The Topsy-Turvy Life (Raising a Gymnast)

2008 Olympic gold medalist on balance beam , silver medal for All-Around and floor, 2007 All-Around World Champion

It starts off so innocently–a group of giggly little girls doing cartwheels in sparkly leotards, while doting parents snap photos from the stands. This is how they lure you in, with promises of shiny medals and dreams of your daughter becoming the next Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson. But that’s all crap. Here’s is what you can really expect if your daughter decides to become a gymnast:

1. Say goodbye to family vacations — Not only will you be unable to afford those extended family getaways to Hawaii or Disneyworld or Europe, but girls who are competitive gymnasts are not allowed to miss more than a day or two of training. So unless you plan to strap her balance beam to the top of your SUV, you are pretty much stuck with day trips or overnighters.

2. Forget about saving for college— Face it…gymnastics is one of the most expensive sports your child can choose. My daughter is currently competing in Level 7 gymnastics (out of 10 levels). With monthly fees, competition fees, leotards, and other equipment, weare paying around $5000 this year. This does not include airfare, hotel expenses, meet entry fees, etc. I told my daughter (who is ten years old), “You’d better plan on staying in the sport until Level 10, so that you can get a college scholarship!” Of course, getting an Olympic gold medal would be even better, but I don’t want to pressure her..

3. Forget about family dinners, too — Gymnasts spend many long, hard hours training at the gym. My daughter, for example, works out four evenings per week, for a total of 18 hours. Next season, this will increase to five evenings per week. Naturally, this means that the entire family does not get to sit around the table eating dinner together. For gymnasts, it is paper bag dinners during a ten minute break. For my daughter, it usually means a sandwich in the car on the way to gym (while finishing homework at the same time).

4. You won’t always be able to watch — Yes, your daughter will look adorable in her $250 sparkly team leotard, especially after you have spent two hours twisting and gelling her hair into the perfect glitter-encrusted ponytail. But sometimes, you will have to send her to out-of-town competitions with her coach and teammates, or with only one parent, because it is expensive and time-consuming to attend every single meet. And even when you can attend, you’ll probably want to close your eyes rather than watch your daughter’s balance beam routine. Trust me…watching your kid do flips and leaps on a 4-inch wide beam is nerve-wracking enough to stop your heart.

5. Competition is not just between the gymnasts You think that the meets are just for the girls to become winners. But the parents can be just as competitive, if not more so. Many of us sit in the stands and keep track of every gymnast’s scores in order to compare them with our daughters’ scores. More than once, I have overheard parents make comments like, “How on earth did Susie So-and-So get a higher score than my daughter? Her layout wasn’t nearly as good!” And yes, even I am guilty of rejoicing inwardly when my daughter manages to pull off a score two-tenths of a point higher than Little Miss Perfect Gymnast from one of those Bay Area gyms. Yes, for many gym moms and dads, winning is terribly important. Why else are we spending all this money? We want a chance to use our super-expensive cameras to snap pictures of our very own little champions (with the flash off, of course).

6. Injuries happen — So you think that your little girl is safer doing gymnastics than playing ice hockey or soccer? Think again. This famous study proved that gymnastics is indeed one of the most dangerous sports for girls, with an average rate of 26,600 injuries per year. Even though coaches do everything they can to keep our young gymnasts safe, there is no avoiding it. Injuries happen. Sometimes serious injuries. As a parent, all you can really do is hold your breath and hope that your daughter won’t sustain an injury during competition season. Because after spending month after month avoiding family vacations, pinching pennies, and giving up family dinners, while your daughter basically lives at the gym, working her tail off and breathing chalk dust, to see your kid limping along In a cast instead of standing on the podium would pretty much suck.

Now don’t take me wrong. I LOVE gymnastics. It is an incredible sport, and it makes my daughter so happy and fulfilled. Gymnastics keeps children healthy and strong, instills discipline and dedication, and teaches them to reach inside of themselves to find a strength and power that they did not know they had. Talk about building confidence! Every time my daughter manages to increase her scores, or nail a skill she has practiced a million times, I glow with pride. It is nearly as good as seeing her standing on the podium, wearing a shiny medal around her neck. Almost. Because really, after spending more than $5000 per year on a sport, I had better see at least one or two shiny medals! Just keepin’ it real.

My daughter (right) and a teammate preparing for a big gymnastics meet in SoCal

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