Fear and Hope in Gymnastics

Gymnast Rae Balthazor mentally prepares to begin her bar routine at the Pink Meet on Jan. 29.

Hi there! This assignment challenged me in many ways, but my biggest struggle was coming up with a story idea. I will admit, after I finished Assignment 1, I peaked ahead to look at this upcoming project. I was so excited to see another opportunity to take still photographs in a photo essay. However, when I arrived in class, I quickly learned this assignment had an additional requirement that was announced by Professor Collins. 

Erin Buchanan anxiously awaits the start of her routine as her teammates celebrate in the background.

During our lecture, Professor Collins went around the room and asked each of us to describe our campus in one word. After everyone shared, she wrote four words on the chalkboard: fear, afraid, excitement, and hope. Then, she asked us to include each of these four emotions throughout our photo essay. Instantly, my mind began racing, and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything. I left class that day knowing one thing: I needed to photograph people. Thus, the idea to cover the Illini Women’s Gymnastics Meet at Huff Hall was born. My goal was to capture the triumph, success, disappointment, and uncertainty these athletes faced during their competition. I am so inspired by the grace, strength, and poise their sport requires.

The Illini go crazy for their teammate, Lizzy LeDuc.

Once I arrived at the meet, I was relieved I brought a telephoto zoom lens with me because the competition was sectioned off from the crowd. I didn’t have a press badge with me, so I wasn’t able to get as close to the action as I would have wanted to. Luckily, I parked myself and my equipment in the first row and started snapping away. This assignment required 12 shots in total, but after the three-hour event, I took over 1,000 pictures. I know this is quite excessive, but I wanted to capture as many shots as I could. Looking back, I am glad I took as many photos as I did because it gave me plenty of options to choose from.

Illini fans cheer loud and proud for the Orange and Blue.

I was astounded by the courage in these athletes to compete in front of such a large crowd. Some fell off the balance beam, slipped on the uneven bars, or made mistakes that cost their team. But, in the face of this adversity, they each got back up to complete their routines. I admired their willingness to be vulnerable enough to make mistakes. One thing that really stood out to me was the amount of concentration the women had before they began. At these competitions, there are other events going on, people shouting, and loud music playing in the background. I noticed each gymnast took a huge sigh before they started, and many had a look of fear in their eyes — a fear of failure. It was almost as if the crowd and team shared this same fear with them. In the midst of all the noise and commotion, time stood still for that second. As a photographer for the day, I sought to capture the intense emotion in that moment. Once each gymnast nailed their routine or completed a challenging skill, I felt their pure happiness and joy. Their eyes lit up, their teammates went crazy for them in support, and the crowd was feeding off this contagious energy. While the gymnasts started with fear, each ended with excitement in overcoming their great feat of the day. And, with that came hope. A hope to win. A hope to finish strong for their team, for their fans, and most importantly, for themselves.

They found hope in the face of fear.

Feel free to look at this progression of emotions here.


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