SA gymnast Caitlin Rooskrantz rises above the falls while striving to be the best
The hours of sacrifice and years of training are all worth it for the South Africa gymnast as she enters Birmingham 2022.
“Being in gymnastics has normalised crying,” Caitlin Rooskrantz says. And then she laughs. “My coach [Ilse Roets] has los trane (loose tears). I’m always crying, we all are. It’s contagious. We all have deep feelings and we cry for anything. We even cry when we’re really happy.”
A year ago Rooskrantz became the first South African female gymnast to compete in an Olympics since 2004. It was a groundbreaking achievement, too, given that the then-teenager was also the first black gymnast to represent the country in the sport at a Games. And she cried with joy. Obviously she did.
Within days of returning from Tokyo, Rooskrantz went to the tattoo parlour and had the Olympic rings inked on the inside of her left forearm. Just the five rings. “I didn’t want to write ‘Tokyo 2020’ because I can wait until later to have all the Games added to it, hopefully Paris 2024 being the next one. My coach says I haven’t hit my peak yet, so hopefully there’s still a lot of writing to have done.” She laughs.
Laughing and crying, it’s such a fine line. But then again, the margins are so fine in an occupation that she considers the “hardest and most dangerous sport” there is. The 20-year-old full-time student at the University of Johannesburg understands the hazards of the job.
“There’s injury risk in any sport, but gymnasts are perhaps the most vulnerable. It’s not just the overuse injuries, sprains and so on that affect you. It’s the freak injuries.
“We’ve all seen stuff that’s left us traumatised. You never get used to it. You can’t do this sport without total commitment all the time. Most of us learn not to be nonchalant the hard way. It’s rare you get injured doing the harder skills. A lot of the time there’s torn ligaments from a simple one-legged jump that you weren’t thinking about 100% because it is a simple exercise.”
Although she has suffered from injuries for a decade or more, the most debilitating came when she dislocated her knee in 2017, and surgery was required. Once the physical scars cleared up, an emotional wound was ripped open when she was declared medically unfit to attend the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
Now, on the back of the best form of her career, she is in Birmingham to compete in her first Commonwealth Games.
While Rooskrantz moved up the gymnastics ladder through her teenage years she did so with minimal financial assistance. Her father passed away when she was eight and her mother was the rock of the family.
“For the longest time, after my mom left her full-time job about 10 years ago, there was no medical aid. Money was hard to come by,” Rooskrantz says.
“I was competing in one of the most risky sports for a full decade without medical aid. When she told me we didn’t have cover, I was like, ‘Mom, we don’t have medical aid? Are you nuts? How am I not on medical aid?’ And she’d reply, ‘God knows what we can handle and what we can’t handle’.
“And when I had my knee accident in 2017, I know that she dug into her life savings for me to see a specialist and have the operation. She said that God made a way for it to be paid. It’s only been for the last six months, after my mom got married and my new stepdad insisted on me having medical aid that I have been put on a scheme. Thankfully, I haven’t needed it.”
Apart from the tattoo on her left arm, Rooskrantz has another three.
“Attending an Olympics was a lifelong dream for me. And the unspoken rule among athletes is that you have to get a tattoo. So, while I have the rings, I have another tattoo [on her right arm] which I got after I qualified for Tokyo in 2020.
“It says: ‘And Still I Rise’. It carries significant meaning for me. It’s a reinforcement that I’m resilient, that I will always bounce back. I will always be going forward in my career and I will always rise above everything thrown at me. In my own eyes, I’ll always be a winner.”
A few centimetres above the rings is a small cross. “It’s a symbol of my deep faith. I was raised in a Christian household and after my dad died, God became my father.
“He is there for me when my mom can’t be. I learned quite early to lean on God and develop my relationship with him. My faith got me to where I am and keeps me going, I pray a lot and rely on God. He’s always there, even in a competitive atmosphere.”
The third tattoo is on the right side of her body, two butterflies. “My best friend [fellow Team SA gymnast Naveen Daries] and I got it on the spur of the moment. We’ve been through everything together. We’re rivals when we’re on the competition floor, but outside of that we’re best friends for life. Nothing will get between us.”
And then she has a fourth tattoo, running down the right side of her neck. “It says ‘evolving’ and for me it’s a symbol of growth. It’s all the phases of life I’ve experienced and am still going through and yet to go through.”
Few observers appreciate the stress, both mentally and physically, that gymnasts are placed under, and Rooskrantz is no different. At last year’s Tokyo Olympics the greatest gymnast of all, Simone Biles, suffered a physical case of the ‘twisties’ and withdrew from five finals at the Games because of a mental block. In doing so she became an advocate for mental health.
“My life has changed since the Olympics,” Rooskrantz says. “Not only relating to my career but who I am. Mentally I have a completely different outlook on my career.
“I’ve been to the Olympics and I am an Olympian. Part of me says I can now breathe again, I’ve achieved my dream. Now, when I walk out to competition I have a mountain of confidence.
“And I can see my tattoo and even if I’m having a bad day it reminds me that I have already made it. Anything after that is a bonus. Now, I really want to see how much more I can get out of my career.”
But still … apart from the physical stresses and dangers, there’s nothing like the mental pressure a gymnast feels when walking out to face judges scrutinising one’s every muscle twitch.
“I’d like to say that the more experienced one is, the easier that gets. The more you compete the more you understand your mental routine, when you walk out, to present yourself, what to think. But, it’s not necessarily like that,” she says.
“Whether you’re at a club competition or a major event, there’s pressure. We train for almost 30 hours a week, with the same routines that we could do in our sleep. But, to replicate it in competition it can feel like you’re doing it for the very first time.”
Hitting the books
Rooskrantz decided to go to university at the beginning of 2022 because it was time to get back among the textbooks. “It was a hard decision, but I pushed out studying for two years because the Olympics came into view, but I couldn’t push it out any longer. I wanted to study and took up a B Comm Marketing Management degree.
“It’s been a heck of a rollercoaster combining gymnastics and full-time studying. People overlook that it’s not just the four and a half to five hours a day in the gym, but it’s also the physio, recovery, the small, small things outside of that which add to the day. Then, behind the scenes, I need to try to catch up on work.
“I come home from the gym, and the urge is to procrastinate but there’s no time. I get home around 7:30, then eat, shower and then I need to study. I try to put the light out at 11 every night, but I can lie on my bed for a good 15-20 minutes and feel sorry for myself. ‘How hard is my life!’
“Then, I get up in the morning and start all over again. The big thing that keeps me going is the end goal. I’m very happy with my first semester results and it showed me that I can do it.
“Many people have scant regard for the work and dedication that gymnasts do. In the beginning, it upset me, at high school, and even when I started university.
“Other sports people asked lecturers for a bit of slack, but that didn’t apply to me. But hard work has got me to where I am. I believe in working hard in silence and if I’m successful you will hear the noise.
“I can feel I’m getting better. I thought I was getting to my peak, but coach says I’m at the beginning. I’m getting PB [personal best] after PB, I’m winning medals and competitions which a year ago were unrealistic. Here in Birmingham, I’m trying to make the podium and Ilse says it’s just getting started. That’s crazy!
“I say: Trust yourself, trust God and the plan that he Has for you. God knows my heart and what I want and how hard I work and how hard I try. If it’s His will that I have setbacks and disappointments, I’ll learn from them and move forward.”
A million little things
Such is the life of a world-class gymnast that there are a million tasks a day to attend to.
“We function at a high pace, be it studying or training. There’s very little downtime,” Rooskrantz says.
“When I had my wisdom teeth removed and I was forced to lie low for three to four days, I loved it. I just slept for a whole day. It felt like I was catching up on the past three years of my life. We don’t get a lot of downtime, so when we do, we need to try to switch off and restart.”
And by restarting it is back into the bubble. Maximum effort, maximum concentration. And undoubtedly the physical and emotional stress is at its highest when taking part in the artistic gymnastic routines.
“Physically, the vault is the hardest apparatus,” she says. “It’s hard on your body and with me, with my long load of lower body injuries, it gives me a fair deal of stress. But, I reckon if you do a survey, the beam is mentally toughest. With the floor and vault there’s adrenalin to boost you and you’re good to go.
“But the problems with the bean are mentally. Compared to the floor and beam it’s so slow. Things go through your mind that aren’t supposed to.
“We do a lot of mental training with sports psychologists. The trick is to mentally behave like a robot. You approach each skill with key words, but you have so much time [the beam routing lasts 90 seconds] your mind can go where it shouldn’t.
“One-and-a-half minutes is a long time. It’s not as if the beam is overly difficult, but it needs complete focus and attention. So much can go wrong and there are distractions. You can hear music for another gymnast’s floor routine, the crowd can be cheering for another competitor and you can pick up on a pin dropping, so alert you are.
“And, if you fall, you have 30 seconds to compose yourself and get back up on the beam. And it is so easy to fall again if you’re not 100% in the mental zone.”
Then there is the dismount and the gymnast will display the best body language, showing off a huge smile to the judges. After that, it’s back to coach and teammates, and hopefully a bit of privacy. Little surprise why the tears come easily, in joy and in disappointment. DM
Gary Lemke is in Birmingham as chief writer for Team SA.