I’m standing face to face with my greatest fear.
I stand very still, praying no-one can see the trembling of my hands. Eyes closed, I relive that moment in my mind, an endless loop of upset, pain, anguish, and failure. I can’t stop it. I will my feet to move, screaming inside my head to get back up on the horse. But my body won’t move; it’s frozen, stuck fast.
I know they’re all watching. I know they’re all waiting. Some of them want to see me do it. They believe in me, trust me, even look up to me. If I can do it, now, then they will know anything is possible for them, too. Others wait to see me fall again, to confirm their place at the top by my failure. Still others just want to see me move. To take that last step. But I can’t.
Opening my eyes, I look around. They’re all watching me. I see the hope and expectation from my teammates. But I can’t do it. I turn, and walk away, eyes down, unable to meet their looks.
Inside and out, the arena is alive with activity. Inside, fans from all over the country fill the seats for this year's National Championship, each seeking the best positions from which to watch. Frenzied arena staff run to and fro, dealing with the latest emergency while anxious coaches make last minute reviews of recent footage. Outside, sportscasters from every network, several foreign outlets, and dozens of local stations from around the country dominate the air, waylaying arriving competitors with questions, platitudes, and pleas for photo-ops.
Entering the semi-controlled chaos, Peyton Grant. He pulls up in his black Ferrari, top down, trademark shades over his eyes. He steps out under the watchful eyes of gathered fans and sportscasters and event officials. He smiles wide for the cameras, holding out his hand for the pretty young woman who arrived with him. Cameras flash as she steps out. No-one has seen her before, and they probably won’t see her again. Peyton is easily bored.
Peyton is the sport's golden boy and he knows it. National Champion at 18 in 2014, Olympic Gold in Rio's 2016 games, World Champion in 2017, defending National Champion in 2018 and today, and expected to bring more Olympic Gold home next year from Tokyo. Known for his... active social life off the floor as much as his strength and precision on the floor, Peyton is seen by the popular media as the sport’s bad boy. During an interview on ESPN, he admitted to winning the Gold in Rio with a hangover. Playing the part of the rebel, combined with his good looks, has secured him adoring fans, endorsement deals, talk shows, guest spots on series TV... even hosting Saturday Night Live’s first show of the 2016 season, where his skit (Olympic medalist complains as his insane, drug-crazed coach runs him through basic tumbling moves children at play use, until finally the Olympic Medalist throws a temper tantrum and holds his breath until the coach gives him ice cream) received uproarious laughter.
But as much as he plays the bad boy off the floor, when he enters the arena, he is tight, focused, and ready to compete - hangover or not. Fans love him, the establishment hates him, the media uses him... but everyone expects him to win today.
I should have won. I would have. But... one moment of carelessness... my hand slipping, just slipping the tiniest bit. The pressure on my wrist increasing exponentially from such a tiny slip. I felt the fracture, then the pain, my arm buckling, my shoulder smashing into the horse, toppling to the floor head first, my back spasming in agony. Laying there, unable to move.
That’s the moment I see every time I close my eyes.
Peyton enters the surgeon’s office wearing his back brace. His wrist and shoulder have healed, but the cracked vertebra in his spine will never heal well enough for him to compete. He’ll get the brace off today, he’ll get his strength back... but the next fall could paralyze him.
It’s been three months. Peyton’s finally accepted his career is over. Publicly, he smiles, and shrugs, and continues acting like the bad boy everyone expects. Privately, he mourns, and rages, and relives his career-ending mistake over and over. He reads the blogs and watches the shows, people who’ve never been where he’s been saying it was inevitable, even well-deserved, retribution for treating the sport like a joke.
Not a joke. Never that. A game. Yes, a game. His coaches, his managers, his parents, all of them wanted him to take it all so seriously. When he was younger, he did. But... Peyton remembers when it was fun instead of serious. He remembers when he was up on the horse, or rings, or any of the other apparatus, it was just him. No competition, no coaches, no fans... not even any opponents. The secret to bad boy Peyton Grant’s success is simple: He only has six opponents to defeat: The Floor Exercise, the Still Rings, the High Bar, the Vault, the Parallel Bars, and the Pommel Horse.
That damn Pommel Horse.
Still living in that moment, Peyton looks up as the doctor enters. The older man sits at his desk, his expression unreadable. Then he leans forward, fingers lacing, arms resting on the desk. He offers a reassuring smile.
“Peyton... Three months ago, I told you you’d never compete again. But there might be a chance...”
I sprint down the approach toward the spring board. I leap forward, twisting, catch the floor with my hands, spring into a backwards somersault, punch the spring, launch backwards into the air, continuing to twist, hands connecting with the vault, pushing off into a high tuck, spinning and twisting. I straighten as I come down, landing, feet firmly under, knees flexing, holding my balance. I don’t step out of place, but straighten and hold my arms up. After a moment, the gym applauds, a perfect vault.
They say I’m back. Coach says I’ve never done a better vault, even before my injury. It’s been six months since I underwent experimental surgery to repair my cracked vertebra; a near-miraculous recovery. Two months of physical therapy, four months of practice. Coach tells me I’m ready to compete. There’s just one thing.
Stepping off the mat, I glance over at the Pommel Horse. My hand spasms involuntarily. I close my eyes... and I’m falling again.
Four months, and I can’t do it. I’ve trained, pushing myself harder than ever before. No more parties, no more bad boy, just me and the training. And it's paid off. I'm stronger than ever. Better than ever. Except...
Practice is private, no fans, no reporters; no-one beyond the team knows. Outside, people see me, and tell me how much more focused I seem, how much stronger I look. They ask if I’ll be ready to compete at nationals this year. We tell them that’s up to the coach. Privately, coach tells me it’s up to me. We’ve talked and talked. I just can’t get past that moment. I don’t think I ever will.
Everyone is surprised when they see Peyton Grant's name on the roster. They aren’t surprised to see the name. After his surgery six months ago, everyone knew he’d be back. Everyone is eager to see what the past four months of intense training have wrought. Everyone wants to see Peyton in competition again.
No, they aren’t surprised to see his name. They’re surprised to see him listed as an alternate.
The competition is fierce. The team from the Wyoming gym is doing well, on track for a silver medal. Peyton has been there to support his team like never before, shouting encouragement and offering advice. Sportscaster and fans see a whole new Peyton, encouraging, supportive, there for his team and not just himself. He never removes his team jacket, though under it he’s dressed for competition. Then it happens.
Ed Sommers, the club’s number one since Peyton’s injury, performs a nearly flawless routine on the still bars. But as he lands, everyone sees the momentary flash of pain on his face. The crowd sighs in sympathy as Ed limps off the mat. They watch the team doctor rush forward and kneel at Ed's feet, lifting his leg it to examine the twisted ankle. Everyone sees her look up at the coach... and shake her head.
Ed wins the highest score for the event, but can’t compete in the next event. The coach looks at the board. Then he turns back to the team.
My heart died when I saw Ed land. Not for the injury... a twist is painful, but he’ll be fine after some ice. As the scores tabulate and the fans applaud, I shiver, a cold sweat covering my face. I watch as coach looks at the board, then back at the team... at me. I glance at the pommel horse, close my eyes... falling again and again...
“Peyton,” Coaches voice, up close. I open my eyes. I force myself to look at him. “You’re in.”
I stare at him, for a long moment. He looks calm. I’m not, but he is. I swallow, trying to get the lump down so I can breathe again. If I don’t go out there, the team forfeits. If I do... I close my eyes... and fall again.
“You’ve got this.” Coach sounds so certain. “Trust.” I nod, and unzip my jacket. I shake my arms to limber up, trying not to look at the horse.
They call my name. Peyton Grant, substituting for Ed Sommers. Trying to keep my legs from turning into jelly, I approach the horse. I reach it without falling over, a miracle no-one else can see. But then... I freeze. I stand there... I can’t even close my eyes now. I stare at the horse.
They call my name again. If I don’t begin, I scratch, and the team still forfeits. But I can’t do it. I can’t get up there again. I can’t--
“Peyton.” Coach approaches, claps one hand on my shoulder, presses something into my hands with his other. Hard, cold plastic. “You forgot these.” He smiles, and steps back. I look down.
And smile. I raise my head. Slowly, I raise my hands, slipping the frames over my face, pushing on my shades. I smile, a thin, hard line as I step toward the Pommel Horse.
“This Spring’s surprise, Olympic Medalist Peyton Grant Expresses during his routine on the Pommel Horse at this year’s national competition...”
“...never seen a more amazing performance. It’s too bad he was disqualified over...”
“...as judges deliberate, fans await news on the Wyoming team’s fate. Should they be disqualified, the Colorado team will...”.
“Amid accusations of cheating, Peyton Grant denies prior Delta activity...”
"...belongs in a circus, not in serious competition..."
“...going to court to defend his previous titles and reputation, former bad boy gymnast Peyton Grant faces accusations of cheating arising from...”
“...don’t care about the medals. But the damage to my reputation, and the reputation of my team and coach can’t be allowed to...”
So, there you have it. My life in disgrace, accused of cheating, endorsement deals lost, lawyers asking for it all back, the public outraged, facing a future whose only certainty is this time I really won’t ever compete again.
So why am I smiling? Good question.
I look over at the Pommel Horse.