Future Tense

“The Starfish Girl”

A new sci-fi short story about gymnastics.

A gymnast doing a routine on a strand of DNA.
Doris Liou

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for July–September 2018: Sport.

(INTRO MUSIC)
(Run Sports 24/7 logo splash page)

CUT TO: Studio set, ANNOUNCER behind desk.

BROADCAST ANNOUNCER: Liam Chan.
Run clip on screen behind Chan: Mendoza on Balance Beam and Floor Exercise.

LIAM CHAN
It’s a story of peaks and valleys. Today, Jinky Mendoza is one of America’s best hopes for gymnastic gold in Paris. It’s been an amazing journey for a young woman whom many thought might never be able to walk, much less compete after a devastating accident.

CUT TO: NEWS SPOT of Jinky Mendoza’s accident, no sound. Shaky phone video of gym where people are clustered around Mendoza on mat on her back.

LIAM CHAN (VOICE-OVER)
In 2017, Jinky was 11 years old, one of the top-ranked junior gymnasts in the U.S. Her family was contemplating an offer to train at the Iowa facility owned by gold-medal gymnast and coach, Gabby Douglas, when tragedy struck. During a routine vault in practice, Jinky overrotated, landed wrong, and fractured her spine, at the C5 vertebra.

She was paralyzed from the neck down. It seemed as if her gymnastics career, indeed, life as she knew it, was over.

CUT TO: Clip of J Mendoza in hospital bed, balloons.

LIAM CHAN (VOICE-OVER)
Then doctors proposed a radical new medical procedure. They would use starfish DNA to teach her body how to heal itself. The results were miraculous.

CUT TO:
Sports 24/7 Studio, Liam behind desk, clip of Jinky Mendoza in a tumbling run on screen behind him.

LIAM CHAN
They call her the Starfish Girl. Today the International Olympic Committee announced that it would release a ruling Monday on whether or not this 5-feet-3-inch dynamo is human.

“Jesus,” Olivia said. “They’re playing it again.”

The big scoreboard in the new University of Texas Wexner Arena was showing Sports 24/7’s spot on Jinky’s accident, again. Jinky glanced up at her and then away, continuing her stretches.

There was a feeling to arenas—big but chaotic. All the gymnasts down in the exhibition area were in clumps by team, getting ready, shaking themselves loose and wearing warmup gear. The Texas air conditioning kept the place like a meat locker. Jinky was stretching, one heel on a 5-inch riser to get more stretch out of her split. “So don’t look,” Jinky said.

“It’s like a car accident, I can’t help it. I can’t believe you can just ignore it.” They were all wearing Team USA leotards with the blue swoosh down the side. Olivia snapped her leotard away from her butt.

“If I look at it, someone gets video of me watching and then posts it.”

With ugly comments. Jinky didn’t read social media anymore although she still had to tweet and post to Instagram. Coach Sophie made her Instagram 10 things a week. The last thing Jinky had Instagrammed was yesterday when she got her nails done and got a starfish stenciled on her thumbnail. It was her good-luck charm.

She was the Starfish Girl after all.

Sports 24/7 announcer on TV.
Doris Liou

Jinky was watching Svetlana Moracheva of Team Russia loosen up. She’d competed against Russia at the World’s but she’d never done an exhibition with them. The arena was filling up. She smelled hot dogs.

Svetlana was long-boned and slim, white-blond and blue-eyed. She was “elegant.” At 19, she was the team leader and the oldest woman on Russia’s Olympic team.

Nobody had ever described Jinky as “elegant.” Powerhouse. Spark plug. It didn’t matter that she was the tallest member of the team; everybody thought she was short. Svetlana got compared to ballet dancers. Jinky would kill to be compared to a ballet dancer. She was always compared to Simone Biles—muscular and athletic. There were fan-made YouTube videos of the way they both hit the mat solidly; the way they both stuck landings as if rooted there by gravity.

The Russians trained differently, refining and refining while upping their endurance. Americans did more weight training and were muscular. American athletes were considered the ones to beat, but Jinky wished she were prettier, taller.

Svetlana glanced up and their eyes met across the arena. They both looked away.

Svetlana was wearing a knee brace. If Jinky was Starfish Girl, Svetlana was the Human 2.0. She’d blown out her knee six months ago. Dislocated it, torn the ACL and MCL. Jinky had watched a video of it just once. You could see the whole knee disintegrate as she landed. It was a career-ending injury (kind of like breaking your neck). Fixed with stem cell therapy (kind of like a fractured spine). Only not in one important way. They hadn’t used starfish DNA to fix Svetlana’s knee. They’d edited the Russian girl’s DNA directly using stuff from her own cells and creating repeats of certain sequences. The DNA sequences read the same way that the starfish DNA they used on Jinky had, it was just that they cut the pieces out of Svetlana’s own DNA and added them in the right places.

“Girl, you look stiff,” she said to Olivia.

“It’s OK,” Olivia said. She had been dealing with back spasms for months. At home in the gym, they did electric stimulation of her back muscles three times a week. It seemed to be helping.

Jinky waved at her to sit down and kneaded the muscles.

Olivia tilted her head back. Her kinky hair was yanked tightly back and shellacked into submission. She had a spray of red glitter in it that made her look a little like an exotic bird. She looked across the gym and saw Moracheva. “What’s she doing today?” Olivia asked.

“Floor and uneven,” Jinky said.

Usually at an exhibition they did routines specifically choreographed for show—pretty, flashy, and less demanding than competition routines. Jinky did hers to music from The Little Mermaid, and she wore a blue and green shimmery leotard and a starfish clip in her hair. She liked it because it was more like dance. More elegant. But Sophie had decided that today Jinky should do her Olympic balance beam and floor exercise to let them think about what she wouldn’t be doing for America if she didn’t go to the Olympics. The whole team was wearing their Team USA uniforms.

Jinky couldn’t think about not going to the Olympics. Everything in her life had aimed her toward the Olympics. The year of rehab, when she grew 3 inches while relearning to walk and use her fingers. Olympics, Olympics, Olympics. People who thought that her special genes gave her an advantage had no idea how hard it had been. No one had thought she could come back. You’ll walk again, they promised. Walk? She had shown them. She flew.

She stood up and shook herself loose. Then she visualized her balance-beam routine, imagining every step and how it felt, the twist, the aerial, the dismount. She imagined in real time, eyes closed to the people entering the arena. Focus. Focus. Focus.

When she opened her eyes, Olivia was standing in front of her. Olivia, her best friend, alternate for the Olympic team. “You’ll do great,” Olivia whispered. “You’ll show them.”

For once, Jinky wasn’t worried about how she’d do. “If I do really well, they’ll think it’s because of the procedure,” she said.

The girl with starfish DNA in her spine. The walking miracle.

CUT TO: FOOTAGE OF J MENDOZA AS SHE LEAVES HOSPITAL

LIAM CHAN (VOICE-OVER)
It was more than a career-ending injury. Doctors at the University of Southern California proposed an experimental treatment. They used a gene-editing technique called CRISPR to introduce sequences from starfish DNA into Jinky’s own cells.

(RUN GRAPHIC SIMULATION OF STARFISH REGENERATING)

LIAM CHAN (VOICE-OVER)
Starfish can regenerate limbs. Fishermen used to cut starfish in half and throw them back in the ocean, considering them pests. But that meant that for every starfish they cut in half, two starfish would grow. In humans and in most animals, the ability to regenerate has been lost but researchers were able to modify Jinky’s cells to “turn on” the ability to regenerate using starfish DNA.

(CUT TO: LIAM AT DESK)

LIAM CHAN
Jinky’s injury healed, better than the doctors could ever expect. But she had lost over a year of training and it wasn’t clear if she’d get it back.

Before the balance beam, the coach told her that if she felt she needed to, she could pull the twist from her dismount or make it a single. “You don’t want to risk too much before the games,” Sophie said.

Jinky was doing an Arabian double salto forward tuck for her dismount. She did the equivalent of a somersault in the air, knees tucked to her chin and a one-and-a-half twist. It had a huge difficulty score. 7.0. It was the centerpiece of Jinky’s balance routine. When she pulled it off, she was hard to beat.

“Remember your dance,” Sophie said. She hugged Jinky.

“They don’t care about the dance stuff,” Jinky said.

“I do,” Sophie said.

Jinky sat down and closed her eyes and tuned out the gymnasium. She was the person who was supposed to pull the team together. She was the one everyone looked to. But she just couldn’t talk to anyone else right now. She tried to concentrate on her routine. Onto the beam. Back aerial. Svetlana Moracheva in a knee brace.

Music started. Rimsky-Korsakov. Moracheva’s music. She stood at the corner of the mat for the floor exercises in a sparkly white leotard that made her look like the snow queen (except for the knee brace). Her first tumbling run was full-on, no concessions for her knee. It ended in a Biles aerial.

“Screw you,” Jinky thought. She did a Biles aerial in her floor exercises too. That was HER style.

Moracheva was a little stiff, and after the spectacular first pass, her exhibition routine got simpler, but of course she danced, toes pointed, light, and regal. Like a Russian ballerina with her long neck and her beautiful shoulders, the way her back curved when she touched her foot to the back of her head. Arabesque, fouetté turn, soulful liquid melt to the mat with her arms outstretched. When she finished, she limped a little.

Nobody was gonna cast Jinky Mendoza in Swan Lake.

Jinky concentrated on her breathing; in through her nose, out through her mouth. She was a machine. An android. She had no emotion.

It was time. She walked out onto the mat and stood before the beam.

She pressed up to the beam with her arms into a side split. Then a triple turn in tuck stand. For a moment she heard “Light It Up” from someone’s floor routine but she got her focus back and then—

It just all came. She could feel how well the routine was going. It was weird, when she was having a bad routine, she worked so hard, trying to make everything right. But when the routine was going well, it was almost no work at all. Back handspring, back layout, back layout and her foot was right where it should be, solid on the beam. The beam was a sidewalk, a driveway, a parking lot the size of Texas, and she did her dance steps, jumps, and her side-split turn.

And then she was doing her dismount and she didn’t even think. It was just like practice. Arabian double salto. Her feet hit the mat and her ankle sent a momentary sharp reminder that it was sore but it was all right, just normal. She did the final pose, shoulders back, arms out.

The arena was silent. The floor exercise music must have finished.

Was something wrong?

She blinked.

And then the applause and screaming started. Sophie, her coach, was hugging her. Gabby, the head of the gym, hugged her. Her teammates hugged her. The crowd was raggedly chanting, “Jinky! Jinky! Jinky!”

Olivia hugged her, shouting in her ear, “The announcer! They’re comparing you to Nadia Comăneci! It was perfect! Perfect!”

They were staying in a hotel downtown. It was a Marriott or something but it had a funny, down-at-the-heels feel. The hallways felt long and narrow. Didn’t matter, they were flying home the next day.

There was already stuff about her balance routine on ESPN. There were videos on YouTube. Jinky didn’t watch any of it—it felt as if she were jinxing herself. She asked Olivia if there was any blowback. Coach Sophie felt that showing the routine was a risk because while a great routine could make people want her to go to the Olympics, it could also fuel the belief that the procedure on her spine had given her an edge.

She walked to the soda machine. After a performance she and Olivia would split a Coke. It was their tradition.

The soda machine on their floor was out but the door to the stairs was right there so she went up a flight to see if the machine on that floor had some. They were all freaking geniuses when it came to hotels and travel. Always pack earplugs. Wear slip-on shoes at airports to get through TSA just in case they don’t give you Precheck. Stuff like that. She opened to the door onto the 11th floor.

Svetlana Moracheva was sitting in the hallway on the floor outside a hotel room. She was leaning back against the wall, legs stuck straight out in front of her. The door to the hotel room was open and a couple of voices were chattering in Russian inside.

“Hi,” Jinky said, startled. She put her money in the machine and a can clunked down to the opening. When she picked it up it was so cold.

Svetlana looked a little surprised too. She, like Jinky, was wearing track pants so her knee brace was hidden. “Great routine,” Svetlana said. She spoke pretty good English—like a lot of gymnasts. Jinky didn’t speak any Russian. She felt a little stupid.

“How’s your knee?” Jinky asked and then thought maybe it was the wrong thing to say. Like it sounded like she was gloating or something.

Svetlana shrugged. “Pretty good,” she said. “Will be good for Olympics.”

“Oh! Good! Good! I … I love your dance. You know? You always look … ” what? Pretty? That sounded dorky. “Um, smooth.”

“Smooth?” Svetlana said, cocking her head. Jinky wasn’t sure if she thought it was a dumb thing to say or if she didn’t understand the word.

“You know,” Jinky mimed a wave with her hand, up and down, up and down. “Not, like some people,” Jinky made jerky motions with her hand, up down, up down.

Svetlana smiled. “Thank you. You are, how do I say, strong? So strong.”

Jinky knew she made a face.

Svetlana laughed. “We not want what we have. Always want what others have. I want curly hair.” She patted the floor next to her and Jinky sat down. “You hear from IOC? Anything?”

Jinky shook her head. “No.”

“Could be worst. Could be XXY. No one is telling you that you are not a girl.”

It took Jinky a moment to figure out what “ex-ex-why” meant. Then she laughed. The whole gender thing was a mess. Intersex athletes, nonbinary athletes, a hurdler from Turkey who thought of herself as a girl her whole life and competed in hijab who turned out to be genetically male but physically female. “It’s so crazy!” she said. “What do you think they should do?”

Svetlana shrugged. “My problem is same as your problem; go to Paris, keep my team strong, win some gold, not lose to China. Someone else can worry about XXY.”

“I don’t think I’m going to go,” Jinky blurted out. “But I have to!”

Svetlana nodded. “I know. After IOC decide about you,” she tapped her knee, “they decide about me. I want you to go.” Because if starfish DNA was OK, then your own DNA had to be, right?

“I want you to go,” Jinky said. “But … maybe if you blew the triple salto?”

Svetlana took a second, then laughed. “For you, Jinky! You go to Olympics, I will blew my triple salto and give up any gold medal on the uneven.”

Jinky wanted to say “blow,” but she wasn’t an asshole. Then they both didn’t look at Svetlana’s knee. It was all about whether there was enough time for the knee to recover, about the balance between keeping up some training and not reinjuring.

There were rumors that the Chinese were experimenting on their athletes. Changing the DNA of kids. Jinky thought about asking Svetlana if she’d heard anything, but a guy came out of a room down the hall.

Just a regular guy in blue jeans and a Longhorns T-shirt who smiled at them while he got a soda and a pack of M&Ms. Everything about him was big and soft. “Hey cuties,” he said.

Jinky looked down and Svetlana said politely, “Izvinite, ya ne govoryu po-angliyski.”

The guy laughed a little nervously and gave them a little wave. When his door closed behind him, Jinky folded into laughter. “What did you say?”

“I say, ‘Why fat slob like you talk to pretty girls like us?’ ” Svetlana said.

“For real?”

“No, not for real. I just say I don’t speak English. But next time I remember and say it. I promise.”

“Sveta.” A girl walked out of the room. “Oh! Hi!” It was Renata Nikolaev, the Russian vault specialist. She still had her hair pulled back tight and her competition makeup on. She said something to Svetlana in Russian.

Jinky’s phone buzzed, Olivia texting wondering where she was.

She typed:

talking to Moracheva

“I have to go,” Svetlana said. “I promise my boyfriend I call him.”

Of course Svetlana had a boyfriend. “Where is he?”

“He is in Nürburgring right now for practice. He is Formula One driver. He is 20, the youngest, and alternate for his team. You know Formula One?” Svetlana mimed driving a car.

Jinky had heard of it, but she didn’t know anything about race cars, or care, to be honest. But she nodded.

“He is alternate for second driver for Red Bull,” Svetlana said. “So he is like me, traveling all the time. But we FaceTime.”

Svetlana got up, a little awkwardly because of her knee. Jinky did too. It was like speaking with the queen or something. When it was over, it was over.

“Hey,” Svetlana said, “Let me give you my number. Is U.S. number.”

Jinky handed Svetlana her phone and watched her put her number in the contacts. “I’ll let you know as soon as we hear,” Jinky said.

Svetlana nodded, sharp. Then she hugged Jinky. Startled, Jinky hugged back. They were the only two.

“Do not forget the Coke.” Svetlana wiped her eyes. “Text me, OK Starfish Girl?” Then she put her game face back on and went into the hotel room.

Jinky picked up her can of Coke and went back downstairs to share it with Olivia.

They flew toward Iowa, where it would be flat and green. The whole team had gotten seats close to each other on the plane, so that was something.

Jinky Googled “Svetlana Moracheva boyfriend” and found someone named Honza Broucek. He had a thick neck and short reddish hair and didn’t look anything like Jinky would have guessed. How did Svetlana meet him? Jinky felt as if she never met anybody. She was home-schooled by a tutor and spent three hours in the gym in the morning and four in the afternoon.

Text message conversation between Jinky and Svetlana.
Doris Liou

There were images of them after some race, Broucek with his arm around Svetlana’s waist. They looked so happy. Broucek looked better when he was wearing a racing uniform; in the image, he was wearing a black racing suit and he looked handsome.

In the seat next to her, Olivia stretched, pulling one leg up straight in front of her. “My ankles are swelling,” she observed.

“Airplanes suck,” Jinky said. “Want the window?”

That was Sunday. The ruling was expected on Monday.

On Monday, she texted Svetlana.

jinky here

Before she could type anything else, Svetlana fired back:

                                                                                            wat they say

She had been stoic. Sophie, her coach, cried during the conference call; IOC lawyers, U.S. lawyers, Gabby. The IOC threw out the claim that she wasn’t human but said they needed proof she wasn’t enhanced. That she didn’t recover from injuries better or have faster reflexes or wasn’t someway cheating. Until they had proof she would not be allowed to compete in the Paris Summer Olympics of 2024. She texted:

suspended until proof

not enhanced

Svetlana texted back:

                                                                                            fuck them

Jinky’s legal team was already putting together a strategy. Jinky would have metabolic testing at Johns Hopkins and a researcher there wanted to test cell samples from Jinky for immune response and a bunch of other things like autophagy and oxidation and stuff that was supposed to tell them whether Jinky’s own body was a performance-enhancing drug.

The lawyers talked about Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee who had to prove his carbon fiber “blades” didn’t give him an advantage, even if they had more “spring” than human bone and muscle. Four years later, the IOC had banned Markus Rehm from the broad jump because they said his prosthetic foot, his blade, was an enhancement that gave him an unfair advantage.

The hair-thin gold wires in her neck, combined with the starfish DNA, were a prosthetic that could possibly give her an as-yet-unspecified advantage.

The lawyers kept saying that it wasn’t over, and Jinky believed them. She had beaten the odds before.

It was bad news for Svetlana too. If they had declared Jinky not human, then Svetlana, who had no starfish DNA in her, couldn’t be declared a nonhuman starfish-person. They’d have to look at Svetlana’s case separately.

But they had only decided Jinky was human, not whether or not she was enhanced. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that since Svetlana had had a similar procedure, she too might have an unfair advantage.

Jinky had avoided thinking about what it meant if she wasn’t “human.” She had read an article that said chimpanzees share about 99 percent of their DNA with humans. Sometimes she wondered if she had a baby (someday), would it have starfish genes? She supposed it would. But if Jinky was human, then her baby would be too. Unless they changed their minds.

She flew to Baltimore and had tests done. She ran on a treadmill while her CO2 output was measured. She had blood and tissue samples taken. She had a bone-marrow test to see how much the starfish DNA had migrated. She missed four days of training.

The bone-marrow test sucked ass. Her bones were hard because she was young and trained all the time and laying there on her side while a doctor drilled into her pelvis hurt. They slapped gauze on her and sent her back to the airport. She found a spot of blood on her T-shirt when she changed that night.

Svetlana texted:

                                                                      starfish girl

sveta!

                                                                      my coach ask for ruling

                                                                      china going to file complaint 4 wks b4 big o

                                                                      when not enough time to do tests

tell me when you hear           

                                                                      of course!!!!!!!!

Then she sent a starfish emoji and a heart.

“Sophie?” Jinky asked. Sophie was in the coach’s office at the computer.

“What is it, Jinks?”

Sophie Wilson had been coaching Jinky for four years, now. Two years after the accident, Jinky had been competing again, but she wasn’t even back to the level of skill she’d had when she was 11. Sophie had invited her to come train at the facility. She’d watched Jinky in practice. “Every time you do a move, and your coach tells you something, the next time you are just a little bit better,” Sophie said. “You’re going to get back to your original skills and then some.”

Sophie had a bagel with cream cheese on her desk and Jinky’s stomach rumbled. Jinky tried not to eat too many unrefined carbs. She could feel it the next day in practice if she did. She was heavier, slower.

Focus, she thought. After the Olympics, you can have all the bagels you want. “I think I should do an interview.”

Sophie didn’t understand.

“You know, like on the news or something. Show I’m a regular person, not some kind of X-Man mutant.”

Sophie shook her head. “The strategy is keep our heads down and wait for the science.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She had talked to Olivia and Svetlana and even called her mother.

Her mother was an X-ray tech and she worked crazy hours but she had talked with Jinky until she had to leave for her shift. Jinky imagined her in her scrubs, sitting at the kitchen table. “Whatever you want to do, baby,” she said. “Your dad and I are proud of you. You know that.” It hadn’t really been much help but it made Jinky feel better.

“I think we need to get in front of this,” Jinky said. Which, honestly, sounded hella smart, right?

“Let me talk to Gabby,” Sophie said.

They kicked around possible ways to do an interview. An AMA on Reddit was dismissed. Nobody wanted Jinky fielding questions like “Which would you rather fight, 100 horses the size of a duck or one duck the size of a horse?” The New York Times and the Washington Post were considered but who read newspapers anymore?

Eventually Jinky’s agent (whom she had met exactly three times) called them with an offer from Amazon Prime. Amazon had a sports program called, without originality, Amazon Sports. One of the hosts was Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight although he wasn’t a gymnastics guy so Sylvia Guest would do a 20-minute interview.

Jinky texted Svetlana:

what should i wear

                                                                                            american teen

And she sent an image of a girl in a cute dress and followed it up with one more text:

                                                                                            soft

Olivia sniffed, “How’s your bestie?”

“She’s not,” Jinky said. “You are. Bitch. I’ve only talked to her a couple of times.”

Olivia shrugged like it didn’t matter.

But Svetlana was used to the spotlight so it made sense to ask her. There were images of her with Serena Williams at a charity event in London. Maybe Jinky should do things like that too? Go to places? How did you even get invited?

Jinky didn’t have a lot of clothes that weren’t tracksuits and leotards and sweats so she and Olivia went shopping. Jinky had a college fund for money from any endorsements but it was locked in trust until she was 18. With all the money her parents were putting out for her training, she felt weird if she asked for spending money. Her parents had sold their house to cover her medical expenses.

They went to the mall. Jinky was a girl’s size 12 to 14. There were some things in Juniors but they all looked like prom dresses. It’s like they needed a shop for “gymnasts who need to wear something for a televised interview.”

Olivia found a yellow mini dress and made Jinky try it on. It wasn’t a prom dress. “It makes you glow,” Olivia said. She dragged Jinky to the jewelry counter and picked out a cute necklace and some earrings.

“You look fab, girl,” Olivia pronounced.

Back at the gym, they had a remote video setup, basic, but fine. Jinky sat in front of a green screen and looked at a monitor. She was sweating, she could feel it. Olivia had done her makeup. Jinky liked the winged eyeliner so much she was going to ask Olivia to do it for her for competitions. Her nails were done and she’d gotten her lucky starfish stencil on her thumb, this time with a little blue rhinestone in the center.

It was a performance except she couldn’t go through it in her head like she could a routine. She closed her eyes and tried to calm down.

Jinky crying on screen.
Doris Liou

And then she was on. Sylvia Guest was blond and polished and Anglo and Jinky felt weird and brown and freaky.

“Hi Jinky! Great to have you on!” Sylvia chirped.

There were questions that everybody always asked. What do you eat? Jinky gave her usual response, that no one had ever told her she needed to lose weight but she tried to eat healthy. She had yogurt with fruit and almonds before she worked out in the morning. She ate chicken and salmon and steamed vegetables for dinner. The whole team liked to go get ice cream. Her favorite dish was her mother’s chicken adobo, the national dish of the Philippines.

What was her training schedule like? She worked out three hours in the morning, took a break and did her schooling, and then four hours in the afternoon. She had Sundays off. Her favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. (Not true: She and Olivia traded gay romance novels.)

What did she think of the IOC decision?

“I’m glad I’m human,” she said, and that got a laugh from Sylvia Guest.

“We’ll do a montage of clips of your accident and recovery,” Sylvia said.

Jinky nodded.

“What about the pending decision about whether or not changing your DNA has given you an unfair advantage?”

Nobody had ever said it that way. “Unfair advantage.” It was always performance enhancement. Like she’d taken steroids or something. She smiled, but to her embarrassment, she could feel that her eyes were welling up.

“Unfair?” she said. “I um … I mean, it’s hard to think that breaking my neck was an unfair advantage, you know? I mean, I couldn’t move my legs or feel anything. It was …

“What do you remember?”

“I remember I was on my back, looking up at the, um, ceiling? You know those florescent lights in some places? The gym had these long lights and I was looking at them and I thought I had just had the wind knocked out of me because you know, sometimes when you screw up and you land you can’t even move for a second and you can’t, like, breathe? I thought it was like that. And then my mom was saying, don’t move. And she called me Janice. She only ever calls me that when I’m in trouble or something is really serious. She kept saying, ‘Lie still, Janice’ and I couldn’t do anything and I knew it was bad.

“And then they wanted to try the stem cell procedure and they put these superthin gold wires in my spinal cord, like thinner than a hair. And the stem cells. After that I had this external thing they said was sort of like a pacemaker that sent little amounts of electricity into my spinal cord.”

“Could you feel that?” Sylvia asked.

Across from Jinky, beside the monitor, Sophie was there. She was nodding, the “You’re doing good” nod. “Keep going.”

“I couldn’t feel anything. I didn’t think it was working. It was weeks before I felt anything.”

“What did you feel first?” Sylvia asked.

“Two days before the meet I screwed up my ankle. It always gives me problems. The first thing I felt was my ankle hurting.

“Wow, so the first thing you felt was pain?”

Jinky blinked. Did a sore ankle even count as pain? Her ankle was sore all the time. She just ignored it. “It wasn’t pain,” she said. “It was feeling.”

The interview got millions of hits. Jinky hated it. She hated how when she was talking about rehab (lots of details, Sophie had told her, make them know how hard it was) she started crying and almost ruined her makeup. It was cheesy and pathetic.

Svetlana:

                                                                                            you killed it

                                                                                            honza sez hi

                                                                                            he sez you kill it, too

The news and social media covered the story all over again.

In the end it made no difference. The results from John Hopkins suggested that maybe Jinky healed a little better than average but not particularly out of the norm for people, but it couldn’t prove that she didn’t have an advantage because it didn’t have samples from before her accident to see if that was just the way she was.

24/7 Set.

LIAM CHAN
We’re here today with Russian gymnast Svetlana Moracheva. You’re expecting an IOC ruling very soon. Given the ruling to ban Jinky Mendoza from the Paris Olympics for performance enhancement, what are your expectations?

SVETLANA MORACHEVA
(simultaneous translation from Russian) They will disqualify me. They can’t disqualify an American athlete and let a Russian one with a similar issue compete. It would be like Cold War days when the Soviet judges vote down Americans and the Americans vote down Russians.

LIAM CHAN
Does the ruling seem fair?

SVETLANA
No, not at all. Jinky and I have worked hard to be the best. But life is not supposed to be fair.

LIAM CHAN
What are you going to do now? Are you appealing?

SVETLANA
I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But for the Olympics, this is something they will have to figure out. Athletes are like race cars, you know? It used to be that we were just cars that people have that they race. Then they start making cars that are only for racing and now, a Formula One car isn’t really a car. It is a jet airplane with no wings.

So the Formula One people are always trying to make a faster car and the officials are trying to stop certain things. Like the suspension can only be like this, and you cannot have shark-fin engines and then you can. There are Formula One cars and there are stock cars and there are all sorts of kinds of races, you know?

Now in the Olympics they must think about the same things. Jinky and me, we are like the shark-fin engine. We are banned. Maybe in 2028 we are not banned. People all over the world, they are trying to be the best and now they have a new way to be the best. They fix their DNA. Maybe when they are 6 or 7 years old. Maybe before they are born. If you think doping is a problem, this is going to be even bigger.

Jinky and me, we are really just normal people who work very hard. But Pandora is out of the box, you know? If you asked me when I was 10 years old, would I have my body changed to be an elite gymnast? I would say yes.

LIAM
What would you say now?

SVETLANA
I would say yes.

“Yes,” Jinky whispered, watching. “Yes.”

Read a response essay by sports historian Victoria Jackson.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
“Safe Surrender“ by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado