Last week I got together with a childhood friend to catch up on each other’s lives. Inevitably, as we always do, we compared our childhood memories from the several years we spent together in competitive gymnastics, back in the days when we could be found in the gym up to five times a week for around 18-25 hours of practice. My friend, who was always much more supple than I could ever hope to be, is now a fantastic yoga instructor and massage therapist. Her years in gymnastics have given her some valuable insight into the different kinds of pain the body should and shouldn’t endure, and the well-being that liberty and exploration of movement can lend to the mind and soul.
We laughed, sometimes ruefully, about our experiences with coaches who often blurred the line between fostering potential and pushing too hard. Of our series of coaches over the years, many were from Germany or Eastern Europe, and while they definitely knew gymnastics, they were a special kind of strict. As girls, we were all naturally athletic, but we also self-selected for gymnastics on the basis of our slight build and well-rounded physical abilities – a combination of flexibility, strength and agility. We had another feature that helped weed out certain otherwise talented kids: we could tune out our sense of self-preservation in order to respect authority and obey commands. Attuned observers would’ve been struck by our demonstration of high energy and submissiveness.
After a year or so of training in the basics, we were rudely informed that our coaches’ grandmothers could do better splits than we could, so from then on we would spend painful minutes every day in the splits with either the front or back leg raised several inches above the floor. The “oversplits” they called it – whoever could have invented that? Also, a simple backbend wasn’t enough – it was more aesthetically pleasing (or possibly freakish, if impressive) to push it to the brink, nearly popping your shoulders out of joint as you forced your upper back into an impossible arch. Well – impossible for me, that is, as I soon became known as the one who needed extra work in the flexibility department.
The day after you discovered the joy of completing a complete somersault high and fast through the air and landing nicely on your feet again, you found out that to be really competitive, you had to do a double, or add a twist or three – eventually both. It seemed like no matter how much we were willing to do, there was always somebody, somewhere (usually in the Soviet Union or Romania) who could do more, and do it better, and theirs became the new standard. Naturally, that did not come without some kind of cost, and once in a while, the cost was enormous, exposing not only the fragility of our flesh, bones and nerves, but also the desperate folly of pushing a good thing much too far.
Elena Mukhina came to symbolise just exactly how things could be pushed too far. She was a Soviet gymnast, a rising star in the 1970s and poised to unseat Nadia Comaneci as the world’s greatest gymnast in 1980. However, it wasn’t to be. A combination of overtraining, injury, callous and abusive coaching that characterised the Soviet sports system, and a very risky tumbling move rendered Elena a quadriplegic two weeks before the start of the Moscow Olympics. Elena’s injury stayed in my mind for years, and I was sad all over again to learn of her death in 2006, at the age of 46.
A few years after Elena’s injury, I read a memorable article in International Gymnast magazine. It was an unusually wise and thoughtful piece called “The Law of Diminishing Returns”. It affected me particularly because I was struggling with a growing body and assorted injuries and chronic pains in all of my joints. The article was a reflection on how the ever-increasing demands of training could produce dramatically positive results over a period of time, but from a certain point onward, the more pressure and training a gymnast had to bear would not produce better results in competition, in fact, they would often deteriorate. Pushing training beyond that point would only continue to diminish the results – either due to injury, fatigue or loss of competitive drive.
Eventually I decided to quit gymnastics, just as puberty was setting in – like most gymnasts I at least had the benefit of late puberty. I finally acknowledged that I’d been lucky to not have ended up like Mukhina that time I landed on my head a few months earlier; also, what I’d assumed was a pulled muscle in my back was actually a broken spinal process from overuse, and if I kept training, it would never heal enough to stop causing pain. Moves I had been able to do easily only a year before cost me intense effort and pain; even rising from the floor and walking was painful.
Unlike my childhood friend who started doing yoga in her 20s, I didn’t discover the healing benefits of yoga until a few years ago, after she gave me a private lesson that revealed what I’d been missing.
On the other hand, my work in veterinary medicine in the years between had opened up a new and very different world, but one in which I sensed that the law of diminishing returns had already been at work for a long time. What I observed was even more devastating – this time however, without effects I could measure directly in terms of my own pain and well-being.
Bovine medicine, specialising in dairy cows, was my original focus in veterinary medicine. Dairy cows are a remarkable species, and in the words of an old vet: “no other species is even close to them in what they can do”. There was something about their concentrated docility, massive warm bodies, and vital importance to the human food chain that enticed me to go into bovine practice. At the same time, I always found them to be not quite all there – it’s as if they have encased their feelings and reactions into a small recess of themselves, and with that safely bottled up they can face the work they have to do, the elite level performances of milk production every single day, and the illness and injury they have to endure as part of the bargain. Much like many of the top gymnasts I knew, they endure pain without complaint, and show their fear or pain only through “balking” rather than outright dissent or aggression. Chronic lameness, mastitis, metabolic disease and digestive ailments are the lot of the dairy cow, and this is ever more the case with the highest producers, who are also called upon to provide fertilised ova, through a a hormone-soaked process called “superovulation”, so that even more high-producing cows can result. Increasingly, dairy cow farming results in reduced longevity in individuals and herds – many cows are used up and their skinny carcasses sent to make ground beef after only a year or two of lactation (it takes two years of growth and pregnancy before they can start lactating).
I have come to believe that our relationship with these animals has been badly compromised over the past decades – the demand for increased production can be traced to the post-war years, and for decades veterinary medicine and dairy science have combined to achieve the amazing technical accomplishment of the high-producing Holstein cow. But even more than with top athletes, who can choose to retire or scale down their training and go on to something else, the price is too high. There could have been another way. Medicine and science could have, and still can be used in a gentler, wiser manner. It will take adjustment, and recalibration of goals and methods, but I think it’s still time to save our bond with dairy cows and bring them back from the brink. Yes, it’s an accomplishment to breed cows that can produce prodigious amounts of milk – but how many carcasses of cows spent before their time result every day from this way of doing things? It makes little economic sense, and even more importantly – it is desperately inhumane.
Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I feel that the taste and enjoyment of milk and other dairy products has been diminished compared to what I have tasted in more artisanal productions; I still eat them, but they take a lot of dressing up and doctoring to give them a semblance of taste. The blandness of milk, even whole milk, is pretty obvious. Frankly, I’d rather swallow a calcium and vitamin D pill with a glass of water.
Much like gymnastics, where I did experience joy, pride of accomplishment and positive effects in my body in spite of my injuries, I’m left wondering who or what the excessive pushing, the demand for greater performance is really for, in the end. In dairy medicine, as in many other spheres, we can still heed the law of diminishing returns – a biological law and an existential law – and use our science, including our experience with it, to figure out what we could do instead.
Addendum: I forgot to add this amazing interview with gymnast Elena Mukhina, “Grown Up Games”, translated from Russian. The interview was conducted in 1998 and published in Ogonyok Magazine. It is amazing and heart-breaking.