The 2020/2021 Olympics are in full swing now, and I can’t watch. I just can’t. I love the Olympcs- love the races, the swimming, the diving, the gymnastics. I’ve been a huge fan ever since I was young, but this year, I have zero desire to watch anyone potentially get Covid with a camera in their faces, and the IOC has been so gross in so many ways this year that I don’t feel like supporting the Olympics is something I’m personally comfortable with. Which makes me really sad, because I’ve loved the Olympics for such a long time. But my disappointment was assuaged by diving into Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein (Atria Books, 2020), a novel set in a world where the Covid-19 pandemic never happened, and Tokyo 2020 went off without a hitch. Would that this could have been a reality…
Things haven’t gone so well for Avery Adams since her gymnastics career came to an abrupt, surgery-necessitating end during an Olympic Trials meet. She’s been floundering since then, partying her way through and then failing out of college, half-heartedly part-time coaching a girl’s gymnastics team, and sweatpants-and-ponytail-ing her way through a relationship with a professional football player. When he finally dumps her over her lack of ambition and direction, Avery moves back in with her parents, unsure of where to go and what to do with her life. Gymnastics was her only dream; she had never learned to or thought of wanting anything else. What does a former elite athlete do when there’s never been a contingency plan?
At home, Avery receives a phone call from another former gymnast. Ryan, who had made it to the Olympics, is now coaching Hallie, an Olympic hopeful. She needs help on her floor routine, and Ryan thinks Avery’s just the person to do it. Unsure of what else to do with her life, Avery signs on and finds that this is truly where she belongs. But the issues of the gymnastics world run deep: Hallie confides in Avery her discomfort about the sports medicine doctor she’s seeing, just before the news breaks that he’s been molesting other gymnasts, and Jasmine, Avery’s former gymnast friend, is now married to their shared abusive former coach. Along with helping Hallie grow as a gymnast and developing her relationship with Ryan, Avery realizes the responsibility she has to make things better, for gymnasts and the gymnastic community as a whole.
This is a really lovely book about not only the excitement of the gymnastics world, but the devastation it can wreak on young women. It’s not all critique; time and time again, Ms. Orenstein points out the positive changes that have occurred over the years, including how much healthier the gymnasts look (I grew up in an era where gymnasts were rail-thin, eating disorders were pretty much guaranteed in the sport, and muscles were nonexistent. I can’t speak to the prevalence of eating disorders in the gymnastics world these days, but I’m in awe of how strong and powerful today’s gymnasts look). But the critique is definitely there, especially in abusive coaching styles and how ill-prepared most gymnasts are for a future that won’t be dominated by performance. Avery is a mess before she moves home, partying too much, having no goals or dreams for herself, just kind of existing as a professional football player’s girlfriend (Tyler, said professional football player, doesn’t exactly find this attractive). She’s blown away by Hallie’s post-career goals for herself, including college and possibly law school. Why doesn’t every gymnast have those kinds of plans?
Avery’s not afraid to call out the ickiness of her former friend Jasmine marrying their much older and abusive former coach, Dimitri, which I loved. She doesn’t just nod and smile for the sake of being polite; she full-on asks Jasmine what the heck she was thinking. Jasmine too had just sort of fallen into her post-gymnastic life; together, she and Avery begin to question how things could be different for these high-tier athletes, how the community could better support them, especially in the wake of sexual abuse scandals. And then they DO something about it, because what counts in this life is action. Things with Ryan get complicated, but Avery never lets that get her down, and she doesn’t let whatever their relationship is at the moment become her identity. So much growth going on in this quick-paced story, for everyone (including Ryan, who makes a bad decision at one point and who then spends a good portion of the rest of the novel making it right in a variety of ways. TAKE NOTE, MEN).
There’s a lot of social commentary in this book and it’ll hopefully raise a lot of questions in your mind, including what we demand from young athletes and what we offer them in return; what support looks like, what accountability looks like, what oversight looks like, whom insular communities protect and why, and what it means to be brave in the face of worldwide scrutiny. You’ll have Aly Raisman and Simone Biles and their teammates front and center in your mind as you read this, and you’ll be in awe of them for speaking out about the way they were abused and for what they need to be whole and healthy, and furious that that doctor wasn’t stopped sooner.
If you’re looking for some Olympic excitement and escapism, along with great writing and a strong character who turns things around not only for herself, but others (plus a lovely romance between two people who need to work out their own stuff before committing to building anything of substance together), this is a really fun and deeply thoughtful read.