You're definitely right that the body of the gymnast is often pleading for help, and that we basically have to ignore those pleas. One small example was a cut I had on my hand that needed stitches, but there was nothing I could do about it. Every time it started to heal, I would go on high bar or the rings and it would rip back open. It was part of the game. I had to ignore it and do the best I could with it.
Ultimately, as brutal as the sport is on the body, I ultimately felt like it was excellent for the body. If I ripped something, that's obviously not good. But I thought, in some weird way, the more work and punishment you put on the body, the harder and stronger your body becomes. There were times in competitions when I felt so energized. I felt energy flowing through my body and it was an extremely spiritual experience.
I have been in competitions where I could literally feel the entire arena and how big it is. I was bigger than my body. It's very profound. I got to a point where I could tap into that at will. And when you have that ability to tune your brain into a different wavelength. You're antennae are different for the universe. It's awesome. It can be, for someone who isn't practicing an organized religion, it can be a religion in itself. And for me, when I start to find things that give me some sort of feeling of what people look for when they want some sort of faith, it will typically start with some sort of Buddhist or yoga approach, which is a little more of a you-and-the-universe type of approach.
When you look back at the many thousands of hours or work, all of the blood and sweat and tears, from when you were a daydreaming child to when you were a thirty year-old at your second Olympic Games, was it all worth it?
It was one hundred present worth it. If you find something that you love, as a little kid, and you still love twenty-one years later to the same degree, then you are a very fortunate person. At my hall of fame induction speech, the last thing I said was that retiring is the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in gymnastics. There are pieces even now that are difficult to deal with. As an elite athlete, you have the opportunity to pursue something wholeheartedly, without distractions, and it's completely accepted by society, even admired and respected.
Everything I know as a human being has come about in some way through the sport of gymnastics. It has been my vehicle to understand the world. I would have died for gymnastics. At one point I thought to myself, if I go out on the competition floor and die right now, then so be it. At least I'm doing something I love.
Now that I'm done with gymnastics, it's really shaken up who I am, in many regards. Life is really easy, in some ways, when you know exactly what you want to do. The most difficult part about being without gymnastics has been not knowing; when you don't know what you want to do, you go haphazardly from one thing to the next.
In some regards, it's almost like gymnastics was a miniature faith for me. Gymnastics gave me an anchor and a purpose. I have been exposed to so much stuff. I've been all over the world. I've cut myself down to the bone to figure out how to control my brain and my body. When you live the life of a successful gymnast, you're traveling around the world, and you're basically paid to be in great shape. You feel great about yourself. Your confidence is high. You're pursuing something you love, and it has this whole high-stakes feel to it.
But what happens when that's gone? It's not easy to move on from that structured life where you're committed to pursuing something with all your capacity. I'm now wired to be that way. There's nothing I can do about it. I cannot just pursue something that has no real challenge. Gymnastics is an awesome thing and it has taught me so much. Now, I know I can do anything, and the question is: What to do? What can I commit myself to pursue with all the passion and devotion I once pursued gymnastics?
What I really want is to be united to a group of people again, challenging one another and pursuing a single goal. That's what I really want. So in some regards, I'm still looking for that same sense of purpose.
Click here for "The Faith of an Olympian: An Interview with Samantha Peszek. "