In time for Rio, formerly Orthodox gymnast-turned-journalist pens sports primer
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In time for Rio, formerly Orthodox gymnast-turned-journalist pens sports primer

When her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and spinal surgery conspired against her, Dvora Meyers turned from doing gymnastics to writing about it

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Simone Biles competes on the floor exercise during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, California, Friday, July 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Simone Biles competes on the floor exercise during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, California, Friday, July 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Despite her passion for gymnastics, Dvora Meyers knew early on that it was highly unlikely she would ever reach the sport’s elite level.

She was up against two big things that stood in the way of her trying to become the next Mary Lou Retton, Shawn Johnson or Shannon Miller: Spinal fusion surgery for scoliosis at age 14, and the fact that she was a modestly-dressed, Sabbath-observant Orthodox Jewish girl from Brooklyn.

With the scoring cards stacked against her, one might have thought that Meyers would have walked away from the balance beam and uneven parallel bars long ago. But that’s not quite how things have played out.

While it is true that Meyers, 33, no longer practices gymnastics, it is still a huge part of her life. After hanging up her leotard in her early 20s, she began writing about the sport as a professional journalist. She started off with a blog called “Unorthodox Gymnastics” and went on to write about elite gymnastics for major publications like ESPN, The Atlantic, Slate and VICE. She provided all of the 2012 Olympic gymnastics coverage for Deadspin and Jezebel, chronicling the results of the competition as well as her own commentary.

Exactly four years later, Meyers has a book out just in time for the Rio Olympics. “The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score — From Nadia To Now” (Simon & Schuster) is a comprehensive and incisive look at scoring changes in the sport and the significant consequences that have ensued.

'The End of the Perfect 10' by Dvora Meyers (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
‘The End of the Perfect 10’ by Dvora Meyers (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

If you haven’t noticed these days that winning routines are awarded inscrutable scores like 15.191 and not a beautifully rounded 10.0, you’ll want to prepare for watching the Rio Olympics by reading Meyers’ book. And with competition beginning August 7, you’ll need to get a move on.

The book was released to coincide not only with the Rio Olympics, but also with the 40th anniversary of former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci’s “Perfect 10” (the first to be awarded in Olympic history), as well as the 10th anniversary of the switch to the controversial open-ended scoring system (known as the Code of Points) that separates scores for difficulty of elements from those for artistic impression.

“There had been memoirs, but there had been no journalistic look at gymnastics in decades,” Meyers told The Times of Israel about the timing of her book’s publication.

“I really thought I was going to stop writing about gymnastics after the 2012 Olympics, but then in 2013 I started thinking about the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Perfect 10, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at how the sport has changed since Nadia,” she continued.

‘These days winning gymnastics routines are awarded inscrutable scores like 15.191 and not a beautifully rounded 10.0’

The book is fuelled by the author’s encyclopedic knowledge of elite women’s gymnastics made accessible thanks to her eminently readable prose. Hardcore gymnastics fans are an obvious audience for “The End of the Perfect 10,” but even those of us who haven’t given a thought to the sport since the London Olympics four years ago will enjoy.

“The End of The Perfect 10” is about far more than the technical aspects of the new scoring system aimed at removing subjectivity (not to mention political collusion among Eastern Bloc countries historically) from judging. Meyers’s thesis is that everything from the older ages and more muscular bodies of current female gymnasts, to changes in training approaches, to the almost total dominance of the Americans in the sport over the last two decades can be traced to the demise of the easily identifiable perfect score.

After reading the book, you’ll understand how and why four decades after the childlike, sylphic Comaneci wowed the world in Montreal, all bets are on the gravity-defying, explosively powerful, four-time US national champion Simone Biles to take the gold in Rio.

Meyers’s immense love for gymnastics comes through on every page of “The End of the Perfect 10.” That love began when she was six years old and badgered her mother to put her into gymnastics lessons.

Finding a program that would meet the needs of a Jewish Orthodox girl attending a yeshiva school (“Zionist Orthodox — somewhere between Ramaz on the left and Bais Yaakov on the right,” according to Meyers) was a challenge. Her mother had to find a program in which practices started later in the afternoon and did not take place on Saturday.

‘I was wracked with guilt, because the gym was mixed-gender. But it had been hard enough to find a place, so I decided not to leave’

“Most gymnastics practices start around 3:30 p.m., but that isn’t good for kids who don’t get out of day school until 4:00 or after. And most gyms are closed on Sundays,” the author, who is no longer religiously observant, explained.

Eventually, Meyers’ mother found a program run by Russian immigrants at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center offering evening and Sunday classes.

“If I remember correctly, it was meant to be an enrichment program for Russian kids [Meyers is not Russian], and many of the other girls were Orthodox. The equipment was the worst. It was really old. But the coach was fantastic,” she recalled.

A young Dvora Meyers on the beam. (Courtesy)
A young Dvora Meyers on the beam. (Courtesy)

As Meyers entered puberty, tsnius, or modesty, became an issue.

“I was wracked with guilt, because the gym was mixed-gender. But it had been hard enough to find a place, so I decided not to leave,” she said.

However, she did find another gym that was open for women only one night a week. She went there in addition to her regular gym, but she did not let religious restrictions entirely interfere with her practicing of the sport.

‘I never had aspirations to do gymnastics on the college level, which is a really high level’

“When it came to modesty in the context of gymnastics, I was always more flexible. I was stricter about everything in the rest of my life. For instance, I never wore anything other than a skirt outside the gym,” Meyers said.

What she wore at the gym became less of a pressing issue, because her attendance became spotty after her surgery at age 14. Regaining her spinal flexibility became the focus, as the author chronicled in her 2012 self-published memoir: “Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess.”

In her junior and senior years of high school, Meyers practiced and coached young children at a gym in Canarsie, Brooklyn. No longer able to do a back handspring, she could not participate in the sport at the team level.

Dvora Meyers (Carla Phillips)
Dvora Meyers (Carla Phillips)

As a college student a the University of Pennsylvania, Meyers participated in the low-key, student-run gymnastics club.

“I was never that good. I never had aspirations to do gymnastics on the college level, which is a really high level,” she shared.

Back in Brooklyn after her studies, she got involved in the breakdancing scene. A very involved B-girl at first, she now breakdances around once a week just to stay in shape.

“It’s a normal process to leave the gym as you get older,” Meyers said.

If that is so, then it is surprising how passionate she has remained about gymnastics. Meyers theorizes that she hasn’t outgrown her love for the sport because she latched on to it at a time of upheaval in her family. She started gymnastics just as her parents were divorcing and her father was moving away and out of her daily life.

Gymnastics was something for Meyers to hold onto, and she is still holding on — only now it is with the words with which she is helping others understand the sport she loves, and especially how it has evolved.

“When I was a girl, I would replay the 1992 Olympics with my Barbies. Simone Biles is so exceptional that she can actually do the crazy stuff I did with my dolls,” she said.

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