Dear Coach Craig: A Letter From A Grateful Gymnast

Dear Coach Craig,

Since I’ve been watching the Rio Olympics religiously this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my gymnastics career. It was a career that gymnasts would call unsuccessful, but that outsiders would call victorious. Sure, I won the Oregon state competition, but I was a 15-year-old level 7. From a gymnastics perspective, I wasn’t a great gymnast. I usually didn’t even really feel like a good gymnast. All I know is that without you, Craig Bayer, I wouldn’t have been a gymnast at all.

So I have something I need to say to you, something that I’ve been thinking for years, but didn’t know how to articulate: Thank you. Thank you for being an incredible coach, an intelligent educator, and a fantastic mentor. You coached me when I was “uncoachable.” While other coaches wrote me off as too old, too scared, and too boring, you saw potential in me.

You don’t know this, but I wrote one of my college essays about you. The prompt was “tell us about someone who has influenced you in a significant way.” Here is what I wrote:

“You aren’t trying! Stop thinking about it, just do it!” My coach yelled from the floor. A tear threatened to spill out of my eye as I bit my lip and swung down to the mat. I landed with a cloud of fine chalk rising from the ground around my feet. I turned to face him, to prove to him that I was strong, that I could do this, but as I met his eyes a disobedient drop ran down my cheek. “What did he mean, ‘stop thinking’?” I thought angrily; this was not a concept I understood. To me, thinking is everything; I am organized and analytical — not thinking is never an option. Gymnastics is not an intellectual sport. That isn’t to say that people involved in it are not smart, but the sport itself is not about strategy or reasoning; it is based on power, precision, fearlessness, strength, trust, and more than anything, the ability to suspend thinking — to just do it.

Throughout the years, I’ve had my fair share of coaches. Whether it was moving across the country or moving between levels, new coaches always came with new territory. As with all people, sometimes I got along with them, sometimes I didn’t. Most of my coaches didn’t generally value my need to study a skill before doing it or to scrutinize every step. Stuck in my own head, I tried without succeeding to do what came effortlessly to the other girls. While some of my coaches gave up on me, or assumed I “wasn’t trying”, there is one standout in my mind: Craig. While Craig may not have produced any Olympians, and though he was never given the head coach position by the gym owner, Craig was the best teacher. He understood that different people learn in different ways, and that success is measured by the individual and what they expect of themselves. More than anything, Craig believed in everyone.

Every day for a year, my friend would get up on the bar, confident and ready. As soon as she was ready to go, with Craig spotting her, she would freeze, overcome with fear; he would slowly let her to the ground, trying to convince her she could do it. 365 days and countless attempts later, she finally did the skill. Craig had the ability to push people to be their best without making them feel inferior, and everyone knew they could trust him. Though Craig brought me to win the state championship, I knew it wouldn’t have mattered if I had won, or gotten very last place — he would have been proud no matter what. When Craig left in the summer of 2009, to go on to bigger and better things, I didn’t know whether I wanted to keep doing gymnastics or not. But Craig had always taught me to keep going, so that’s what I did. Whenever other coaches yelled at me, or told me I wasn’t good enough, I knew that it didn’t matter — all that mattered was my ability to push through and not to lose hope. Most of all, Craig taught me that a good teacher is able to accept that people learn differently, and not to give up on them in spite of that.

A few days ago, on the night of the women’s gymnastics qualifying round in Rio, I posted a photo collage on Instagram of me at the 2009 Oregon State competition. Within minutes the photo had comments from a bunch of former teammates; they read: “OMG I miss coach Craig!!”; “Oh Craig!!”; “I was going to say I miss Craig. But looks like we’ve got that comment covered”; and “Craig…… What a guy.” From those responses, I know that I wasn’t the only one you had a profound impact on; you changed us all.

I don’t know where you are now, nor how to contact you, but I’m hoping that through the power of the internet, this will somehow make it to you.

To the coach who believed in everyone, called little girls “shrimpy,” and made bird calls at every meet, thank you. You are the reason I loved gymnastics and the reason I cherish those gym memories today.

— A Grateful Gymnast