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Sarah is a level five. Tiffany is a level nine. Nick explained how the levels get administered. “At every level, the athlete has to achieve a certain overall score at a USAG-sanctioned event to move up to the next level. Then it’s up to each individual gym to make sure they’re following that guideline, that they’re not cheating, and to make sure that all the requirements at the new level are being fulfilled.”

After warm-ups, the team at Stars and Stripes broke into two groups for most of the workout’s remainder. Tiffany and the Optionals moved to the bars. Sarah and the rest of the Compulsories stayed for floor exercise.

According to USA Gymnastics, “The floor routine must be choreographed to music, lasting between 70 and 90 seconds and covering the entire floor area [40 by 40 feet]. The gymnast must use acrobatic and gymnastics elements to create high points in the exercise. These include two acrobatic series, one with at least two or more saltos [flips or somersaults] in different directions; an acrobatic-gymnastics series; and a gymnastics series. [An example of an acrobatic series is a cartwheel into a back handspring into a back salto. A gymnastics series might consist of a turn, followed by a split jump.] Throughout, the gymnast must harmoniously blend these elements while making versatile use of floor space changing both the direction and level of movement.”

While Chrissy stood at the corner of the floor exercise area, Sarah and the Compulsories reformed in front of the mirror. Their ranks thinned by the absence of the Optionals, the girls spread out into three rows across. Everyone made sure she could see her own reflection. “Okay,” Chrissy called out. “Let’s start with some full turns.”

Each girl stood with her arms held out at shoulder level. The right arm pointed to the side. The left arm pointed forward. The left foot pointed forward directly beneath the extended left arm. Moving to an invisible beat, each girl pivoted on the forward foot, turned her body one full rotation, then stopped in the original position. Around and around they turned. Chrissy moved through the group, adjusting arms, watching. “No wobbles,” she said again and again. “Stand tall. Up on your toes.”

After many turns, Chrissy told the girls, “If you’re done, let’s reform and go through the sequence.” The girls straightened up their lines. They seemed oblivious to the squeak of the uneven parallel bars where the Optionals worked to their right. At Chrissy’s command, Sarah and her group performed a sequence of moves they had obviously learned before. “Ready?” asked Chrissy. “Arms up. Step, step, passé, up, straddle jump, finish, and go one-two-two, two-two-two.” The girls jumped and danced. Each girl finished the sequence by holding a pose — up on toes, hands clasped against the left hip, head turned to the right.

Each time through, the girls and Chrissy added a few more steps to the sequence. “Step, punch, full turn,” Chrissy called out. On the full turn, many of the girls wobbled or hopped. “Oh, my gosh,” Chrissy said in mock despair, “did we not just do about 25 full turns? Why are we doing this?” Chrissy hopped around in a circle with her leg stuck out like a farmhand who had just stubbed his toe. “I know you guys can stick these.”

Sarah and the group went through the sequence again. There were fewer wobbles. “That’s better,” Chrissy conceded.

After a water break, the girls kneeled on the floor in their rows. “Do all of the arms,” Chrissy told them. Three times through, the girls practiced the routine in one spot, moving only their upper bodies. A forest of arms swept up and to the side. Backs arched. Shoulders moved forward and back. “Emily, you have to get through it without looking at Jackie,” Chrissy told one of the girls. “You’ve got to do your own routine.”

After calling the girls to the side of the floor, Chrissy hit the switch on a tape player. Tinny, overblown piano music crashed from the speakers. The girls listened one time through to the music, then went back out on the floor. Twice, they practiced their arm movements to the music. At the end, Chrissy told them, “Hold. Chins up. Chins pressed forward.” Chins pressed forward. Each girl’s eyes gazed back at her own reflection.

During the next portion of the floor workout, the girls practiced tumbling. Front handsprings. Back handsprings. Sarah concentrated. She didn’t stop to chat like some of the other girls. At the end of one tumbling run, Sarah stopped to look in the mirror and adjust one of her braids. When asked later whether looking in the mirror so much was a good thing or a bad thing, Sarah said, “Probably a good thing. If we’re trying to do a skill and we’re thinking about it, we can’t see if our hand is doing the right thing without the mirror.”

Not everyone agrees the mirror is a good thing. Anna Gruning worked out at Stars and Stripes for almost six years. Beginning at age 5, under the gym’s previous owners, Gruning lived and breathed gymnastics. At age 7, she began competing as a level five. By age 10, Gruning competed as a level eight. At the end of that season, when she was 11, Gruning quit competing due to injuries and burnout. She coached at Stars and Stripes until 2001. “I hated the mirrors at the gym,” Gruning said. “It caused a lot of problems. I would look in the mirror, and I would think I was the fattest one. I remember being 8 years old and thinking, ‘I can only have a granola bar for dinner. I can’t eat after 8:00. I can’t have any sweets.’ The doctors and my mom were always saying, ‘You’ve gotta eat. You’ve gotta eat.’

“When I was eight, I weighed 52 pounds,” Gruning explained. “I had my tonsils out and I didn’t want to eat. I ended up dropping back to 42 pounds. So I had eating problems when I was little. I was like that because I saw the little gymnasts on TV, and I read about them. I would think, ‘She only weighs 60 pounds and she’s five years older than I am.’ That was an issue for me the whole time.”

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