Stories and dramas about successful athletes tend to follow the same pattern, cycling through the character’s various setbacks and triumphs until the day of the big competition, where all of the hard work and grueling training sessions the character endured pays off, and the championship is won.
Rarely are stories told about athletes who never make it to the competition because the series of setbacks and physical injuries are too numerous to overcome by the date of the event. These stories are less conducive to exciting training montages, slow-motion action sequences, and motivational tough-love speeches from grizzled coaches.
Krista Jasper‘s one-woman show, Breaking in the Body, is a different kind of drama about athletic triumph. Chronicling her journey training for the 2008 Olympics, Jasper tells a coming-of-age story about becoming a competitive gymnast, where the thrill of training and competing clashes with the physical and emotional toll the training takes on her body.
The opening act of Breaking in the Body includes a performance from comedian Ashley Morris called Thank You, I’m Sorry, Does This Make Me Look Insecure? The set, while amusing, seems largely unrelated to the content of Breaking in the Body, with one notable exception of a pointed rant about women who have groomed themselves to be so “sexy” that they look like aliens hailed from the planet “Booby Hair Extension Puffy Lip.” This discomfort with impossible physical standards for women is echoed in a scene from Breaking in the Body where a fourteen-year-old Jasper, excited for her first day of public school, is immediately insecure when her classmates make nasty comments about her athletic physique. She suddenly considers herself a freak: “I have calf muscles and a six-pack!” she exclaims, almost in horror.
Hearing a fourteen-year-old girl express insecurity about her body is, unfortunately, nothing new, but hearing those words come from the mouth of an accomplished gymnast is especially heartbreaking. A teenage girl, having reached a level of athleticism and physical prowess that most people can only dream of, is immediately cut down by the unkind words of judgmental classmates. Her accomplishments become irrelevant because she doesn’t look like what a teenage girl is “supposed” to look like.
Teenage Krista’s discomfort with her body is directly related to her mixed feelings with gymnastics as a sport, and Jasper’s performance combines great athletic prowess and intense emotion to the point where I felt my own bones and limbs ache whenever she suffered another sports injury. Her strive for excellence and desperate need to perform is as palpable as her frustration and pain when she experiences another setback. She portrays a young girl – and later, a young woman – whose relationship with her body is fraught and complicated. She finds an incredible high when she achieves another physical milestone, and feels the world come crashing down around her when she (temporarily) can no longer participate in gymnastics.
One of the final moments of the show is Jasper’s “divorce” from competitive gymnastics, as she takes the balance beam for the last time. It’s one of the last scenes of the play, and the first time where she looks completely at home on the beam and comfortable in her own skin. The beam is no longer a challenge she needs to overcome, and the performance is more lyrical and peaceful than the routines from earlier in the show.
As in many other sports stories, Jasper has finally triumphed, but not because she made it to the championship and won a gold medal. She doesn’t go to the 2008 Olympics. There is no shiny hardware to wear around her neck as she stands on a podium and hears the national anthem in her name. Her triumph is more personal and intimate. The war with her body is over, she has nothing more to break in, and the Olympics goal is an important chapter of her life instead of the defining moment of it. Jasper’s victory is not about beating her body into submission, but broadening her horizons and finding a rich, well-rounded life in which gymnastics is only one part. It’s not a sports story that will make it to the silver screen anytime soon, but this reviewer was grateful to see it unfold on an off-Broadway stage.
Breaking in the Body played at the TADA! Youth Theatre at 15 W 28th Street from November 26 to December 6.