~Dance it, Speak it, Poet~
By Jan Drake Bakke
History Of A Gymnast Part 2--By Jan Drake Bakke--5-29-2017--June Column GLNL 2017
We were gymnasts in Las Vegas
On two teams that were held
Called the Fittettes and the Comets
Of which both excelled
So many great gymnasts were formed
Out of these teams we competed for
Hard work and dedication
It brought much success for the sport
We all did adore!
Our coaches worked us hard
With strict conduct and discipline
Which made each team do well
And helped us to win!
State Champions we won
And top ten in the nation
Gymnastics was such
An ecstatic sensation!
Bravo to our coaches
Bravo to our families and all of us too
Our team will be remembered
Forever for me and you!
We will be historical now
In archives we will be listed
But in our hearts
We will always remain and know we existed!
"Born Into Gymnastics"
I was born into gymnastics
I had no choice over it since seven years old
I was trained to be an Olympian
This was what I was told!
I had two dreams later
To marry and to dance
Both of which I have achieved
I am grateful I had the chance
It has not been easy
As some may think
I have had many set backs
As I have been on the brink
Now later in life
A miracle it has been
I am grateful for every breath now
I will keep starting it again and again!
When I joined the Las Vegas Fittettes Gymnastics Team in 1965 I was terrified and I did not really want to go to that first practice. My father however felt I was just right to get into this and he was correct. He had watched me for years as a very little girl in Hammond, Indiana where I was born play on the swing set he had for us. I was a monkey on it and very agile. My husband use to call me monkey girl when we first met. My father though saw strength and flexibility that I had naturally. I think there were bars attached to the set and I played on them for hours. I remember always wanting to play on them then. We left Indiana when I was four years old because my mother had severe asthma there and so my father transfered to the nearest place that could accomodate them and mostly my mother. It was Las Vegas. They also opted for San Diego but it was not available at the time so they took the job for Las Vegas. It was a dry climate and it was going to be much better for my mother's health which it was.
My father planted trees right away in both the front and back yards. I had a favorite tree in the front yard that I played on for years. I also practiced my bar routine on it as well. It was a magical tree for me. A very nurturing friend and companion for me for many years of my childhood. I did need her very much. Growing up as a gymnast was and I will say it bluntly and truthfully beyond intense. In all ways. In hardship of many injuries, in harsh treatment from my father, in intense scheduling and work outs for many years, in sacrificing a childhood that I did not know anything about but wanted to know. It was not normal and I actually did not care to be normal. I just wanted to do things other kids did. I was however very proud of my accomplishments and of my team. I was proud of my parents too for helping in the whole project. For many years. I was proud of my coaches and ballet teachers. I was also proud of my team mates and how we grew up together and accomplished so much. I was proud of my brothers who were proud of me and had to sacrifice alot for not getting as much attention from our father as I did. Although, that may of been good because it saved them from some heartache and abuse. Some that I got that they did not. I am sorry to say. I also got the best of my dad too part of the time. He was so very proud of me as he was of my brothers as well! It was another life and one that I will always appreciate and be proud of. Even if it was harsh part of the time! It was at times excruciating.
My father had a good friend in the Bureau in a short time of moving out west here to Las Vegas. Their daughters Cathy and Cindy Fain were on the team. They loved it. I was taken to practice that first night and I was so shy, reserved and serious. I adapted very quickly though. The coach Jan Van Tuyl was very disciplined in his teaching and training. I was able to follow this easily. My father was very much like this and I already had some of this instilled in me by seven years old. We had a warm up we did before the actual practice started. I loved the warm ups. I became increasingly strong after a few months and it was so fun to feel this new strength I was attaining. My dad said I was going to be like superwoman. I watched alot of tv shows that had references like this. Including Hercules and Tarzan and Jane. I felt I was Jane. Or I wanted to be her. I wanted to swing on the trees and be with the animals and wear the jungle outfits and have a boyfriend like Tarzan.
I was in the beginners groups at first of course. Coach as we called him worked with each group thruout the night. He tried to spot every girl in the night at least a few times. He did too. He also had helpers spotting and these were the older more advanced girls who volunteered to help coach spot. There were beginning, intermediate and advanced groups. The groups would rotate and move to another apparatus until we got through all four of them in the night. It was a good system Coach had going. Very organized and effective.
We worked out in the main gym and also this weight room off the main gym at the University of Las Vegas. Which is called UNLV. Technically University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It was called NSU back then. Nevada Southern University and then they changed the name. We had these two areas to work out in according to the scheduling that took place with the Rebel Basketball Team. They used the main gym alot too for their practices. We eventually did half time performances for the Rebels in the main gym and also at the Las Vegas Convention Center. This was so amazing to do these. In both places. We had huge crowds to perform for and it was exhilerating and also great experience to be in such crowds. We received many standing ovations in both locations. That was awesome!
About three months into my training one of the older girls was spotting me for a while regularly and pushing me a bit to do the back and front walkovers as she was very helpful in my training. I beleive she was Jean Hoffmeister. She was kind, patient and but also encouraging me to push myself to not be fearful. We did not make much noise and noone was noticing us much. It was just a thing for me to work with her regularly and finally I actually did it on my own my first back walkover. We were both ecstatic! She went over to Coach and told him immediately. He actually stopped the entire practice and had me show it to them all. They all clapped and cheered. I was so excited and delighted. So was my father. He was there at all practices for the first few years. I could not believe that my coach would have me do this in front of the whole team. I later knew why. I though did not realize either how much I was going to love being clapped for too. This was new to me and I loved it. I had such exhileration from it. I felt like I belonged too and that I was liked. It was so wonderful to feel that. I just wanted more of it. I set out to try and do more moves to show my coach, father and the team. I felt it was my obligation as well. Actually it was later as the coach went to my parents very soon after that and asked if he could train me for the Olympics. They agreed. My father could see it in me as well. I was gifted for gymnastics. I had natural ability and strength too and it was an opportunity to excell and try for.
That was it. My life path was set for my childhood an early teen years. I was to become an Olympian. I was then acknowledged as an Olympic hopeful and as time went on my development went very very fast. I achieved in very little time grand strides. It was unusual but expected as they watched me do it. Within a year I was almost doing all of the advanced moves in the tumbling and on the beam. It took a little longer for the bars and horse. In two years I became a State Champion. In three years I became a National Champion in my age group. We watched the Russian Films of the Olympic gymnasts. I wanted to be one of them. I was being trained vey much like them too. We had ballet classes at gym practice and also privately for me with Russian trained Ballerina Belinda Debecker. She was incredible! I loved her. Her daughter became a Nevada State Gymnastics Champion too.
It was wonderful being able to do so much with my body at such a young age. I was grateful too. Yet it was expected out of me and I had a mission to uphold. This was alot to do for a very young girl. I did not mind though. It was all I knew. Winning and being successful was my life at a very young age. How things changed later in parts of my life. A huge shock to learn and grow from later on.
The advanced gymnasts I knew well and worked with mostly were Becky Westfall, Diana Caroll, Robin Arneson, Pam Gadball, Charmain Jenkins, Jean Hoffmeister and few others. I stayed with these girls most of my time in the earlier years. Then it changed as I got older. I was working out with Champions Jody Hiatt, Faye Gaynor, and a few others who were considered advanced elites later.
The State Champions and National Champions I knew and worked in my earliest years with were Becky Westfall, Diana Caroll, Charmain Jenkins and Robin Arneson. Later the State Champions and advanced gymnasts that were later known as the Las Vegas Comets which included Jane Kravenko, Jody Hiatt, Michelle Dupont , Caroline Dupont, Jonni Hanneman, Robin Jetti, Cheri Shipp and several others. They all were on the Las Vegas Fittettes team as well but were in the beginning and intermediates groups at the time and working their way up as they did. They surpassed us too. The group I was in were the pioneers. We were the very first to achieve national recognition and placement for Girls Gymnastics for Las Vegas and the State of Nevada! On a state and national level! There it is! This is who we are historical!! Yay!!
A gymnast really peaks out at around fifteen years old. At least they did back in my day. In other words she may be at her best or she maybe retiring too at this age. Cathy Rigby did her first Olympics at age fifteen. She was at her prime then! I was ten when we did the National Junior Olympics tryout meet that we did that got us in our national standing. My prime was between nine years old and thirteen years old. Little did they know I was going to grow several inches in a few years and start breaking bars too. At about fifteeen I was peaking out soon. I went for one more round in Ohio and then at seventeen I was done. I was 5 foot 8 inches by then and I was still growing. It was becoming increasingly hard on me and my body had completely changed. I was devastated too. So were my coach and father. My dear coach had to let me go basically. It was sad. There were some painful things going on then too in my family and I split. LOL!! That is for another column. Some of our other gymnasts such as Robin and Becky quit at age fifteen as both of them got married and had kids. Well, we had a hard, fast, and furious upbringing in the gymnastics itself and so some started new lives early on and soon. We had had intense training and competitions and they were ready for marriage and children. We lived a lifetime being gymnasts. Maybe a few. I was not going to do that however. I took a break and did some very unusual things. I am so glad I did too. Then I started training again to be a dancer. Which I did become a professional at. Of course I would. I had it in me to. I was going to use my skills and not let all of that early training go to waste! Oh my!! You bet!! All of the time and energy my family put into me and my coach as well. I wanted to share it more and have them be proud of their daughter again later on. They were. My father was dying while I was performing at the Stardust Hotel doing the "Enter the Night" show. That was so tramatic for me. My very last show. Yet I am sure he was glad that I was able to do any part of that show. Not so well however. I was devastated.
Continuing on here about our work outs and etc. In the advanced group I worked out with for years we worked out in the foyer room later which was off the main big gym at UNLV. We got out of the weight room all together later and into this very small foyer room when we could not use the main gym. It had a concrete floor. We did not always have our mats available and I do not remember now why. Of course we would use mats if we could for the work outs but if we could not then we worked right on the concrete floor tumbling and all. Coach felt sorry but he felt we needed to keep our work outs going. This was however very hard on our knee joints. I did develop a severe knee problem from over working and then adding the concrete work outs on to this made it worse. We also worked on the hard wood flooring too in the main gym when our mats were not available either in there. This was just a norm for us.
That did not happen too much though in the main gym. I did get over it but it was a severe problem for a while with my knees. We did use mats mostly though and we only went without when there was some problem with them not being available. Coach and most coaches would not stop a work out for this. We carried on and kept on. It was just not known that working on the hard wood or concrete was not so good for our bones and joints. There was no blame. We just had to be more careful is all. Later the teams had better mats and equipment. We also had uneven bars that were big in thickness and I was so use to them. I loved them but we all wore hand grips. We all tore our hands and had blisters for years too. The hand grips were cloth and wrapped around our hand and buckled up. I could not go without them ever.
This pioneer team the Las Vegas Fittettes was not a wealthy team. We worked very hard with very little extra accomodations and luxuries as you are reading about. I thank my coach, my father, my mother and all of the parents who worked so hard for this team. Several of the fathers helped in coaching and volunteering time and many of the mothers did as well. My mother was a judge for the meets for several years and most of the elite gymnasts parents were involved some way or another. I knew of Robin Arneson's parents were, Diana Caroll's parents were, Jody Hiatt's parents were, my parents were, Becky Westfall's mother was our Treasurer and also judge for years. There was a very strong parents group for the team. It was awesome!!
We had glorious work outs though. They were always so fun!! Well, Coach was fun and had a good sense of humor. I was to be serious though mostly. My father did not want me to play around or to laugh or talk to anyone while at the work outs. After the workout it was ok to talk and have fun with my gym mates. I had over nights with some of them. We always worked out too. We lived gymnastics. It was just who we were. I am glad I had them. Some of them were my dear friends and we had this special identity together. Like nothing else in the world.
The Las Vegas Fittettes became very well known in town and we got publicized in the Sun and Review Journal newspapers regularly for years. I got used to being talked about and our pictures in the paper. We were well known. We were on tv shows for interviews a few times and Coach was alot more than we were. All of the gymnasts I worked with were wonderful gymnasts. I was so proud of them. We were all proud of each other too. We were very proud of our coaches too. With primitive equipment and switching around rooms and later locations in our training areas I feel we did a great job in all that we accomplished.
Coach gave his all to us. He had a full time job as a P.E. teacher in a high school and he had a wife and three kids as well. Linda his wonderful wife, Teresa his oldest daughter, then younger daughter Tony and their son Michael. They were a great family. They had to share us though and I know it was very hard on them. Both Teresa and Tony were on the team and they competed too and did very well. I was good friends with them for a while. I used to go to their home and Coach would give me private work outs. In his living room. I mean he did everything he could to keep me going strong as his Olympic hopeful. I will talk about the work outs my father gave me in the next column of part three of these columns.
When I was in early grade school something happened that started a trend in part of my identity. It has not been tragic but sometimes hurtful and sorrowful to be reminded of it. I am now embracing it more and I do not think of it as a negative anymore. I know that being unusual is ok and being wierd, odd, different, sensitive, is ok. I think all of that is the new black or purple or blue or pink or orange etc. LOL!! We all are different and so it is wonderful! Yet we are so much the same too still in many ways. This was a tough thing and so but funny to share and think about now. In fourth grade I was nine years old then and was a Nevada State Champion Gymnast by then. We were ready to go to Knoxville to the Olympic trials soon. Nationals and OLympic prelims meet. That was our big National meet. I was working out quite a bit and there was alot of pressure on me and also in school work too. I was in an acelerated class. I was going full force here. I started to bleed and it did not stop for a few months. I bent down over my desk one day accidentally and a boy in class saw that I was bleeding. Like having a period. He yelled out"She is bleeding and she is a freak!" Oh jeez I was so hurt by him and but not mad. Just so surprised he would say this in front of everyone like that. Oh well. He was scared is all. I had been taken to the Dr. already and put on hormone pills. To stop the bleeding. I stayed on them for a good six months. The bleeding did stop eventually but it was a problem for a while. I was not considered normal anyway. I was out running everyone in school. I was faster than all of the boys. I could do more push ups, sit ups, pull ups then anyone including my teacher. I think this just added to it all. LOL!! I had lots of friends still but this gave me a little complex as I grew up. I was called this later by others too and even into my adulthood. Thankfully I had a dear best friend at the time named Cherie. She did not let things like that get to her and to me either. She would always be so supportive to me. We used to be very creative and inventive at her house. It was a place for me to escape my life and all of the stress I had as a little girl. We would have so much fun. I do not think they knew what I was really going through at home or in my training but I did not tell them either. I just wanted to have fun and fun we had!! She and I loved the vampire shows on tv. "Dark Shadows". We loved Barnabas. We were not into dark things so to speak either. In fact, we had a little club that we called ourselves "Angels". We wanted to be that. Yet we still loved Barnabas and Angelique the vampires on that show. We also thought we were vampires as well as angels. I think we liked the super natural in general that comes with both genres. The super powers of them as well. I do not use dark energy for any superpower work I do today with my psychic work. Just letting anyone know. I do work with angels, Jesus and my guides. I will however still watch vampire movies and relate to them in their super powers and I still love them as one of my favorite monsters!
Many things happened later after my gymnastics career that were even more intense. I have shared some of it in other columns. I think being pushed like I was at an early age has benefited me later in life but I might not do it to my child in the same way if I had had children. I was ill from it several times and too many injuries occured. Everyone gets injured in gymnastics who are very serious at it. That is a known fact. There is noone to blame except that was how it was. I had an intense family going on and then gymnastics was intense. It was a double whammy. This is what people did not know about. Well, they knew. And this will continue to part three in the next column for July 2017.
Here are a few poems for the month of June 2017. Happy summer to you!
This poem is in honor of my dog Gypsy who just passed on 5-25-2017
"The Rainbow Bridge"
But death is not the end
It's really a new beginning
A new life in the scheme of eternity
It's liberating and it's a new feedom of lots of smiles and lots of grinning!
For all who walk the rainbow bridge
They will light up in magical energy and colors so radiant and bright!
The walk of transition and transformation of leaving their earth's vessel and joining the heavenly realms
Of unconditional love and light!
It's only an earthly death
For all who go
There is new worlds and life in places for them
We still do not know
A wonderous reunion ahead as they walk over the bridge of multidimension
They are greeted with animals, friends, family, angels and guides
In a heavenly party of souls meeting once again
It will be a joyous ascension
They are happy!
They are free!
They are out of pain and suffering!
They will always still!
Be with you and me!
I love you my beautiful Gypsy!
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