She takes a deep breath, and steps through the large double doors. It’s there, in front of her. Her past, her present, her future, her goal. The floor mat is the bright, fresh blue that speaks to its newness - it will be covered in chalk dust by the end of the day. The bars fairly sing out to her - she can imagine her body swinging lithely from low to high and back again. The beam, always terrifying to her, looks different in this light - it looks more like a possibility. And the vault. Fresh springs and a clean runway. This is her stage, this is where she will shine. This is the Olympics.
She wanted to look at it alone, without Kaylie and Lauren. This was hers. She’d worked harder than any of them, gone through more than any of them, and the gold medal was hers. They were all starting to understand what she’d known from the start: There’s only room for one on the top of the podium. And she was going to be the one left standing there.
She hears the noise of other gymnasts coming in behind her, and doesn’t turn to look. No one else matters right now; she is focused and sure, and to her mind, the whole world will be tuning in to watch her, Payson Keeler.
She trusts her body to know what to do. When the music starts, signaling the beginning of her floor routine, she does not hesitate. Her muscles know the routine, she bounces on the balls of her feet, she roars across the floor, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind. It ends before she can even think about it, and it seems strange to her that all this work and all this effort has culminated in just a few minutes, and now it’s over.
She knows she did well, though, knows the scores will reflect it. And they do. They are high, higher than any other U.S. gymnast, higher than anyone who’s performed yet. Her hopes are as high as her scores, and she feels the familiar thrum of adrenaline course through her body.
Her hands flit over the beam, not ready to touch the surface yet. She breathes deep, hears “Kill it, Payson!” from Kaylie, and allows herself to smile. She’s never going to be the Queen of the Beam, but she knows she’ll do her best and that, today, her best will be good enough. Her best will be better than it ever has before.
Her body bends and flips, her feet always finding their home on the thin beam. When she sticks her landing without faltering, the pounding in her ears fades, and she hears the familiar sound of silence - the kind of silence brought on by awe, by the knowledge they’ve seen something special. Even Lauren is silent when Payson returns to her team, her mouth in a tight, jealous line.
Vault always goes by quickly. Payson has always demanded perfection on the first run, and, with only one notable exception, has succeeded. She runs, feeling freer than she ever has before, feels as though she could run for miles with the power running through her, her feet pounding on the mat, nothing by her and the the spring board in front of her.
Her hands hit the vault, her body spins and distorts in a way that only a very few people on the planet can compete with. And she braces for impact, lands confidently and strong. Her hands fly up, a smile emanating from her, a glow encompassing the stadium. She is proud, she can feel the spectators’ support. They are seeing something magnificent in her; she reflects it back tenfold.
It’s the last event. The bars are before her. Once her favorite event, she still can’t stand before it without her fall flashing in her mind. But where it used to make her feel weak and unsure, now she feels strength. Her fall has made her what she is now, her fall has made her into this person she is today. She rubs her hands together, chalking them up liberally. There will be no falls today.
She can feel her mother’s tension as she flies to the top bar, can feel her father’s pride as she circles the bar over and over again. She is flying. She is the sum of her parts, she is in her element. She has never performed better. And she sticks her landing, and there is no doubt in her mind that she will be on the top of the podium. There is no doubt in the minds of anyone who watched her perform.
Her heart is pounding in her chest, her emotions are threatening to explode from her. She has never felt more herself, more accomplished than she does now. She bows her head to accept the medal around her neck, her hands shaking as she holds onto the bouquet of flowers. To her right and left are strangers, known to her only through competition. There was always only going to be room for one person at the top, and she always knew it would be her.
Later, Sasha Belov comes to her, his hand held out expectantly. She smiles a brilliant smile as she places his own gold medal in his palm. He pulls her into a hug. She was his favorite, she was his star, he always knew she would do nothing but succeed. For Payson Keeler, there was no other option.
She looks out at the gymnasium for a last time, her fingers curling around the medal that hangs from her neck. The silence is calming, but terrifying. She’s spent her whole life doing this and it seems as though she has to begin thinking about what comes next. But for now, this moment is hers. She stares out at the floor, the vault, the beam, the bars. And she stares down at her medal. And she smiles.