|Starfish have re-appeared in Pacific this year.
|Rock and little tentacles.
This has brought us to the great vaulting competition. Lisa had added Monday
canter practices, thus increasing our weekly stable visits to three. Meanwhile
I was despairing over online forms for helpers. Vaulting championships require
a lot of work, and for every participant, somebody has to work two half-day
shifts. With about half of the jobs, I had no idea what I would be doing there,
some need previous experience, others did not fit in my schedule with Lisa's
performances. In the end I somehow worked out signing up for Nationals, but with
Regionals I was either getting a server error, or alternatively positions were
already filled. As I tested more and more "unfilled" positions,
receiving more and more error messages, I had unintentionally signed up for
about ten various functions. At last I managed to solve it personally with the
event organizer, who admitted that the system was confusing, and told me to
report to her at the start of the championships in person, and she would assign
me to do whatever was needed.
The regional pleasantly surprised me. There were much fewer people than at
previous events (as this one dealt only with our region), and it all has a very
cozy atmosphere. And despite actual riding happened in an uncovered arena, seats
and practicing barrels were arranged in the shade of a roofed arena, and a nice
breeze was blowing, and it all ended up being rather very merciful. On the first
day I got the job of cleaning after horses in the arena, which was not
complicated at all, and I had a good view. It also allowed me to see the
backstage, which impressed me with how friendly people from competing teams
interacted, and how everything linked together. A coach of one team in a club
may easily compete for a different club, and even regular competitors switch
sometimes — not that dramas could be always avoided, but people know each
other, do their jobs, and help out. Even to the point that when a competing club
member's horse became lame, she finished her performance on our club's horse.
|We tried not to neglect our animals — Twilight.
Lisa finished both with her individual program and as a double, somewhere near
the half of the roster, which we consider a good result — it had been her
first competition season; kids who do this in their third or fourth year,
are naturally better at it. On Sunday, in their team, the girls scored second
of three teams, which is a decent result. Especially since many things in
vaulting depend on judges' opinions — when I compared results of
free-style, of three judges, one rated them first, one second, and one third.
The teams were certainly quite level, but it's obvious how their efforts
are being differently evaluated from different aspects (both personal and
geometric — judges are placed around the arena, and each sees something
else). In the end, I got no work on the second day, and I could enjoy the whole
thing as a spectator.
Nationals are the apex of the season; they are followed by almost two months
of summer break, before new teams start forming for the next season —
and competitions start again in the spring. This last season had upset both our
lives and opinion. Lisa began in October in a recreational class, got picked by
her new coach for a trot team in November. By February she was, besides
teamwork, practicing individual set on barrels, adding a double with Claire in
the spring, and tried canter for a month in summer. Besides every Sunday locked
in by vaulting, we had sacrificed several whole weekends, and most of the summer
in general, to Lisa's hobby, by attending competitions. A training barrel has
moved into our back yard, all the practicing cost us a lot of money, and we
were still not purchasing custom tailored vaulting outfits, instead improvising
with gymnastic and ballet clothing sales. Where did we, damn it, get entangled
so much into an activities rat-race*?
|Lisa's trusty steed — Percheron Perch.
|A double with Claire.
American concept of after school activities had repelled us from our beginnings
in the country. Every ball game (soccer, baseball etc.) operates in twelve
or thirteen blocks, with practices two or three times a week, and mandatory
matches on weekends. Swimming has a similar system with competitions every
weekend. I though we were lucky that the kids could attend some athletic
programs in middle school, but not for long — within a single semester
there were mandatory practices four times a week, and during weekends, as you
may already suspect, there were competitions.
A musical at school consisted of three months of rehearsals every day, while
weekends were devoted to painting stage decorations and making costumes. Such
intense activity, albeit short-termed, seems rather destructive not only for
a participant, but for his/her whole family. For three months, everybody is tied
to staying at home, and everything runs to fit the interest of one member.
Soccer in the fall, some indoor sports in winter, a musical in the spring.
It's not possible to do drama club on Tuesdays, play soccer on Thursdays, and
try a flute on Fridays. You cannot play soccer whole year, even if you would
love to do exactly that, because that's just not done during winter and summer.
In the same spirit, there is no playing theater all year and gradually learning
to paint decorations and make costumes, choose music and effects, learn your
character really well, and get a chance alternating in other roles. Oh no
— it all must fit within three months, during which you cannot afford to
fall ill or take a spring break trip. I can see how a senior actor of a National
Ensemble cannot take time off whenever she feels like, but these are, for
goodness sake, CHILDREN, not members of the Olympic Team!
Being competitive under such pressure naturally boils over into the ugliest
forms. With the participants themselves just as with their parents — once
they got Joey into a soccer team, they shall see that the nincompoop coach puts
him on the roster and that Joey scores properly. And God forbid, getting kicked
by an opponent player — we'll teach him to kick back, only harder.
And can you imagine the drama with all the thespian endeavors?
Vaulting, where participants practice throughout the year, gradually improve
their riding skills and keep adding more difficult elements, to work up to a
national competition level and to show their best, appears to us as a much
better choice. It does not present a problem, when you skip a Sunday practice
from time to time; beginning with February, there are competitions held about
every month, so one can arrange all remaining family life around that —
we can go skiing or camping, or on a vacation.
When Lisa was in bad health, she would first just go watch the practices,
getting gradually involved into activities she could perform, and till this day
she modifies her sequences of exercises to meet limits set by her doctor.
No one would kick her out of the team, or ban her from attending
For Lisa, vaulting represents a combination of two areas that she loves —
it contains some dramatic arts with costumed public performance — and it
orbits around horses. We can notice its positive influence on Lisa's health
— strengthening her back and belly muscles leads to straightening of her
spine, and she started eating and build up muscle tone. Nobody can possibly
object to the good idea of keeping pubescents busy and physically active.
The team atmosphere turned out a very unexpected nice surprise. There is no
actual rivalry or open adversity, neither in the club nor among the teams.
Despite their ranking being never exact (unlike with lap timing with runners,
or scored goals with ball games), nobody makes a big deal of it. Perhaps because
vaulting is such a fringe sport, everybody seems to know everyone else involved;
perhaps because a short list of competitors evokes a feeling of interwoven
community. I'm sure there is something to the fact that even Nationals can be
attended by all who register, and there is no merciless system of qualifications
and eliminations. After previous experience with school activities and
extra-curriculars, I remain fascinated that the girls advise each other after
a practice, how to improve their individual programs; at competitions, whether
in a bathroom or in line to a hot-dog stand, people from different clubs wish
each other good luck. Clubs would loan the other guys their horse, opponent's
coach briskly pulls out a whip that the other team, which is about to perform,
lost somewhere. Riders fix each other's hair and costumes. Similarly I'd never
spotted unpleasantness between parents, or any urge to promote their child.
|Perch's back gets crowded sometimes.
The last aspect I consider positive is continuity. It's not a "hobby
club", which ends in three months and where one looks forward to it being
over (as is happened to Lisa with school performances, where even just as
a stage hand with mere three weeks of rehearsals, she was burned out and super
tired by the end). And at the same time, vaulting does not offer the horrible,
typically American, instant gratification.
Our children have practically everything they want. There's no long time saving
money to afford trendy clothes, no waiting for something one can't get at the
store (when we were young, we had to wait long for our western jeans or
hard-to-get, truly functional bicycles).
After her first season, Lisa ended up about mid-way of the results roster
— there's no automatic winning — but she can also see that the half
ahead of her had been practicing for three or four years. Suddenly she gets the
long-term goal dimension, with a hope of GRADUAL progress. It's not about three
months of intense dedication, after which everything is past, and one can start
intensely doing something completely different (e.g. moving from soccer to
swimming to theater).
Nationals have arrived only ten days after Regionals. Lisa's thirteenth birthday
fell on a Sunday just before that — in the end she had invited
a relatively diverse company. Claire from vaulting, Lucy and Clara from school,
Rose from a long-dissolved pony club, and Stella from the goat stables; plus
their younger sisters, Zoe of Lucy and Katya of Stella. Lisa wanted a tablet as
her present, which we grudgingly approved — Tom does not let her access
their shared gaming computer much, and we understand that at this age she has
a need for some private property and freedom to do with it what she likes.
I managed a last-moment purchase of an old training barrel, which Sid and Tom
inconspicuously installed in the back yard when I took Lisa to her practice.
Her party started in the swimming pool and ended with Lisa coaching her friends
in elementary vaulting.
|The Mad Hatter and the March Hare from Alice.
|Announcement of results.
Lisa had her last practice of the season on Monday, and National had begun. We
were lucky this year, as they took place in Gilroy, a town only half hour away
by car from our house, and we saved much on air-fare, hotels and similar
pleasures (last year the competition was held all the way in Salt Lake City,
Utah). Still, even with sleeping and resting at home, it was very tough on us.
The girls had their individual free style program on barrels at nine thirty on
Tuesday, and that was still OK, for we could set out from our home as late as
seven thirty (an hour for the drive, and another for setting up in location).
Alas, a pause followed until two in the afternoon, when doubles were scheduled.
In the meantime, Lisa's friend Lucy came to watch some of the competition, and
thus, trying to cheer them up and separate them from the hot field by Gilroy,
I loaded Lisa, Lucy, and most of the other girls from the team into our bus,
and we went to town to shop food for our goats and ice-cream for the children.
After doubles, we packed and went home — one club family stayed behind
to help, and they had promised to collect them, should there be any prizes won.
We did not expect anything; what a surprise it was, when Lisa got a ribbon
for a thirteenth place in individuals. Ranks in Nationals go all the way to
fifteen — in higher categories on horses it means that first fifteen
from about fifty competitors advance to the next round. Lisa's category had
only twenty three vaulters, but still first fifteen got ranked. Whatever.
In doubles, Claire and Lisa were sixth out of ten — given they started
practicing in April, while others had all of the previous season, it was not
too bad either.
We did not have any vaulting obligations on Wednesday, but there was this pesky
chore of passing an emission test on our old bus. Besides other problems, it had
recently developed a broken catalytic converter, and thus required a treatment
at Tony's. Meanwhile we were also in the middle of arranging new braces for Tom,
as he has grown plenty of new teeth (besides having generally grown in height
over my head), and all that growth needed attention in his mouth too. Thus on
Wednesday I grabbed Tom, drove up to the goats, on the way back I dropped Tom
at the dentist, proceeded to Tony's, left our old bus there, and Sid came and
took me back to Tom at the dentist. With Tom, we drove Sid back to his work,
and made it finally home — all that was left was go buy food, cook lunch
and dinner, pack Lisa for her Thursday all-day stay at he Nationals, prep Lisa's
room for sleeping Lisa's team-mate Claire, who's participation at Nationals was
contingent upon somebody taking her in, while the rest of her family flies away
on their vacation planned and purchased long ago.
|The cake was chocolate, filled with strawberry ice cream — made to order by Claire.
|Sid and the children went whale-watching.
We left at eight thirty in the morning to let Lisa get ready for her eleven
thirty compulsory sequence on a horse. Preparations extend whenever a horse is
involved by taking care of the horse's needs — he, too, needs warming up
and stretching, combing and beautifying. Alas, the girls got assigned to the
uncovered arena, and temperatures got up to the nineties on Thursday. I was
feeling rather sorry for them in their club uniforms. One needs long trousers
on a horse, and uniforms are made of various elastic — mostly close to
airtight — materials. Once their rides were over, I officially took charge
of Claire and immediately towed the girls back into town for lunch — to
get proper food, for I was still due for afternoon shift in the competition.
And also to cool off a bit in an air-conditioned establishment. From three
o'clock on, I removed (for a change) manure from the arena, fortunately from the
covered one. According to AVA (American Vaulting Association) guidelines, I was
to wear long black trousers and dark blue shirt. I don't have a shirt like that,
so I used a decent t-shirt. After fifteen minutes in my black trousers, sweat
was streaming down my back to my butt, so I ripped them off and put on my other
black ones, but loose, breathable capris. My suffering was not over, for we had
been also issued dark blue nylon vests to show that we were functionaries.
Both me and my colleague took our little vests off right away, reasoning that
to collect horse manure, we would not need to project the image of
functionaries, now that we were safely deep behind the scene, so to speak, we
would not need vests even as a staff badge. Alas, after mere two hours of our
rebellion, some real functionary had noticed us and came to berate us. By then
it got significantly cooler, and wearing a vest became bearable. Unfortunately,
our shift was very boring, for compulsory rides were still ongoing — and
while compulsory sets of different levels vary, by the time the tenth
participant goes through the exactly same sequence of motions while wearing the
same dress, one's eyes begin to cross, and by the twentieth person there's a
risk that even a monkey swinging on a lamppost would not draw one's attention.
How the judges manage to watch and evaluate such thing throughout a whole day,
simply boggles my mind.
|Whales were sticking out their snouts.
|Besides starfishes, sardines had returned to Montereyské bay, and caused frantic action both below and aove the surface.
After four hours, I was cooked like a turkey — meanwhile, girls practiced
a bit on barrels and generally loitered around the event, and perhaps did not
suffer much. We were back home by eight o'clock, and after a quick shower and
pizza fell into our beds. For we did it again on Friday, Claire having an
individual free-style ride on a horse. Lisa has been doing barrel only this
season, since we thought that a two-hour team training twice a week was at
her limit already, and that she would struggle with more commitment. The girls
practice on barrels practically by themselves, after the training, and therefore
it does not cost much extra (in particular, we don't pay a horse rent). We did
not mind going with Claire as individual rides are interesting — creative
costumes, distinctly different background music, personal choreography —
and Lisa wanted to spend her time with team colleagues. In the end it was a very
good thing she went. Claire was supposed to be an alternate in a team free-style
set — and after the individual program, the team began rehearsing their
set to fit Claire in. A fourteen-year old girl cannot seamlessly replace an
eight-year old; in lift-up moves it is necessary for the larger and stronger
person to handle the smaller one, hence they had to re-arrange their sequence,
which also impacted Lisa a bit. Eventually a spectator's visit turned for Lisa
into a full-blown training. We got all back home by three o'clock, but fell
into our beds again, and I don't know about the girls; I fell asleep. We managed
to fit to jump in our swimming pool and visit out goats later in the afternoon,
which turned into a kind of drama, as Licorice had developed a bloody gash on
her shoulder. I've discovered that some summer camp kids let our goats into the
chicken coop, where Licorice tried to get through a fence to some grain, got
stuck in and eventually torn by the fence. Fortunately my goat colleague Rachel
promised to help with a dressing, and thus I did not have to drive back with
disinfectants — my veterinary first aid kit is at Ned's stables, and I
needed to get the girls back home to let them sleep, for more of the taxing
program awaited them on Saturday.
|Rescued kittens wait at the stables to be adopted.
|Girls were rehearsing into late evening after the competitions. | Photo by Ling.
The girls were to perform a team free-style ride at two in the afternoon, and
the original plan was to get to the event by noon. But, the team was also to
take care of all the club's horses by eleven (older girls, who were to compete
later, had the afternoon shift), and thus we set out earlier — and we were
lucky to have done so, for their ride was pulled in by an hour. It would not
seem much, but creating all the hair buns, squeezing them all into their
dresses, and sorting all the ribbons and socks takes quite some time. Perch the
horse is, in the end, the least needy one. By noon it was a hundred degrees
there, girls wearing their black leggings, sparkly dresses, socks, and in some
cases a body-colored underwear (would get bruised by some of her colleague's
sleeve sequins in some poses). They were becoming slowly boiled, despite
performing in a covered arena this time. They did their set almost flawlessly
— which was admirable, given all the last-moment changes. But after rides
in their category, rumors started to spread that official results would be
announced for which everybody was to be present. Lisa cried that her head hurt
and that she was sick (with her allergies / asthma, she has truly hard time
breathing), we were cooling ourselves with ice and drank water like steam
engines, but the heat was simply unbearable — it was clear we needed to
get out of there to cool off, but I could not locate anyone who could tell me
WHETHER and WHEN was this mandatory results' announcement. In the end it
actually took place, the girls received ribbons (end up fourth of five),
and we were finally able to jump in our car and drive AWAY. Claire did not want
to come with us to have lunch, wanting instead to wait for the club barbecue,
and so we went, just Lisa and I. We had sushi and then detoured through Walmart,
where they had a costume we liked for the next season — and where we
purchased a large pack of ice cream novelties for the rest of the team.
Staying for two hours in air-conditioned environment worked wonders on us, and
so we did not mind skipping the barbecue at 100°F. Returning back to the
event by four thirty, my duty started at five. My function this time was to be
an usher — who controls movements of the spectators, limiting them at
times of the rides. The best competitors were scheduled for Saturday evening
— freestyle at the gold level, A-team freestyle, and pas de deux. Some of
the exhibitions even made my skin crawl — top level vaulting stops to be
gymnastics on a horse, and becomes expressive ballet performance. During which
"flyers", elevated above the heads of their colleagues on a galloping
horse seem to be really flying. The hall was filled to bursting, and the
atmosphere was fantastic.
(video: US national team
Some of that atmosphere did transfer onto the smallest girls — after all
rides were over, by eight thirty in the evening, they began planning the next
season at the barrel, and rehearse elements for the upcoming sets. At the time
when I was completely drained and they have just completed four full days of
physical toil and emotional see-saw of adrenaline high before the performance
and various disappointments over the results, all this in an exhausting heat
and organizational chaos, they still found the motivation and energy to