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Life Lessons from the Balance Beam

It's been a few years since I've fallen off a balance beam. But the lessons I've learned have been invaluable. Here are a few of my favourites.

My Mom (Yvonne)

My mom didn’t want me to play football.

“I made the team,” I said. Yes, an 11-year-old girl picked to play with the guys.

“Why don’t you take gymnastics?” she asked as she pointed at the the TV.

It was the Olympics. Nadia Comaneci was dancing on the balance beam.

She scored a perfect 10.

It was an amazing moment that stunned the world.

Nadia Comaneci was 14 years old.

My life changed at that moment.

“I want to be like her.”

That was in 1976. Now I look back on the conversation and realize that it changed the course of my life. In a matter of weeks, I was hanging upside down in my black-and-gold bodysuit, praying my coach had a good grip on my legs and he wouldn’t drop me.

Coach was trying to teach me how to do a cartwheel. But I wasn’t getting the hang of it. No pun intended.

He flipped me right side up and helped me land safely on my feet.

“See? This is what it feels like to do a cartwheel.”

I didn’t see. But I was beginning to get the feel.

The thing is I loved gymnastics. Soaked up everything my coach told me. But it was a lot harder than Nadia made it look on TV.

At the end of the year, I convinced my mom to talk to Dagmar, the head coach, about me.

“Barbara would like to be on the competitive team,” she told her.

“No, no, no!” Dagmar shouted in her thick European accent. “Barbara is too old.”

Too old?

I was 12.

Here's what I learned: Gymnastics is a lot harder than it looks on TV. And when someone says you're too old to do something, you don't have to believe them.


The first time I entered a gymnastics competition–in early spring of 1978–I was a bundle of nerves.

Coach Carlene tried to calm me down. “You can do it. Just take three deep breath and relax.”

I dragged the beat board into position and within moments was mounting the beam.

“Get back up,” I heard Carlene say as I landed in a heap on the mat.

It took a second to register that I had propelled myself over top of the beam.

Carlene pulled the beat board away.

I climbed back up and fell off again.

And again.

And again.

To make matters worse I started crying.

It’s really hard to do a cartwheel when you’re crying.

Ding, splat. I fell off the beam again.

I ran into the corner, sobbing.

“I … fell off… the beam… five times.”

“I know,” Carlene said. “But you got back up. That’s the only thing that matters.”

Here's what I learned: When you fall down, get back up. It's the only thing that matters.


“You look great, keep the weight off.” Randy the gymnastics coach said. I didn’t want to believe him. I had lost 30-lbs battling pneumonia and couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. Your relationship with your coach is sacred. Even when he says something damaging to your self-esteem. My relationship with my body was simple. Work out, try not to eat too much and learn how to love my post-pubescent curves. Except now. I didn’t have any. I weighed 105 lbs. My pants were falling off me. But I looked great. Better keep the weight off.

Here's what I learned: Pneumonia sucks. We all have body issues (including Randy). And when someone says you should keep the weight off, it doesn't mean you have to.


Sandy O’Brien, head coach of the University of Alberta Pandas, was sitting on a blue folded mat beside the balance beam looking at a clip board with the names of eight gymnasts who were vying for six spots on the team. My name was on that list. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll do my front aerial at the competition in Denver.” “I’d like you to do it now.” She said. We had many strains in our coach-gymnast relationship but, the biggest was my refusal to practice on the high beam. “OK, I’ll do it,” I said. Even though I didn’t want to. I was having a bad day. I counted to three and flipped myself upside down. I was hanging mid-air, above the beam, with no hands. “Something’s wrong... my foot should have landed by now.” My voice inside my head said. What to do? Brace for impact or try to relax? My ribs slams into the beam. Bang! “Ow!” I landed in a heap on the mat. “Are you OK?” She asked. I didn't answer because I couldn’t breathe. It was a hard knock. I was banged up, but I wasn’t seriously injured. Unless you count the damage to my self-esteem. I spent the next four weeks practicing on the low beam and on a line on the floor. Fortunately, I was able to get back on the high beam–just in time for the competition in Denver.

Here's what I learned: If you're having a bad day, stay off the high beam. Unless you want to go to Denver.

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