How to fall

The first thing I learned in gymnastics was how to fall. I was very small, wearing my favorite purple leotard with my hair in the messiest five-year-old ponytail and I stared up at our coach as she explained that if you land wrong, you could break your arm. Or your leg. Or pop something out of its socket, or make something bend the wrong way. And not only would that be painful, but you also wouldn't get to go on the trampoline or uneven bars anymore. (This was more upsetting to me than the thought of any level of fractured limbs.)

What you do instead, she told us, was let yourself fall. Allow it to happen. It was in trying to stop the fall -- after it was already too late -- that people usually got in trouble. You fall out of a flip, panic, and stick your arm out behind you to stop yourself and then snap, no more vault for you for a while. But if you just let yourself hit the ground, arms tucked in at your side, chin down, you'll land (hard) and can roll out of it.

"Don't panic," was the motto we learned when we started practicing difficult tricks. "You're going to fall, but it's up to you how much it hurts." Accept the fall, tuck into it, and you'll be fine. Mostly. Covered in bruises, sure, but not broken.

A few years later in a dance class, after my teacher learned I was a gymnast, she decided to incorporate tricks in the routine. The song begun, and I would sprint across stage and jump into the combination. But the studio we practiced in was small, so my lead in to the trick was short, and dance floors aren't known for being particularly... springy. On top of that, the floor was slick, especially in dance shoes. But I'd done the combination a few times already, once with a spot, so I'd gotten comfortable with it. Flips never made me nervous, anyway. Then I went to run through it again with everyone and, halfway through the flip, realized I didn't throw enough momentum into it to fully rotate and, at the rate I was going, I was going to land on my head.

"Don't panic."

Instinct kicked in and I coiled up mid-air, head tucked, arms tight, and let myself hit the hard ground and slide. My sister, who was in the class with me, said it sounded like I broke everything. The collision was loud, and I went sliding across the floor and slammed into the wall. Everyone in the class -- except for her, of course, because she'd seen me fall a dozen times -- freaked out until they heard me laughing. Nothing was broken, just bruised. I had them start it from the top again.

I knew how to fall. I was fine. I got up. I went again.

The first thing I learned on a motorcycle was how to get unstuck, by myself. In middle school (get ready for this juxtaposition of a story), I made a PowerPoint presentation for my dad to convince him to allow me to ride dirt bikes. What a nerdy way to go about doing something pretty cool, but it worked. When we got my bike home -- a Kawasaki TTR 125, the brightest lime green, for any curious minds -- my dad started teaching me everything I needed to know about riding.

"You're going to crash," he told me, "and fall."

It wasn't a question of if, just when. Especially since he knew me (and knew I'd want to go faster, jump higher). When I did eventually fall, he said, if the bike landed on me and there was no one around, I was going to be stuck there until someone found me. Which could be a long time. But my dad didn't raise me to be someone who waited around for help; we got out of trouble ourselves. So, it made sense that what he had me do next was lay on the floor of our garage so he could gently lay the (very heavy) dirt bike on me.

"Get out. You can do it."

And he had me do that over and over again until lifting it was nothing, until he knew I had it on my own. He was right, by the way. I did fall. A lot. Once, I was tossed over the handle bars after my back wheel washed out and then BAM that gymnastics instinct kicked in and I rolled off to the side, arms in and ribs aching, before the bike could run me over. I also got pinned under my bike while camping one year, and got myself up and out. I shoved the bike up, shook off the dirt, re-buckled my boots and took off again.

It's weird how some of the things I hold most important in life -- getting up, every time, even after a hard knock down -- were taught in these ways, but the lessons have stuck with me. I know how to recover, so I don't have to be afraid of the risk; I don't let fear stop me from trying because I'm not afraid of the fall. And when I'm down, I can pick myself up. No matter how heavy the weight, I can get myself back up.

Fall, get yourself up, keep going. Do it again, as many times as you need. Keep going.

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