What were you doing when you were 14? I was in high school, had a huge crush on John Taylor of Duran Duran and spent my time hanging out with my friends doing nothing in particular. Olympic hopefuls at the age of 14? Their lives are all-encompassed on their given sport morning, noon and night. It’s a fate I can admire, but would not want for my own daughter.
Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas left home at the age of 14, leaving her mom, siblings and beloved dogs behind. The Virginia native moved in with a host family in order for her to attend a training facility in Des Moines, Iowa, to train with Liang Chow of Chow’s Gymnastics (who famously coached gymnast super star Shawn Johnson). This is one example of the sacrifice that these young women have to make on their road for their dream to represent the United States at the Olympics.
Years of work, dedication and dreams hinge on this one weekend. One slip up, false move or injury could end it all. On the first day of trials Nastia Liukin, as my daughter said, “kept on falling down,” which will probably edge her off of the team. But she was a medal winner at the Beijing 2008 Olympics and at the ripe old age of 22, this may end her Olympics dreams, part two. It seems that the Olympic gymnastics are a young girls game. To compete in a “senior” level competition like the Olympics, a participant must be at least 16 years old to compete (or be turning 16 in the calendar year when the event is, so for the 2012 Olympics they would need to be born before January 1, 1997). While the men who complete are years older, with Jonathan Horton clocking in at 26, while secured spots John Orozco and Danell Leyva are 19 and 20 years old.
For the girls, the immense public pressure that is on them is unparalleled in comparison to their peers, who are more likely going to movies, dabbling in dating and just being regular American teens. But these gymnasts’ sacrifice is very much appreciated by their peers. While some girls idolize the newest Disney tween star to the pop star of the day, the young fans filling the stands of the Olympic trials adore these amazing athletes.
These gymnastic fanatics were in full force at the HP Pavilion in San Jose for the Olympics Trials. The young fans – many wearing T-shirts from their own local gyms or donning the $70 Olympic track suit jackets that were so hot they sold out – made handmade signs declaring their support and love for these athletes. Their screams rivaled those at a Justin Beiber concert. My daughter and I were fortunate to witness this hysteria first hand as part of the promotion for the American Girl Doll movie, McKenna Shoots for the Stars, based on a young gymnast going for her own gold. And the tie-in between American Girl Doll movie and the gymnasts at the trials could no be more apt – the gymnastic dream at the focus.
While my daughter sat by my side, screaming her support for the Olympic hopefuls (she’d rooting for shoe-in Jordyn Wierber and Elizabeth Price) and held tight to her McKenna doll, she confessed that she wants to do that too – become an Olympic-level gymnast. Although I admire her for thinking big, this is not a road I would want my own daughter to travel. If it was an all -encompassing passion and she had what people call a “god-given talent” then I’d give it some thought. But having her leave home at the tender age of 14 to live with someone else’s family; to have her world be handsprings, walkovers, and layouts; to have such an insane amount of pressure on her and her body: it would be too much for her and for me. But again if she had that gift and the drive, I would have to rethink my stance. And to tie back in with the McKenna movie – which is how we ended up here with ridiculously good seats – this is a struggle the parents in the film have to make as well. A young girl completely driven to compete and letting her grades slip in the process. The gymnast’s life is primarily about her body, and although all the gymnasts do continue with schooling while training with tutors or an online school, the focus of the early years shifts focus to fitness rather than education.
These young girls will be defined by what happens at these finals and at the Olympics. They are moments that will last forever. They are the things dream are made of, dreams that girls have and hold. But how many of these young women and how many of their parents are really prepared to make the sacrifices that are truly necessary to make them a reality?
Would you want to have an Olympic hopeful on your hands? Or are you happy with just admiring the talent from afar?
Photos: Sunny Chanel