I recall the amazement of how such a simple motion can make dazzling beauty that seemed to defy reality in a small 7-year old mind, sparking my desire to make the seemingly impossible, possible.
I still remember the day my mom saw a flyer for a brand-new sport of rhythmic gymnastics at the lobby of Danceology in San Diego, where I used to take ballet. A group of young girls were doing cartwheels and tricks with ropes, hoops, balls, clubs, and the infamous ribbons. Being a recreational artistic gymnast just learning to swing on the bars with basic knowledge of ballet from my toddler years, the sight of the beautiful ribbons spiralling and floating in the wind as the girls spin around and around made my 7-year-old-self fall in love at first sight.
The amount of hard work and effort placed a great toll on my family as my parents spent many sleepless days and nights making sure that I got to school and practice on time. I had truly been pushed beyond my limits.
The day I stepped into Alliant University Gym for my very first try-out lesson, I still had no idea what to expect. The kind and patient gym owner assessed my flexibility to see which group of girls I would begin my training with. I remember being given a small, plastic hoop, and shown how to roll it on the floor and make it come back with just the flick of my wrist. I recall the amazement of how such a simple motion can make dazzling beauty that seemed to defy reality in a small 7-year old mind, sparking my desire to make the seemingly impossible, possible. The gym owner seemed to have seen the twinkle of wonder in my eye that day, because she put me straight into the competition team that week for my “good listening skills.”
Fast forward about 4 years later, I had switched around coaches trying to improve myself with as many opinions from others as possible, getting me more flexible, stronger, and more skilled with newly introduced apparatus, like the clubs. This year, however, was the year that I can prove myself as the best of the best, for this year was my first chance to qualify for the Junior Olympics held in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the big-league Olympians competed. The first step on this amazing journey, however, was State competition, where some unexpected dilemmas arose.
A plot twist that had affected many of my family members’ lives came at the beginning of March that year when my mom’s tatay (father) had died. Hurriedly, my mom and the rest of her family booked their plane tickets home to the Philippines to honor his great soul, which just so happened to land on the weekend of my very first competition to prove myself worthy of hanging with the cream of the crop. In other words, this would be my very first competition without my mom putting my hair up in a bun, applying my makeup, and my very first competition without my whole family physically in the audience cheering me on. As a 10-year old, this was frightening.
That week was filled with plenty of mixed emotions, starting with the sadness my mom felt every day before leaving. During this hard time, my mom looked up to God more than ever and taught me to do the same while she would be gone. Prior to this competition as a very young gymnast without much experience in my career, I had not been very reliant on God as much, as I had not yet realized how strong His power may be.
This would be my very first competition without my mom putting my hair up in a bun, applying my makeup, and my very first competition without my whole family physically in the audience cheering me on. As a 10-year old, this was frightening.
Before leaving for the airport, I watched my mom take a small bottle of holy water from our local church and rub it all over my apparatus and my leotards. While doing this, she read from her book of prayers and said some special intentions specifically for my needs. As she gave me the little flask of precious liquid, she told me to go to church before heading to the gym on the big day and pray silently to God, just like she had done asking Him to give me the strength I need to push through with all my might with everything I did. Of course, being a terrified 10-year old, I did everything she said.
The long, hard week finally ended in great celebration when I had earned the highest overall score in the whole state of California, earning the title of State Champion and a spot on the Junior Olympic team amongst 70 hardworking girls. I still remember the great joy my mom felt as she ran in tears across the airport to hug me and my family. Nonetheless, the most important lesson I learned during this one competition in my career was how unyielding God’s strength is. That weekend, I found the source of strength I never knew I had by my side my whole life and He has become a great part of my life to this day.
During my time in Greensboro, I experienced first-hand how the Olympians, who had worked so hard to get where they are now, competed.
During my time in Greensboro, I experienced first-hand how the Olympians, who had worked so hard to get where they are now, competed. The huge, black-walled arena with blindingly bright lights overflowed with cheering and screaming fans, as they rooted for their favorite gymnasts. The shining stars of rhythmic gymnastics displayed their great talent and shared their brilliant smiles to show the never-ending love for this beautiful sport to the judges and all the young gymnasts like me in the audience. Watching them enjoy themselves on the huge carpet made the sparkle in my eye from when I was 7 years old come back, as I watched the hoop defy the rules of gravity as it spun on the ground. I wanted to be in that big arena under the spotlights so bad. I wanted to show to all the little girls in the audience watching in awe how much passion I have for rhythmic. The twinkle in my eye had found a new goal to reach for, and it required a lot of hard work and faith in God.
Several times, I had questioned why I still choose to put myself through the miserable days of practicing.
Years and years of hard work passed by, training 4 hours a day for 6 days a week nonstop, and practices only getting more difficult. In the gym, I would run routine after routine for hours straight, trying to polish and perfect every movement I made. I would come out of the gym drenched in sweat from head to toe, huffing and puffing from an endless amount of routines demanded from my coaches, and soreness on all my muscles so that I would not be able to get out of bed the next morning. Most practices consisted in tears of frustration of not being able to do clean routines.
Several times, I had questioned why I still choose to put myself through the miserable days of practicing. On top of that, competitions and practices came with a great amount of expenses. The Federation has been extremely supportive in many ways, but sadly, not financially due to insufficient government funding. My parents have to work both days and nights, just to get enough money to support our family, and we are still in a huge amount of debt. The amount of hard work and effort placed a great toll on my family as my parents spent many sleepless days and nights making sure that I got to school and practice on time. I had truly been pushed beyond my limits.
It was times like these that I grew much closer to God. He always watched over me and knows about every tear shed or negative thought I had in my mind. He was always there when my parents talked in their room privately about their financial problems. When I prayed to Him every night or during every practice, He knew how I felt, listened to every word, and helped in all the ways He can. His everlasting strength led me and my family through these tough times so that I could get where I wanted in this portion of my life. As the amount of competition from others increased, He began to play a larger role in my career.
Every competition, no matter where I am in the world, whether it may be in Hungary, Thailand, Bulgaria, or Estonia, brought me to a new environment, I knew that God is always watching over me. As an offering to Him and a part of my pre-competition rituals, I would try to find a church to pray before every competition day, just like my mom had instructed during my State competition several years ago. Most of the time, Catholic churches are hard to find, especially when I was outside the US. The hunt to find a Catholic church in itself was already a great sacrifice, as well as trying to find the transportation and time to devote a portion of my day to Him. I recall one time in Lake Placid, New York, my mom had found a Catholic church to go to before competition day, but it ended up being closed and covered in snow all the way up to my knees.
I not only want to share my talent with many other people but spread my faith in God to the world and teach them how much He has impacted my entire career.
Nevertheless, the thought of going to say thanks for the opportunity to travel the world to represent my country and the support I had behind me to get me there was all that mattered as I stood with my head bowed knee-deep in snow. With every new church I visit in each of the cities I travel to, I still find it amazing how strikingly beautiful these places of worship may be. Every new church is a new way for me to see the beauty of God’s boundless strength and love for us, making me feel a stronger and deeper connection every time I bow my head to pray.
Through all this praying, God continued to listen to me and gave me a new chance to show my skills to the world. My first year of international competitions came with an amazing opportunity of going to the very first Junior World Championships in Moscow, Russia, where the best of the best junior gymnasts in the whole world competed for their countries. This competition would be the biggest competition of my entire rhythmic gymnastics career, as well as the select few lucky gymnasts from each country.
During the last couple of months of difficult practices, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to step on that carpet. The twinkle in my eye from the first day I started had never left and was now shining brighter than ever before. God had given me this window of hope and I began to believe even more in the great path He has ahead of me. As my faith grew stronger and I felt myself getting closer to the great Lord above, He rewarded me with the competition of my lifetime, the newest milestone in my long journey ahead.
The new season had me faced with new challenges, including being a first-year Senior gymnast competing with the oldest and most experienced gymnasts in the sport. However, this season has come to an unexpected halt with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus that we are all struggling with right now. Instead of going to the gym for more than 27 hours a week as demanded by the new level of difficulty with my routines, I have been stuck at home trying to figure out how to work as hard as I had before, with whatever I had. I currently have online classes with my gym mates and my coach every day for more than four hours each session, where we stretch and strengthen our bodies, as well as learn new skills for the next upcoming season.
Being at home, I do not have access to the high ceilings and wide spaces to do my tricks. But worst of all, I lacked one-to-one corrections, stretches, and exercises given to me by my coach. I am very grateful to have such a dedicated team of gymnasts and my hard-working coach, trying all they can to get the most of this time in quarantine, but sometimes it just is not enough. I knew that if I am not getting the sufficient amount of practice in each day, there are plenty more gymnasts all around that world that are having a harder time than me.
Many aspiring gymnasts in the Philippines look up to me as their role model and support me in all my travels and competitions I bear their flag in. They are proud to have me represent their amazing country in all these big international competitions around the world. With this stop in their trainings, many of these gymnasts struggle to improve themselves like they had before. I have begun to teach online sessions every Tuesday morning open for gymnasts of all ages to stretch, strengthen, and improve themselves under my wing with specially designed exercise routines and helpful tips. In addition, my last class ended with a prayer devoted to all the gymnasts I taught that day. I not only want to share my talent with many other people but spread my faith in God to the world and teach them how much He has impacted my entire career.
Every competition, no matter where I am in the world, whether it may be in Hungary, Thailand, Bulgaria, or Estonia, brought me to a new environment, I knew that God is always watching over me.
My love for this beautiful sport that I had found at the young age of 7 has grown expansively to the point where I would not only inspire young gymnasts watching in the audience to accomplish the same things I had--like how I had felt many years ago in the Junior Olympics watching the elite level gymnasts compete under the huge blinding lights. Instead, I have broadened my horizons to teaching others my talent and spreading the everlasting strength of God, in hopes of giving them an opportunity to improve themselves little-by-little during this time of isolation.
In my mind, spreading my knowledge of this sport to others has far surpassed the things I had imagined doing since the very day the sparkle in my eye had appeared. This sparkle in my eye has led to many successes throughout my gymnastics career and still continues to take me by surprise by what will be the next step in the long path God has set out for me. I hope to start the fires of many other gymnasts around the world, like I had felt the first day I stepped on the carpet and will do anything I can to help them along their way to their dreams. Let us start the fires of passion for the things we love to do, and continue to follow that drive to where we want to end up in the future. Who knows how many more churches I will go to?
Story by elite rhythmic gymnast, Jessica Rayne Tijam