Sabrina had been preparing for this for weeks. The small girl, with the statuesque figure and her hair pulled tightly back into a high ponytail, surrounded by a foil scrunchie, looked radiant in her amethyst team leotard. She sparkled, not so much from the glittery rhinestones sewn to her chest in a waterfall formation going off like a thousand shimmering flashbulbs with every move, but from a genuine smile that poured out, “I am happy to be here. This is my sport.” Her cheerful face and the flame that burned brightly from the depth of her soul could light up any darkened corner. The day of the big meet had finally arrived!
Sabrina loved gymnastics from the very first time she entered the gym as a four-year-old. Back then, she was limited to somersaults, but she couldn’t wait to catch up to the bigger, stronger girls who ran in compact, power-packed tumbling passes diagonally across the mat. She loved the meets. Sure, there was a lot of pressure to do well for the team, but pressure aside, the competition made her better than she thought she could be. All the athletes were there, to show off their best skills, and all the hard work they put into the sport. Competition brought out her best. Sabrina loved all the excitement and energy too, particularly at the start of each meet, bursting at the seams with anticipation. She loved hearing the national anthem booming up from the floor and into the stands. She loved standing shoulder-to- shoulder with her teammates, and the invisible, unbreakable bond that linked them together.
But soon, all eyes would be on her alone, when it was her turn to mount the balance beam—that four-inch-wide beam that appeared to float high up in the stratosphere among the clouds, although it proved to be only a few feet off the ground. The beam challenged her, looking menacing at times, even staring her down. But Sabrina would not let it get the best of her, not this time.
Using her warm-up minutes, Sabrina pirouetted perfectly on top of the beam, managing a full twist with her arms held high. She practiced her scale, elevating her leg in back of her, pulling her arms back into a wing formation, keeping her chest and chin both high. She was confident and ready. No doubt, this is the day she would get her Level 6 back walkover on the beam in competition. This was the only skill she needed which had eluded her. Some of her teammates of course had no problem with the skill, and others, like her, really struggled, needing to work hard at it. Still, she was proud of herself for taking calculated risks, daring to be better, and challenging herself to learn it. When her time came in front of the judges, she would need to bend backwards and kick one leg first, then the other, over her head, hanging for a second upside down, her legs in a mid-air split, then come up again in a lunge to balance herself, keeping both her fears and her poise in check.
The no-nonsense green pennant flag swiftly went up, signaling it was her turn. When she saluted the judges, her stomach started flip-flopping wildly. Sabrina wondered if anyone else could hear her heart thumping loudly against her chest wall. First, she managed a first-rate scissor mount onto the beam, pointing her toes into tight arrows. She pictured her mom in the bleachers, holding her breath until she finished the back walkover that had given her so many frustrated practices, the skill that crept into her nightly dreams that seemed too eager to taunt her. This was her moment. Surely, with so much practice and so much coaching, she would do it now. She would taste victory— this time!
The moment snuck up on her. The time which held special meaning had arrived, no matter what the clock mounted high on the painted cinder-block wall announced. Sabrina stretched tall with her arms in the air overhead. Now, she thought. She carefully reached backward over her head, searching for that four-inch- wide strip of varnished wood. She found it. She pushed off on her right foot, keeping her eyes fixed upon the string of glaring lights overhead, trying to keep her position in a straight line.
But suddenly… oops, she could feel her foothold give way, and she was falling… falling… far down below into a deep, bottomless chasm. It would not be today that her spirits would climb to their summit. Her heart slumped and heaved a heavy sigh. She jumped back on the beam though, quickly, defying gravity, so as not to get another penalty deduction, and then finished up, holding her dismount for the required quantum of time. Her nemesis had won again.
“Better luck next time,” she heard her coach mumble as she faced the disappointment pooling in her coach’s bottomless black eyes where she saw herself in endless free fall. But Sabrina’s own sights were set ahead on the horizon.
* * *
After all the shiny medals dangling on thick ribbons had been given out, and with both the tears and thunderous claps now fading back into the background to lurk among the bars and beams, biding their time until their next invitation, Sabrina scanned the floor, hoping the beam was still free. Yesssss, she cheered in her mind. The next session wasn’t about to start for another eight to ten minutes. There was still a chance. The gym was empty. The crowd had poured out lazily with magnetic feet, bottlenecking at the front door, like spilled sticky soda pop, and the new crowd hadn’t been unleashed yet. Some of the conversation fizz was dying down. She knew she only had a little time to get back to work. She could picture her well-intentioned parents already waiting anxiously for her in the car, trying to find some comforting words.
Sabrina seized her opportunity, not waiting for any proctor wearing the signature maroon jacket with the pocket insignia to wave her off. Quickly, she did her scissor mount and promptly but gingerly completed the first half of her routine again on the apparatus. When it came to the back walkover, she looked to both sides. The gym was empty. Reaching back, she kept her focus. Her legs knew what to do. They almost seemed to lift themselves over her head, searching for the beam. She came up in a perfect lunge. Sabrina’s heart soared to the rafters. There was no medal around her neck, no witness to celebrate her achievement.
“I did it,” she shouted out loud. No one was there, ready to flash her her well-deserved score. A question bubbled up, taking shape in her mind without hesitation. If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound?
“Yes!” she answered herself out loud, but there was no one there to debate with. She had been puzzled by that age-old riddle ever since she first heard it, in third grade. But now, she knew the answer as sure as she knew her own name. “The tree hears it. The tree knows. Yes, it absolutely does! It does!” And sometimes, that’s enough.