Note to our readers: This book contains descriptions of an eating disorder, struggles with body image and weight loss, suicidal ideation and sexual abuse of a minor.
Most gymnastics fans know of Olivia Karas, be it as a six-time All-American at Michigan, through her commentary on the Big Ten Network or as a vocal member of the gymnastics Twitter community. She’s funny, opinionated and has a big personality, all things that shine through in her new book, “Confessions of a Division-1 Athlete: A Dad and Daughter’s Guide to Survival,” written with her father, Jim Karas, a Chicago-based author, motivational speaker and personal trainer.
Early in the book, Olivia writes, “If Chandler Bing and Carrie Bradshaw had a one-night stand, I would be their love child.” The tone of the book certainly supports that statement; it’s funny and even irreverent at times, dealing with everything from teenage drama to heavy topics like abuse. A reader can almost imagine the text being read as a voiceover at the beginning of a romantic comedy or an episode of Olivia’s beloved “Sex in the City.”
“Confessions’s” humor and tone don’t mean it won’t pull at heartstrings, though. Olivia describes tender moments frankly, from interactions between herself and Michigan head coach Bev Plocki to the signature wave she and her father shared before every competition. Jim tells us in the opening chapters that the Karases are criers, and that emotional openness comes through in the text.
The book is meant to be a guide for potential DI athletes and their parents as they navigate the murky waters of college recruiting and beyond. Reached by email, Jim said the choice of the word “guide” was intentional; he wished he had had a guide while his daughter was going through the early recruiting process.
The size of the book—a squat seven by five and a half inches where a standard paperback is eight by five inches—belies its nature. The physical book feels more like a handbook or field guide you might slip in your back pocket or the outside pocket of a purse than it does a book to shelve alphabetically, a small quirk that matches the contents.
That field guide style makes “Confessions” unique among gymnastics memoirs. There are descriptions of the basic facts of gymnastics—the order of events, the difference between the elite and college-bound paths gymnasts can take and the unique rigors of gymnastics training to name a few—that die-hard fans may find pedantic. That said, those diversions make sense in the context of the intended audience and the “guide” style, and aren’t so lengthy as to detract from the narrative.
The other unique feature of this book is its dialogue between Jim and Olivia. It’s rare that we get the perspective of a gymnastics parent, and Jim’s story is woven in neatly with his daughter’s. Each chapter is centered around a “confession” from either Jim or Olivia (and in one instance, her brother Evan). The pair make interjections in each other’s chapter to provide an alternate viewpoint on a subject, or even to poke fun at one another. It’s clear that Olivia’s humor comes at least in part from her father, who has a few zingers of his own. For example, Stanford’s ACT cutoff is a 34, to which Jim evenly writes, “not my daughter.”
The unrestrained tone and honesty of the writing—Olivia acknowledging a floor routine in which she believes she was overscored, or Jim describing a moment he lost his temper on the phone with Olivia’s club coach—coupled with the back-and-forth dialogue and a smattering of well-placed PG-13 words (the beam is, once and for all, Olivia’s b*tch) lend an air of familiarity to the Karases. The reader can imagine themself sitting with them in the “command center” at Jim’s Chicago home, him in his swivel chair and Olivia in the one that doesn’t move, although she may have gotten an upgrade, sipping white wine, telling this story of their shared journey through Olivia’s career. The conversational nature makes the book compulsively readable, even when it breaks off into the asides to describe gymnastics or give advice to parents or athletes, which are helpfully placed on a grayscale background to distinguish them from the main text.
“We often went out to lunch or dinner, and we would just laugh about what we wrote that day, then have to make notes in our phone when we realized we left out some needed content and context,” Jim said. That levity and camaraderie radiates through the book. The genesis of the project was similarly organic. “One day, my dad and I sat around telling stories from my gymnastics career, and we started jotting them down,” Olivia said.
Olivia, who repeatedly reminds the reader that she needs structure, has always wanted to write. She said that she kept notes in a composition notebook as a child and journaled every day in college. Still, much of the writing for the book came from memory. Needing that structure, though, experienced writer Jim had to intervene and assign her specific sections of chapters to work on at a time. Olivia compared writing assignments to beam assignments in the gym. Without them, she’d be “doing full turns on the low beam in the corner, avoiding three-in-a-row series.”
Dedicated gymnastics fans won’t be disappointed in “Confessions.” Olivia includes tidbits about her career that offer a peek behind the collegiate curtain. She shares her inspiration for her childhood meet hair pigtails and why she later abandoned them, the secret of Poise—yep, those Poise with a capital “P”—and which leotard Plocki loves but the rest of the team hates. Remember this?
Someone just shrieked "I LOVE YOU EMMA MCLEAN" before her floor routine, and gymternet, I'm looking at you
— BalanceBeamSituation (@TheBBSituation) March 9, 2019
It’s in the book, too.
Olivia is also honest about the uglier sides of the sport, including body image issues, an eating disorder she still finds difficult to discuss and the abuse of her college teammate and friend. Readers learn that before hopping on a bus to travel to a meet at Illinois, Karas spent her morning sitting with Emma McLean in a notorious East Lansing courtroom in an act of sisterhood and support.
The book isn’t perfect, with a factual inaccuracy here or there—little things, like the structure of the 2021 Olympic team—and a few hot-button issues gymnastics fans will find familiar, such as the idealization of the Eastern European style and technique of coaching. It’s also fairly obvious from the start that the Karases occupy rarified air.
Jim tells us as early as the introduction that he flies so often that he only flies first class, by way of saying he wants “the big seat.” He also details a hefty donation to Olivia’s club coach when she opened a new gym and describes telling Olivia that she didn’t need to push for a scholarship, she could walk-on somewhere—to which Olivia responds she would only join a team that wanted her as much as she wanted them. Readers will also hear about drivers and nannies who helped ease the burden of traveling to and from the gym six days per week. That said, Jim also acknowledges his unique position; he’s clearly a go-getter, something he states himself more than once—always pushing to grow his business and attract new clients—and he points out that some parents do need to be cognizant of whether or not their child needs a scholarship. He goes so far as to detail the costs of club gymnastics, noting that other sports, like those an athlete competes through their high school, are less cost-prohibitive.
Despite their obviously quite comfortable lifestyle, the Karases remain relatable. Olivia’s brother Evan’s chapter in particular is a striking reminder that all families have difficulties, especially when one sibling is in the spotlight and the other feels left behind. Olivia’s and Jim’s reflections on Evan’s words are poignant, and extend the feeling of being an insider in a family discussion for the reader. One leaves the section rooting for Evan’s success.
It’s obvious that the process of editing that chapter in particular affected Jim, who reflects on it and encourages parents to spend one-on-one time with their children, whether they’re a star athlete or the sibling of one. “I had to re-read [Evan’s] chapter twice, as it includes a lot of pain. And then called Olivia, and we both said, ‘That was rough, but needed.’”
Both Karases hope that parents and athletes take away more than just their stories and recruiting tips from “Confessions.” Olivia wants more athletes to feel comfortable telling their stories.
“No one person can change a sport’s culture, but I do feel like the gymnastics community is bonding together more than ever before, and the change is starting to come to fruition,” she said.
Jim wants parents to ask questions, and not just the cursory ones. In the text, he marvels at Olivia having escaped the abuse so many of her peers endured, and encourages parents to keep their eyes open to any changes in their athlete and to the wants and needs of any siblings.
“Of all the ups and downs in my life, hands down this project brought me pure joy and a much better understanding of both my children,” Jim said. He “knows” Olivia now, and plans to embark on a similar project with Evan, currently a track and field athlete and hospitality student at Cornell, in the future. That sense, of getting to know each other, permeates “Confessions” and brings the reader along for the ride.
To diverge from the Karases’ preferred pop culture references, the book has an air of “Gilmore Girls,” a secret world between parent and daughter, navigating—in Olivia’s words—the good, the not so good and the really bad, and having a lot of fun along the way. Overall, it’s an engaging read for fans and an informative one for parents and athletes on the college-bound train.
When asked if she had anything final to say, Olivia added that the book was finalized before the Wolverines won the 2021 national title. She, “couldn’t be prouder of Team 45, Bev [Plocki], Scott [Sherman], Maile [Kanewa-Hermeylen], Lexi [Funk], Lisa [Hass], Lew [Porchiazzo] and the rest of the support staff on this incredible achievement.”
You can purchase “Confessions of a Division-1 Athlete” today.
College Gym News was provided with a complimentary copy of the book for review.
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