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Biography & Autobiography Sports

9 Lives by 35

An Olympic Gymnast's Inspiring Story of Reinvention

by (author) Mary Sanders

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2023
Sports, Women, Gymnastics
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2023
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Oct 2023
    List Price

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Olympic gymnast and Cirque du Soleil acrobat Mary Sanders shares her incredible story of dedication and personal sacrifice that led to success and reinvention.

Mary Sanders was handed an Olympic dream by her father from the moment she was born. Determined to follow in his footsteps, the young gymnast struggled through training setbacks, financial hardships, and personal rivalries, under a cloud of grief, to compete in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. But that achievement was only the beginning for a woman determined to reinvent herself and consistently raise her own standards for success.

In this revealing memoir, Mary recounts her journey from Olympian to Cirque du Soleil acrobat to entertainment executive working for Shark Tank’s Robert Herjavec while balancing life at home with two children.

Through it all, no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path, Mary pushes forward, leaning on her faith, her family, and her enduring optimism to support her in each of her nine lives so far.

About the author

Mary Sanders is an Olympian and earned the title of most successful rhythmic gymnast in the western hemisphere. Her other lives include Cirque du Soleil acrobat, creative director, entertainment executive, TV and film producer, actress, wife, and mother. Mary lives in Newmarket, Ontario.

Mary Sanders' profile page

Excerpt: 9 Lives by 35: An Olympic Gymnast's Inspiring Story of Reinvention (by (author) Mary Sanders)

I sit cross-legged on the floor of the gymnastics gym watching girl after girl perform routines. Tumble, tumble, tumble, backflip, land, and present. They are ten, eleven, maybe twelve. Now it’s my turn. I take my place. I breathe deep. Then I go! Run, run, dance, leap, cartwheel, but instead of another trick, I stagger to a standing position. Frozen on the floor. My routine forgotten. I look at the crowd of onlookers, but I see only one face. My father’s. His expression is as motionless as my little body. He is embarrassed. I have humiliated him because he is a gymnastics coach and I am his daughter who just showed the judges, the gymnasts, the audience, that I’m not as good as the other girls he teaches. I am five years old.
I come off the mat and expect my father to give me the cold shoulder, turn his back on me, but he doesn’t do either of those things. Instead, he crouches so he can look me in the eye, and says, “You go back out there, and you do it again. You know your routine.” I do as I am told. Perhaps because I am the youngest, or maybe because the officials know or fear my father, I am given a second attempt. I return to the competition floor. This time I run, I cartwheel, and I continue my simple routine. I present to the judges. I am elated. I glance over to the crowd, searching for my father. I find him. I can’t tell by his expression, but I think he is proud.
The memory of that day, one of my first gymnastic competitions, returned only after my Aunt Corinne reminded me of the incident. But it was a prime example of my father’s coaching style, particularly when it came to me. I was expected to be as good as, or better than, the other young girls he trained because from an early age I was his “little Olympian.” It was his goal that I make it to the top of the sport and represent my country, an ambition he didn’t achieve for himself when he was a young gymnast. Over time, either through his sheer will, my urge to please, or osmosis, it became my goal, too. But the journey from the little girl who forgot her routine to a world-class athlete performing on the Olympic stage in Athens, and a life beyond, was full of dramatic twists and turns — losing a parent at eight, watching my single mom sacrifice, financial instability, moving constantly, bankruptcy, a failed marriage, a near-death accident, and so much more.
I like to say that I’d lived nine lives before I turned thirty-five, hence the title of this book. The proverb, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays,” always stuck with me. And as my own multiple lives unfolded, the proverb became more poignant and personal, informing my life philosophy, what I call the three Rs: reason, reinvent, right. I’ll explore how the three Rs played out in each of my nine lives, but I simply mean this: Reason: What is your reason? What makes you get out of bed every day and thrive? Reinvent: When one door closes, break down more doors! Thriving on the word “no.” When one path does not fulfill your “reason” it is time to reinvent and get moving. Right: You have the right to choose your life. You have the right to say no and to stay on your path. You have the right to reinvent. I want to share all I’ve learned in the hope that my story can inspire anyone who has ever felt alone, or that they were the underdog, or that life was overwhelming, but who still dreams of achieving what might seem impossible. It is possible. I’m living proof. Here’s what happened.
I was born on August 26, 1985, and christened Mary Jeanne Elizabeth Sanders. That same year Back to the Future was in theaters, and Heaven by Bryan Adams was on the airwaves. Live Aid
had already happened. Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada; Ronald Reagan was president of the United States. The economy was on an upswing after slogging through a recession. And I was living with my family in Toronto. Judging by the photographic evidence, my family embraced the decade’s fashion. Not that I knew a thing about the era’s New Wave music, or teased hair, blue eye shadow, and shoulder pads. But by the time the 1990s hit and ushered in a completely different aesthetic, I got hooked on pop culture. I showed up on my first day of high school dressed as Cher from Clueless, which is now super embarrassing to think back on, but I thought it was what the cool girls were doing. But it was gymnastics, not fashion, movies, or music, that defined me and where my story, my “first life,” that of a child gymnast, begins.
From day one I saw the world upside down. I mean that literally. From the moment I could walk, I climbed and hung — upside down and sideways — from all sorts of apparatus. I loved handstands, rolling, and tumbling, too. Whatever the move, I twisted and twirled and made it my own. My father noticed and it must be how his dream of my future Olympic glory was born.
You see, my father, Fred Bates Sanders Jr., was a three-time All-American Big Ten Champion in trampoline, which made gymnastics part of my DNA. He started his athletic career as a diver in high school, but switched to trampoline. It was those early years as a diver that made him emphasize form over difficulty in executing the tricks. By that I mean that he would not break form to accomplish a difficult trick he was trying to learn. It was a characteristic he carried with him onto the gymnastics floor and the trampoline, and later as a coach. My dad was an educated man, as well as an elite athlete. He received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Michigan, and then he completed a Master in School Administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He first taught at the UNC before making the move to Toronto, where he taught at the University of Toronto and coached at private gyms. His own stellar competition record, as well as his commitment to training other gymnasts, made him revered by his peers and he was eventually inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. I have met many people who tell me what an impact he made on their gymnastics and personal careers.
If I got my gymnastics talent from my father, my hard-work ethic and “everything will be ok” attitude I owe to my mom, Jacilynne (Jaci) Ann Harvey. She was born in Toronto, and her father worked in the railway. They moved to Sarnia when she was young, and she took up tap dancing. She loved to dance. But when they moved back to Toronto, the lessons stopped. She never asked why, or to take them again. Same when her parents were told what a talented swimmer she was. There was no mention of extra money for lessons or encouragement to pursue athletic excellence. My mother was of the generation where kids didn’t ask. “Gimme, gimme never gets,” my mom was told. This is the same era when people would tell a tearful child, “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about!” Is it any wonder my mother kept her feelings to herself throughout her life? Instead of talking about her feelings or focusing on them, she focused on achieving goals, and that she did, becoming something of an overachiever, earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and later, a Master of Education degree. She was career-oriented and worked hard throughout her twenties as a nurse in public health. Her athletic passion was marathon running, one she had to give up at the age of fifty-three following two knee replacements.
If there was one thing that has kept my mother at peace and able to cope throughout her life, it was, and still is, her faith. She is a devout Christian and believes that God will take care of her and her loved ones. She survived polio as a little girl, and when she was growing up, her mother would remind her always to be good, telling a young Jaci, “You must make it up to God. You must pay God back.” More on faith and my family later, but suffice it to say that I am a product of both my parents. The showmanship and confidence in sport of my father, and the faith and perseverance of my mother.
My parents met in Toronto, by this point my father had left North Carolina and moved his first wife and their two kids to Canada to take a job coaching at a gym. When his first marriage fell apart, he got a job coaching at the University of Toronto, and began dating Corinne Harvey, my aunt. When Corinne ended things, Fred asked Jaci out. She got permission from her sister, and Jaci and Fred fell in love and got married. My mother was in her early thirties at this point and knew how to survive on her own. She had a good job, a career in fact, with salary and benefits. She wasn’t looking for a rich husband to take care of her, that she could do on her own, thank you very much. So, the dashing Fred Sanders swept her off her feet with his charisma and charm. He was a former star athlete with a steady job at a top university, of course child support meant less for his new family, a fact that was never resented, though it meant my mother had to make up the shortfall.

Editorial Reviews

Sanders’ resume begs for the memoir treatment. 9 Lives by 35 showcases a high-flying life that readers will find thoroughly inspiring.


Mary’s many lives are the result of who she is today, an incredibly humble talent and a fearless leader.

Noah Galloway, bestselling author of Living with No Excuses

Poise and fortitude have taken Mary from a celebrated athlete to conquering the entertainment world. I am proud of her growth and her willingness to mentor and inspire other women.

Beth Stevenson, Founder and Executive Producer, Brain Power Studio

Coming from a sport that is often under the radar and underappreciated, Mary has risen above it all. Time and time again she has shown the world what it means to be a champion. And now, this memoir of courage and perseverance is guaranteed to inspire readers to take ownership of their lives.

Andrea Joyce, NBC Sportscaster