Remember Nadia Comaneci? How about Mary Lou Retton or Shannon Miller? And who can forget Jennifer de Haan?
Not familiar with the name of that last gymnast among the greatest that ever took to a balance beam? Well, Jennifer’s story is a little different than some of the best gymnasts of all time, but her accomplishment is noteworthy.
When you think of female gymnasts, what comes to mind might be the littlest of the group, wearing tiny sparkly leotards, pigtails flying as they do their cartwheels. Or maybe even the older girls, bodies steeled with muscles from years of going to the gym and doing their routines over and over.
When Jennifer de Haan takes to the floor to do her gymnastics routine, her light brown hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail secured with a hair scrunchie, bangs framing her face, not a speck of glitter to be found in her hair. Her simple black leotard is partially covered by a pair of plain black sports shorts. But her enthusiasm and passion for what she is about to do is written all over her face and is beamed out to the audience through her infectious smile.
You see, Jennifer is no tiny young gymnast. She’s well into her 30s and going into a gymnastics meet for the first time.
What would possess a wife, mother of three, and physical therapist to compete in a gymnastics meet? It started almost five years ago when she went to her two sons’ gymnastics lessons. In order to get them to participate a little more, she took a few private lessons with them, and she realized just how much fun it was.
“I was out there with them and I think I did a handstand, flipped over into a backbend,” recalls Jennifer. “And my son said, ‘Hey, Mom, you’re pretty flexible!’”
The boys’ coach wanted her to be the example for learning different skills and showing her kids how much fun it could be.
“He didn’t have to twist my arm,” says Jennifer. “I would sit and watch the other girls practicing during my sons’ lesson and think, They’re having so much fun.”
Jennifer never really did any kind of sports growing up, so this was going to be a huge challenge for her.
“I was so excited,” she remembers. “I’ve never been able to stop since then.”
With the help of her coach, Terry Beck, Jennifer competed in her first
gymnastics meet this spring.
It turned out that a couple other women were interested in gymnastics as well, and they started an adult group with their own coach at Balcony Gymnastics. The group’s members have changed over the years, but Jennifer is still there.
“She gets that sparkle of excitement in her face when she learns something, even though it may be something small,” says Terry Beck, Jennifer’s coach. “She also understands that gymnastics is a progressive sport—that is, you learn in steps, one thing at a time.”
Fast forward to February 2008. Her coach tells the women there’s a gymnastics meet coming up, and they’ll be competing in their own ladies division. No longer would they be getting together just for fitness and fun—now there was a real goal in mind. The workouts got harder and more frequent. Routines had to be nailed down, skills had to be perfected—it wasn’t going to be easy.
“This was more than a passing thought for her,” offers Jennifer’s husband, Remko. “When she’s passionate about something, she will not give up. I love that about her.”
Right up until the Thursday before the meet, the reality of what Jennifer was about to do hadn’t quite sunk in yet.
“I would get really nervous because I would keep thinking, I’m not ready,” says Jennifer. “I couldn’t make it through the entire floor routine; my endurance is just not the same as these little girls.”
But make it she did.
With family and friends in the audience, she took to the floor, the music started, and off she went, pushing her mind and body to the limit for 88 seconds. That may sound like a short amount of time, but Jennifer says when you’re out there performing in front of everyone, that 88 seconds feels like an eternity.
When she finished her routine, she came off the floor with a huge smile on her face and, looking at her teammates and coach, exclaimed, “I want to go again!”
Remko says he’s never been prouder of her.
“I think that her example to try new things, overcome difficulties by trying harder, and never giving up no matter what others think are some of the best life lessons we can teach our kids,” he says.
Jennifer agrees that competing was a real thrill, but she learned an even more important skill.
“It really isn’t about being perfect. It’s just about doing your best,” says Jennifer. “I love gymnastics, and I love doing this. At this point who really cares if I fall on my butt?”
Michael Hamer, a personal trainer and owner of Balcony Gymnastics, shares five things the older athlete needs to know.
- Start Slow—“Remember that your body will just not respond the same way it did back in the day.”
- Buddy Up—“Find someone knowledgeable to get you started on the right path.”
- S-T-R-E-T-C-H—“Two to three minutes of stretching before any activity is simply not enough. Proper stretching is very important to prevent injuries, improve circulation, and maintain joint mobility.”
- Cross Train—“A sport-specific strength and fitness program is recommended, but any form of cardiovascular/resistance training will ensure better overall fitness.”
- Enjoy It—“Having fun can increase the quality of your life.”