Ever since I was young, gymnastics has been my passion. It involves year-round competition. However, it wasn’t until after seven years of doing gymnastics that I truly understood the profound influence of the sport’s core values when I moved on to other activities. Simple instances like supporting my teammates after a fall off the balance beam taught me teamwork’s importance. Additionally, managing the demanding twenty-hour-week practices taught me responsibility. The most fascinating result of my gymnastics experience was developing an interest in neuroscience.
The connection between a sport and science is clear to me. Due to chronic back pain from gymnastics, I spent numerous hours on Dr. Scott’s examination table receiving acupuncture treatment. Despite feeling like a pin cushion, this was a delightful experience for an eleven-year-old such as myself. Appointments with Dr. Scott included hour-long lessons about the spine and how his needles provided instant pain relief. Dr. Scott, together with my grandfather’s Gray’s Anatomy textbook, ignited my curiosity in the complexities of our body’s nervous system.
I started coaching gymnastics at Chattooga Gymnastics, a center for special needs women, after taking a break from the sport. However, I had doubts when I first started coaching because I was much younger than the gymnasts and had no experience with individuals with developmental disabilities. Nevertheless, the supportive atmosphere at Chattooga helped me overcome my concerns and begin to learn about neurodiversity. My coaching philosophy is to recognize the worth in each person’s abilities. Having different needs and abilities does not make someone lesser; it simply makes them unique.
As time went on at Chattooga, establishing meaningful connections with the women became difficult for me. In particular, I struggled to communicate with Stephanie, a forty-year-old with weakened mouth muscles (hypotonia) caused by Down syndrome. I felt ashamed when I repeatedly asked her to repeat herself, as I couldn’t understand her words. However, as we worked towards having more engaging conversations, Stephanie felt listened to and not ignored. This small gesture made a significant difference because now we have a strong bond and enjoy our shared love for Publix’s chocolate chip cookies.
My interest in neuroscience continues to grow beyond the realm of gymnastics.
During my time as a counselor and participant at HOBY, a youth leadership camp, I gained a unique perspective on neuroscience. The improv speaker, Paul, conducted a workshop on the plasticity of the brain. It was fascinating to discover how theatrical exercises can retrain the brain to enhance its divergent, creative, and efficient capabilities. One example of this is the activity of writing the alphabet with both hands simultaneously in opposite directions, which engages both hemispheres of the brain, combining logic and creativity.
Paul taught me that I am also flexible like the brain on a deeper level. At HOBY International, I attended without knowing anyone, but I fully embraced the new culture and adjusted to new experiences just like the brain does with new stimuli.
Through gymnastics, I developed curiosity, acceptance, and empathy. This led to my newfound passion for neuroscience. As I embark on the next four years, I am excited to engage with different perspectives and embrace the neurodiversity I encountered at Chattooga and HOBY. The question that arises is: how malleable is my brain?