Corynne Cooper is the General Manager of 111 S. Wacker Fitness Center, managed by FFC. In part two of this three-part series, Corynne shares how her career as a gymnast began and the tough love training that accompanies the sport.
As a child, my mother was focused on making sure we were well-rounded in our experiences. From an early age, I was involved in a number of activities – piano lessons, swimming, golf, soccer, softball, volleyball, ballet, and tap dancing. But my sport of choice was gymnastics. In situations where a practice or activity overlapped with gymnastics, gymnastics always won. I would skip any other practice for a chance to do gymnastics.
The story goes, as soon as I took my first steps, I began doing odd flips and jumps, as my mother would call it, around our living room. I turned the couch into a vault by running and launching myself over it, and every curb miraculously became a balance beam. When I knocked over a lamp and broke the glass on the coffee table in our living room, my mother said enough is enough, and she enrolled me in a park district gymnastics program just as I turned two. After about a year at the park district, the instructor pulled my mom aside and told her I was “fearless, oddly strong and gifted,” and she should consider enrolling me in a more structured, results-driven program. My mother did exactly that. She signed me up at a private gym and that began my 20 year gymnastics career.
Once at the private gym, I started taking basic classes one to two times per week as part of the “D team.” Athletes were divided up into A, B, C and D teams, with A being elite and D being beginner. As a youngster, D team practice would end around 4 PM, when the older girls would come in for their practice. I remember asking my mother to pick me up an hour later at 5 PM, after my own practice, so I could stay and watch the older girls on the “A team.” These were the “it” girls who made gymnastics their life. They practiced for 4 hours or more, six days per week, and they either left school early or were homeschooled and competed nationally and even internationally. I hung around their practices for several months and one fateful day, the head coach invited little old me onto the floor to train with the older girls.
After that day, he invited me again…and again…and again. Within just a few months, around age seven or eight, I began training with the coveted “A Team.” Because I was so young, my mother would not allow me to practice six days a week, for four or more hours per day, so she and my coach came up with a plan so I could slowly work my way up to that. The more I trained, the more I fell in love with the sport. There was something about the depth of the sport that kept my attention. The possibilities in regards to skills and choreography were endless. I became obsessed with the daily challenge and felt like each day was a chance to learn something new or perfect something I had been working on.
For the next 10 or so years, I trained – hard – and never stopped. I said goodbye to every other sport, as gymnastics became my sole focus. My father built a balance beam for me on our patio so I could practice, and I spent hours on that homemade beam coming up with dance routines and practicing certain flips. I would have teammates come over and we’d pretend to be Olympic gymnasts, competing in front of millions and winning the prestigious gold medal.Of course, there were times when I wanted to quit the sport, but somehow, I found myself packing my gym bag and limping back into the gym the following day.
My coaches, who defected from Germany to open my gymnastics school, were harsh. Very harsh. Practices were closed, meaning parents were not allowed to watch; we were all alone. Talking back or speaking up if you were injured or ill was a death wish. They made you feel guilty or inadequate for missing practice or for not being able to fully participate for any reason – illness, injury, family travel. Constant yelling and name calling, public weigh-ins, and outrageous punishments for missing a skill were the norm. Your punishment could include hundreds of pushups, multiple rope climbs or being kicked out of practice altogether but not being allowed to call your parents to pick you up so you could leave.
We spent so much time together as a team, traveling to various competitions and skill camps, that my teammates became like my sisters. Oddly enough, one of the main summer camps we went to as a team was at a gym in Michigan and was led by the gym’s head coach, John Geddert. Without diving too far into the topic, John Geddert was implicated in the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal that focused on his long time associate Larry Nassar. Geddert, who was charged with more than 20 criminal charges, committed suicide in February 2021. Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for his crimes. The affected are now pressuring the Senate to hold the FBI accountable for botching this investigation which allowed the abuse to continue. The athletes are also asking for all enablers to be held accountable. This includes coaches and United States Association of Gymnastics (USAG) staff who did not act appropriately when they were told of the abuse.
Just as with these athletes, but on a much smaller scale, my teammates and I were in this battle together. Throughout my time in the sport, I saw many people leave due to injury, eating disorders or because they were unable to deal with the constant criticism and pressure. There were plenty of times when I left the gym firmly believing I would never return. Some days I wanted to quit more than anything. I remember one particular day when my coach basically yelled at me for four hours straight. I couldn’t do anything right and I remember feeling worthless. I wondered why I was in a sport that was so cruel. I remember crying to my mother, begging her to let me quit. Her response? “I already paid for this month’s sessions and that money can’t be wasted.” Let’s get one thing straight, due to my parents scarce upbringing, one thing they surely are not is wasteful. When the next month came about my mother would ask if I wanted to continue and by then I was back in love with the sport.
Post written by Corynne Cooper, General Manager at 111 S. Wacker Fitness Center – managed by FFC.