Here’s the scenario: It was my second-to-last event at a crucial juncture in the USA men’s gymnastics Olympic trials process. I needed to nail a performance to continue in our Olympic Team selection. Ironically, floor was my best event — and I fell. I fell in front of the crowd. In front of the selection committee. In front of my family. In front of my coaches. In front of the NBC cameras. In front of my teammates. At that critical juncture, when the margin for error is so small, mistakes like that are simply not acceptable. It wasn’t an Olympic caliber performance. At that point I knew the agony of defeat. My 20 years of preparation for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team was over.
I decided to step away from professional sports and begin a new journey. Stepping away from an arena where one is constantly working to contribute, compete, have knowingness of worth has been interesting, but I know I’m well equipped for what’s next.
What do you learn from sports? In this case, it’s sports at the highest level. Let’s trace it back. I can tell you, to exhaustion, what goes into preparing for the high stakes moments is not all fun and games. It is more than just train and compete. Every athlete can tell you, there’s a maturation process that occurs as one progresses.
For me, it started when I was 7 and I went through the junior elite ranks the way any gymnast is supposed to. Talent matched with coaching, matched with an unwavering work ethic.
Next came my NCAA program at Stanford, a transformational moment in my life and athletic career. College comes with distractions, challenges, fun, games, friends, an unparalleled self-discovery in and out of the classroom. My friends and family supported me, my coach (whom I consider my life coach and athletic coach) had to drag me through at times, and my curiosities, resilience, and appetite for learning propelled me through.
As many know in my ‘coming out,’ it was at Stanford where I found it OK to be me. A fellow student-athlete showed me that it was OK to have that difficult conversation within, which allowed me to let my own light shine. My veil had been lifted and simplicity was my best friend. Work hard, work harder, have fun, don’t give an excuse, and that’s it. It was in the later stages of my time at Stanford where I made the jump to the senior national team, developed deeper friendships, and retained wisdom.
Next, I put life on ‘hold,’ post-graduation, to pursue this gymnastics thing at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. A comeback from a ruptured Achilles, turned into a great run for the 2012 Olympic team. Then a successful start to the 2016 Olympic cycle, but at some point along the way I lost balance — no pun intended. Oh and P.S., I suffered a shoulder blow out and had major reconstructive surgery. Hours of rehab, tears, pain, uncertainty — it’s a real thing. Athletes live in a place of utter uncertainty and intensity. Injuries occur and not just a stubbed toe. Major injuries. It’s perseverance and determination that gets you through. As a professional athlete you’re trained and expected to operate at the highest level of performance. Don’t under or over promise, just shut up and show us what you’ve got. To be frank, that is gymnastics — a constant judgment and proof of worth to yourself, your team, to the Team USA program. While gymnastics is an ‘individual sport,’ so much of my time with Stanford and Team USA was truly being part of something impactful, special, and more than an individual. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I certainly appreciated every second.
Deep down inside I have this surmounting feeling of giving back so much of what I’ve been afforded. All the people who have contributed to my success, there’s no way they won’t see me in another arena at the highest level. Thankfully I’m grounded in a support system that reinforced and continues to reinforce a well roundedness to life. I accept that reality and pride myself on being an eclectic person.
Sports have shaped my life. I still operate with discipline and physicality. It is difficult to change that.
To all of those young athletes out there reading this, here’s my advice: Stay focused and committed to your sport. Love what you do. More importantly, love those around you (BK). Work hard and stay dedicated. To everyone who is a sports enthusiast, appreciate what the person and team has to go through to perform for you each day. It’s not easy. But for we professional athletes, it’s fun and rewarding when the crowd stands up and cheers.
Josh Dixon is a former USA National Team gymnast and one of the first openly gay gymnasts for team USA. He was a multiple time NCAA champion at Stanford University and is currently a working professional in DC/NYC.