by Tonia L. Valletta
Tonia Valletta is a superb gymnast. She has also found and come to realize the importance of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what she has to say about both:
I remember how surprised I was when, during my eighth grade year, a fellow student in my Spanish class approached me and said admiringly, "Hey, I was doing some research, and I found a picture of you in National Geographic World magazine. I didn't know you used to do gymnastics!" My Mom has collected all the newspaper articles about me since I was three years old; they are tangible proof that being blind, let alone a blind gymnast, is a big deal to the rest of the world. But, it was not the numerous articles, the swell of being notorious, the people who said, "You've inspired me so much," or the medals and ribbons that I loved so dearly: it was being a gymnast.
Mr. Roltsch was the coach who agreed to take me into his gym and teach me gymnastics when I was seven or eight years old. "I had never taught a blind gymnast before," he told me later, "so I was hesitant and a bit skeptical when your Mom called me and asked me to teach you. But, when your Mom brought you over, and I took you down into the gym to test you out, I decided it was worth the challenge to take you on as a pupil." He had a deep, powerful voice that I was drawn to because it said, "I expect 100 percent grit from you, and if you don't give it to me, I will be disappointed." At the same time, his voice was gentle and reassuring. He never hesitated to correct me, and he had a not-so-subtle way of telling me when he knew I was cheating him out of valuable time by slacking off. I rejoiced at every compliment I got from him, for he gave them only when my performance was nearly-perfect enough to merit them.
Mr. Roltsch was a demanding coach and a darn good one. Those of us on the team who appreciated gymnastics as both a sport and an art, just as Mr. Roltsch did, gave him every ounce of strength and determination that we had, and he, in the course of a few years, transformed us from hesitant, clumsy little marionettes into gymnasts.
The Roltschs' gym was built into their basement, and to get to it, you had to walk down a steep, spiraling sidewalk that curled around the house and led straight to the door of the upper deck of the gym. Up there, we all pulled off our sweat suits and socks, tossed our shoes against the wall, and scampered down the thirteen planked stairs onto the floor mats below. The gym had its own smell which I came to automatically associate with the sweat of grueling workouts and the sweet, paralyzing exhaustion that always accompanied them.
I quickly became addicted to the anesthetic effect of the draining workouts, so much so that whenever I entered the gym, even before I had stripped down to my leotard, I could feel tender, invisible fingers gently massaging and stretching my muscles in preparation for the next two hours of leap, tumble, and swing.
My first victory in gymnastics came when I turned my first cartwheel. Someone had tried to show me what a cartwheel looked like by using a Barbie doll, but I could not understand. In my eight-year-old mind, I was a little girl, not a doll, and I was not able to imagine my body manipulating itself the way the doll moved in the hands of my coach. For weeks, maybe even months, I tried mechanically to turn a cartwheel, putting down slowly first one hand, then the other hand, then one foot, then the other foot. I felt like a long-limbed gorilla slapping the mat with my hands and clumping with my feet as I tried to force my body to turn itself properly.
Then, one day it happened without my even trying; in fact, that must have been why it happened. All of a sudden, I found myself sliding smoothly through the air and landing in the same position I'd started in. I knew as soon as I landed that this was how a cartwheel was supposed to feel. I still did not understand exactly how I'd done it, much less what it looked like, but I did know what one felt like, and that was all that mattered.
The next challenge was to train myself to do a straight cartwheel, so I turned wheel after wheel using the crack between the mats as my guiding line. It took the horse a while, but finally it learned to pull the cart straight down that line.
The "floor ex," short for floor exercise, was my second favorite event. I didn't like doing balance beam because I couldn't keep myself from falling off; and, because I could not run straight down the 30-foot runway to the vault, I could not build up enough power to hurl myself over it. But the "floor" (I especially liked its more modern version, the spring floor, that was carpeted and bounced slightly when you fell on it) for me consisted of gravity, the expansive flatness, and the infinite space above it through which I could leap and twist and somersault to my soul's content.
Truly, to be off the ground, buoyed up in the air, restrained by nothing, and surrounded by an exhilarating nothingness for just an instant, is the sweetest liberation I have ever known. For that reason, my favorite "move" on the floor was the double front handspring, because keeping my body in constant motion during those three to four seconds electrified me every time I did one. I would launch onto my right foot as though I were skipping, then after my left foot hit the ground once, I lunged forward and boxed the floor with open palms as my feet sailed in an arc over my head and landed in front of my hands which sprang from the floor rocking me forward into a standing position once again. I would then repeat the move, except this time without the skipping start, because the momentum of the first handspring catapulted me into the second handspring.
For the record, I admit that throughout my six years as a gymnast, I had to work extremely hard at being both flexible and graceful. However, when it came to the floor and the uneven bars, I was the queen of brute strength and aggression: the two bars levitated in space, the gravity, the nothingness, and the expansive flatness were all my subjects, and I forced them to work as hard for me as I did for them.
My favorite event, as well as my best, was the uneven bars. I received my highest score ever, an 8.25, doing a class four bar routine. Other coaches worked with me on floor, beam, and vault; but when it came time to work on the uneven bars, Mr. Roltsch was my coach to the exclusion of all other coaches and assistant coaches. When he realized that I loved the bars the best and was strong and daring enough to take them on, he dedicated himself to the challenge of helping me to perfect my bar routine.
Gradually, yet unmistakably, "the bars" ushered themselves into the center of the gym as I visualized itand I, the bars, and Mr. Roltsch pressed on toward ultimately unachievable perfection.
At my first gymnastics meet, I did only my bar routine because it was my best and most practiced. I remember that day well. The rest of the team was already at the meet doing their other three routines. It wasn't yet time to join them, so Mom dropped me off at the Roltschs' house. Mr. Roltsch met me at the door and took me through his house and downstairs into the gym. There, he helped me warm up on the bars and run through a few routines so I would be ready at the meet. Then we went back upstairs, I dressed, and we sat outside on his porch drinking lemonade. I don't remember what we said, but I know that I felt loved and protected sitting with Mr. Roltsch on his porch. We then drove to the meet, and I did my routine. I was scared, but I made it through and got a score of 6.65. My coach was happy with that score.
A few years passed, and I turned eleven on May 13, 1985. I was a fifth-grader, and school was almost over. Some time before that, a friend had told me, my Mom, and Mr. and Mrs. Roltsch about a national sports competition for the blind that happened every year during the first week of June. This year, "Nationals," sponsored by USABA, the United States Association for Blind Athletes, would be held in Trenton, New Jersey. By now, my bar routine had improved considerably along with my other three routines; I now competed all-around doing all four events in the meets I went to. So, my coach, my Mom, and I talked it over briefly and decided that I should go to New Jersey.
Soon, I was sitting quietly in the back seat of the Roltschs' car as we drove north; my parents followed the next day.
On the morning of the competition, I was more terrified than I had ever been in my entire life. I felt sick to my stomach, and I could hardly swallow the chocolate milk Mr. Roltsch told me I had to drink. All had gone well in practice, but now was the real thing, my one and only chance to prove myself to all those who would be watching, including my parents. Floor, beam, and vault came and went in a haze; I fell off the beam four times, and set a national record with my score on the floor exercise. Then came the uneven bars. I was psyched, I was readyand I was scared. There was one move in the routine I was particularly worried about. It was the hardest move in the routine, and if I didn't get the timing absolutely right, I would miss it completely.
Perching on the low bar facing forward, I would do a "single- leg shoot through" to straddle the bar, then reverse grip, and raise myself from off the bar to circle swiftly around it. This move was called a "mill-circle catch" because in mid-rotation I would let go of the low bar about 7/8 of the way around to reach for the high bar. If I let go too early or too late, I wouldn't catch the bar, and Mr. Roltsch would have to touch me to keep me from falling. If he touched me, the judges would deduct half a point from my score. We had practiced this move hundreds of times, and I knew I could do it perfectly. But, would I? Or would I clam up and not let go at all?
I was up. I splashed chalk on my hands and positioned myself standing on the mat in front of the low bar. I touched the bar, saluted the judge, and began my routine. It was swift, tight, and powerful. Pausing not even for an instant, I shot my leg through to straddle the low bar, reversed grip, raised myself off the bar, and. whapp! I had done it: I had caught the high bar. The audience gasped in a hushed voice, and I heard my Dad exclaim in astonishment, for he had never seen me compete before. I finished my routine, and Mr. Roltsch hugged me as the applause raged and surrounded me with its love.
As I stood on the top level of the make-shift platform with one girl standing below me to my right and another below me to my left, I cautiously lifted my hands to my neck and felt the thick, wide ribbons that cascaded down my chest. There were five medals spread out just below my chest: four gold and one silver. I had won the first-place all-around medal, which meant that I was now the reigning national champion blind gymnast. I kept smiling while pictures were snapped of me with the second and third place winnersit was so wonderfully easy to smile.
As we all left the gym victoriously, the medals at my chest began to jingle rhythmically as I walked. After a few steps, I put my hand over them to quiet them, because I was afraid that the people walking with me would think I was being obnoxious. "Tonia", my friend exclaimed jubilantly, "take your hand away. For goodness sake, let those medals jingle!" The others agreed heartily, so I removed my hand, and the medals at my chest began to swing and bounce wildly with a glorious chink ... chink ... chink ...
The blind athlete's competition was my first encounter with a national organization involved with blind people. More recently I have come to be a part of the National Federation of the Blind. After being urged by my friends to attend the National Convention, I decided that the most godly and appropriate thing for me to do would be to attend with an open mind and heart. To my great surprise and delight, as I met one Federationist after another, I encountered blind people who were friendly, polite, and confident in their own abilities. And I noticed other characteristics of Federationists that impressed me very much. Most notably, I observed a contagious enthusiasm and energy, together with a strong, binding sense of commitment to bettering the position of blind persons in society.
I found myself compellingly attracted to this group of people who shared my enthusiasm and willingness to work hard to accomplish set goals, so I decided to join the National Federation of the Blind and to search for ways to use my own special gifts and abilities to further the independence, goals, and aspirations of all blind people.
There are many ways to let the medals jingle.