex Ravden has been involved with gymnastics from the age of four and defined the sport as an inseparable part of herself. At an advanced level, passion and relentless work are what she hopes will get her to compete in college.

“Who am I without gymnastics?” Ravden said. “It’s kind of a part of me now.”  

The students featured in this article are all current or former gymnasts at Monarchs Training Center in Agoura Hills, California, since Oak Park High School has no equivalent of the sport. For them, gymnastics is a source of love, identity and family. On the other hand, it’s also the cause of hurt, both mental and physical strain and can sometimes feel like an obligation.

Freshman Anvitha Voruganti found gymnastics through dance. She didn’t enjoy ballet or tap, but something about acro — a dance style that mixes classical technique with tumbling — struck a chord. 

“While looking for dance studios, we found a gym and I was just like, okay, we might as well just try there,” Voruganti said. “So when I went there, I went to the gym and I learned the basics for I think a good three months.”

Those three months turned into a year. One year turned into five. With three practices per week, for a total of 11 to 12 hours, time in the gym has blurred. Voruganti can’t recall the first time her toes touched the mat, or how she was hit with the scent of equipment cleaner trying to mask the smell of sweat. 

What Voruganti does remember is her first practice with the competition team she was selected for. She had moved cities from Simi Valley to Oak Park, started at a new school and found a new sport. A couple of years later, a whole new team was just another thing to adapt to.

“I remember I was sitting in the corner where everyone puts their bags and I didn’t know who was on the team,” Voruganti laughed. “So I was just sitting there for like a good 10 minutes and the coach [was] like, what are you doing here? Do you not [want to] go warm up?” 

He then introduced Voruganti to her teammates, of which she was the youngest. It meant a lot then, Voruganti said, that the girls made her feel at home. 

“A lot of people tend to quit and do cheer,” Voruganti said. “But also people don’t really like putting the amount of effort or time into it, so that kind of drives them away.”

In gymnastics, there is no off period for athletes. They condition through late spring, work at their routines in the summer and continue to perfect their technique into the fall. By the time January rolls around, they’ve spent the entire year in preparation for meets and invitationals, which they compete in until May.

“You’re literally training 20 hours a week, 50 weeks a year to compete [for] four minutes each meet,” Ravden said.

Nerve-wracking. Scary. When competition days arrive, the anticipation, in Getz’s words, is “horrible.” 

“I felt like I was going to pee my pants. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Getz said. “And then I got there and like everything kind of just melted away all the worries.”

A sense of peace washes over a gymnast’s body before they begin their set. It comes from hundreds of repetitions and millions of redos on a single trick. Athletes will botch a skill in training and land hard on their back, finding it hard to breathe with the wind knocked from their chest. 

Then they stand up and do it again. 

Dust off the leotard. Take a deep breath. Overcome the mental block that’s wedged its way in. This cycle takes place every day so that gymnasts can take the floor or grip the bars, perch on the beam or begin sprinting towards the vault, all in pursuit of the highest score.

Ravden shared her recollection of a bars win at Regionals. It came after a coach at Monarchs told her she “sucked” at the discipline and shouldn’t compete in the event. Ravden finds her love for the sport through winning and performing well, but achieving high scores and top placing has another motivator.

“It’s so scary when you do bad and you get yelled at when you get back to [the] gym. I get really nervous,” Ravden said. “It’s really stressful and kind of degrading. lt makes you feel not that great about yourself.”

No sport is without adversity. No athlete is spared having to persevere through challenges. But gymnastics is unique in its demands of time, body and mind. The long, draining practices leave little room for homework. The sport can wreak havoc on body image and mental health. In the gymnastics world, coaching can make or break a career.

“It’s something that a lot of people don’t really talk about,” Voruganti said. “[Coach abuse] has happened with so many very famous people.”

The first two coaches Voruganti had showed little interest in her and her teammates. They prioritized the girls at higher levels and, to Voruganti, were clear in their preference.

“That definitely made [me] feel like, why am I here,” Voruganti said, “if I’m not going to get the thing that I need?”

After recognizing this issue, the gym hired new coaches. Voruganti found her next coach to be nurturing while emphasizing hard work. She was conscious of the vulnerable position athletes are in and set the standard for how coaches should be.

But then she was deported back to Russia. The position had to be filled yet again.

“We had a new coach,” Voruganti said, “and this coach was the most mentally abusive coach I’ve ever had.”

Ravden and Voruganti are grateful, in a way, for the now high-profile scandals in USA Gymnastics that have impacted the sport.

“It’s kind of starting to change the sport a little bit,” Ravden said. “But I think a lot of people struggle and no one really talks about it. It’s looked down upon.”

During the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time, garnered international media attention after she withdrew from the all-around finals. She cited her mental health and the “twisties,” a gymnastics phenomenon that puts gymnasts at risk. 

“It happens to so many people and I’m actually really happy,” Voruganti said. “I mean, I’m not happy it happened, but awareness was spread through that situation.”

In many cases, it has become the athlete’s burden to speak out, lest the world get distracted by their dazzling athleticism and forget what’s going on inside their head. Lower youth levels are no exception and they lack the platform and press professional sports is granted.

Growing up, Getz was a super flexible, hyper-mobile kid. Her mom placed her in gymnastics hoping it would temper her clumsiness while drawing on natural talent. Over time, the neurological disease Getz was born with grew worse. 

“Coaches would see me doing [a skill] wrong [or] not attempting it and think that I wasn’t trying hard enough. And because I wouldn’t speak up and say no, this hurts or no, I physically can’t do it, they never understood,” Getz said.

She began losing feeling in her legs and was in and out of a wheelchair. Eventually, gymnastics became too strenuous for Getz’s health to continue. Surprisingly, she thinks that was for the best.

“You wouldn’t get that from a lot of people, that [they’re grateful] injury took them out of the sport they love,” Getz said. “But I think it was the best for me because I started to get so mentally down on myself and so hard on myself because I couldn’t perform to the standard that I had before.” 

Getz hopes to find closure in training other girls, starting this summer with a coaching job. While unsure if she’ll ever be able to return to the sport, she’s content, for now, to sit out on the gym floor and watch.

Between Getz, Ravden and Voruganti, gymnastics has taught them discipline and resiliency, lessons that will linger long after they leave the gym. Beyond fitness, they’ve acquired a different kind of strength from the sport: perseverance. When they push through hardship, they pull their teammates up beside them. When it feels like the world won’t stop spinning, that strength is what allows them to find their balance.

“[Gymnastics has] just always been a part of me,” Ravden said. “[It’s not] that it was never an option to [quit], but it’s something that I’ve always done and always liked.”