Gold Medal Summer (aka: Let the Games Begin)

Olympic Rings

That magical time is upon us again. Every four years, we gather around our television sets to boooo our opponents, to pump our fists in the air and cheer on our favorites. USA! USA! 

No, I’m not referring to the Democratic or Republican National Conventions. Although the presidential election political circus is in high gear around this time, too.

summer games video game 80sTonight is the opening ceremony for the XXXI Summer Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hooray! Hurrah! My kids and I plan to celebrate American-style by sitting around the television with slices of gourmet veggie pizza, commenting on the arrival of the olympic athletes and wondering where in the world countries like Tuvalu, Nauru, and Bhutan are located. Then we will ooh and aah at what’s sure to be a colorful, dizzying display of music and dancing of Brasilian Carnaval proportions.

Then finally, someone will ceremoniously light the ancient torch (insert more ooohs and aaahs), fireworks will explode overhead, and the games will officially kick off.

Rio Olympics racing runners track

I enjoy just about every sport in the Summer Games, except maybe wrestling. It’s so much fun to admire the displays of strength, speed, and grace as divers and gymnasts flip through the air, sprinters race like the wind, and soccer teams battle it out on the field. They are not only athletes – they are the elite, the amazing, the best of the best. The ones who spent hours every day training to bring home gold medals while the rest of us struggled to jog a mile on the treadmill a couple of times a week.

Our family’s favorite sport to watch during the Olympic Games is women’s artistic gymnastics. This is in part due to my 14yo daughter, the former gymnast. She once trained and competed at a level close to these elite Olympians, and still has the bulky shoulders to prove it. Some days, she is wistful, missing those chalk dust days in the gym, swinging and tumbling with her gymnastics teammates. But then she remembers how much work, commitment, and dedication it took to compete at such a level, and she is once again content to relax and cheer on Simone Biles and the rest of our national gymnastics team.

Rio Olympics 2016 Simone Biles gymnastics leap

Wherever you are in the world, I hope that you are able to gather somewhere with friends or family and cheer on your favorite country as they run, swim, tumble, and jump in the ultimate sports competition. May our athletes make it through without getting bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. And may they continue to inspire the rest of us to get off our couches and into the gym, even if our greatest competition is against ourselves. Have some pizza, on me. And – LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

Pompons and Ponytails (aka: High School Cheerocracy)

When I was eight years old, every girl I knew wanted to be a cheerleader. We used to imitate the high school cheerleaders by shaking our cheap dime-store pompons and chanting the only cheer that every eight year-old girl knew:

 

“Firecracker firecracker, boom boom boom!

Firecracker firecracker, boom boom boom!

The boys have the muscle

The teachers have the brains

But the girls have the sexy legs, so we won the game!”

 

cheerleaders cheering

 

I will not even address how that cheer was so wrong in so many ways, although my inner feminist is screaming. I will now duct tape shut the mouth of my inner feminist while I share this next part with the world:

My 14 year-old daughter wants to be a cheerleader.

It’s true. She wants to try out for her high school squad and become a bonafide, short-skirt-wearing, pompon shaking cheerleader. I know. But she has good reasons that, thankfully, are much more valid than sexy legs and popularity. She misses gymnastics.

competitive cheer tumbling

As I shared in another post a few years ago, my kid was once a level-8 competitive gymnast. However, she did not have Olympic aspirations, and I did not have an Olympic-sized budget, and so she retired at the end of a great season. Since then, my daughter has been learning to redefine herself outside of the gym and chalk dust, and exploring new sports, like recreational soccer, cross-country, and track. She enjoys it, but she still grows wistful at the sight of athletes flipping through the air or dancing across the floor. After watching a bunch of high school squads doing basket tosses, tumbling, and scorpion lifts on TV, my daughter came to a decision. She was going to try out for the cheer squad. And so next week, I will join the parents of    other cheer-hopefuls at a meeting, where they will tell us how we will have to sell everything we own just to pay for the uniform and participation fees.

Oh wait, that was gymnastics.

 

cheerteamontrack

 

I once thought I would be more excited to have a daughter interested in becoming a cheerleader. After all, I was once a cheerleading coach.

Oops…my inner feminist just died of a heart attack, I think. Oh well.  Time to free Cheer Girl from my girly-girl closet for a moment and confess to the world: I WAS A MIDDLE SCHOOL COMPETITIVE CHEER COACH! Look, I was in my early twenties, okay? Pre-kids, post-college, teaching Kindergarten at a private school which just happened to need a cheer coach. So I stepped in and taught a group of girls how to do Herkies, and stunt, and do real cheers that weren’t just lame Steppy-Clappy cheers.

(Example of Steppy-Clappy cheer):

“Ready? OK!

It’s hot, it’s hot, it’s hot in here

There must be some Toros in the atmosphere!”

 

This is a Cheerocracy

No, we were much cooler than that. We went to an expensive cheer camp. We competed against other squads who did basket tosses and wore fake curly ponytails. We were the wanna-be middle school version of those snotty teenagers in Bring it On.

 

Cheer stunting silhouette“ONE! We are the Eagles

TWO! A little bit louder

THREE! I still can’t hear you

We are number ONE!”

 

See what happens when I let Cheer Girl out of the closet? Give me a second while I stuff her back in, right next to Elle Woods and the girl from Clueless. But I’ll still keep my inner feminist under wraps until after my daughter tries out for the cheer squad. And maybe until I satisfy this sudden urge to re-watch Bring it On.

Life Has No Pause Button (a.k.a. Changes)

Everything has its season. Change is inevitable. Of course, of course, like so many others, I am very familiar with these sayings. And of course, they are true. Life has no pause button. Children do not remain small. People grow and change. Our interests and abilities shift as time marches forward. But although we understand these things, when the tide shifts and change arrives, it is unsettling, like walking on wet sand.

My daughter is quitting gymnastics. It is a huge change – not just for her, but for everyone in our family. She has spent most of her childhood as a gymnast, breathing in chalk dust, traveling to competitions throughout the state and beyond, and executing difficult skills as her team and her family cheer her on. She has been our little athletic superstar, smiling for the camera with shiny medals hanging around her neck. Our tiny Olympic hopeful. But now, at the young age of eleven, she has decided that she has had enough. She is currently competing as a Level 8 gymnast (out of 10 levels). This will be her final season.

Balancing on the balance beam

I love my daughter to pieces, and naturally, I respect her decision. Gymnastics is one of the most demanding youth sports, and one of the most expensive in terms of money as well as time. Unless a child dreams of obtaining Olympic gold, or at least university scholarships, there is not much point in continuing at the highest levels. But still, I will miss it. I will miss seeing her do amazing flips across the balance beam and swing around the bars in her adorable leotards. I will miss her huge grin as she salutes for the judges and earns high scores. I will miss the proud idea that she is The Gymnast of the family. Oh, change is hard. Boo, change!

Swinging around the high bar

But on the other hand, change can be a very good thing. No more gymnastics means no more scheduling our family life around her 25-hour per week sports schedule. It means no more cooking dinner before two in the afternoon and packing it in thermoses and containers for her to eat at the gym. It means no more silent homework times in the car during the long commute, no more missing out on birthday parties or school events, and more time for her to play with her brothers, and maybe make a friend or two.  And perhaps best of all, no more gymnastics means more money in the family budget. Wow – money to save for a new car, money to replace our aging household furniture, money to save for family vacations – money!

“What would you like to try after gymnastics is over?” I asked my daughter, because with her natural athletic ability, it is impossible to imagine that she is not doing some sort of sport. “Perhaps a dance class or swim team?”

My daughter’s next words completely shocked me. “I think it would be fun to play soccer. I’ve never done it before, but it looks like fun.”

Soccer? Soccer? My daughter is ready to quit gymnastics and try playing soccer? Wow! Okay, change isn’t such a bad thing after all. Hooray for new beginnings! Open the door; bring on the change!

Medals for gymnastics winners

Onigiri — IKEA-Style (My Version of Fast Food)

So our family does a lot of sports. At the moment, my 10-year-old daughter is training to compete in Level 8 gymnastics (22 hrs. of training per week!). My 12-year-old son plays soccer almost year round and practices 2-3 times per week. My youngest starts soccer again this summer, and I play indoor soccer three times per week.

Sports, I love. Kids’ sports, I love. Feeding my family fast food? I loathe. With a passion. I’d much rather throw together a bunch of homemade bean and rice burritos than swing through the drive-thru of Taco Smell. I prefer to prepare and freeze a dozen healthy mini pizza calzones to warm up on the run, or even pack good old-fashioned sandwiches for dinner. And here is one of our family favorites: Onigiri. But, being a true Californian, we had to turn our Japanese favorite into a fusion dish by adding some frozen meatballs from our friendly-neighborhood IKEA store. Ta-daa!! Swedish Onigiri! Here’s how we do it:

STEP ONE:

Throw some Calrose Rice into the rice cooker (the good, sticky Japanese sushi rice works best, although we have tried this with Thai glutinous rice, too. Totally different awesome fusion dish). While the rice is cooking, warm up your meatballs. No IKEA where you live? Any basic 1-inch meatballs will do. When the rice is cooked, line a small cup (like the one on the right) with plastic wrap and add some rice. Make a little “nest” in the center for the meatball.

STEP TWO:

Easiest step of all. Add the meatball to the nest. Cover with more rice (not too much, or your onigiri will be huge!)

STEP THREE:

Lift the saran wrap from the cup and twist around until very tight. If you can stand the heat, then use your hands to shape the onigiri into the perfect ball (or whichever fun shape strikes your imagination).

STEP FOUR:

Unwrap onigiri and sprinkle with salt for flavor and to reduce the stickiness. Best way to eat it? With the hands, of course, especially while sitting in the car driving kids to sports, or while sitting in the stands and watching. Also works well for school lunches, and probably even the dinner table. But who has time for that?

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

Not Your Typical Soccer Mom

I am definitely not your typical Sports Mom. Yes, my three kids are all involved in sports. And like plenty of other parents, I drive them to practice (yes, I confess it, in a minivan), pack on-the-go dinners, and cheer for them like crazy at games and meets. But I am not your everyday, ordinary soccer mom.

I am a soccer-soccer-soccer mom.

I love soccer. But I do not only love to watch my sons play. I also play soccer–on four different indoor teams at the moment. Yes, it is a sickness! But it is such a rush, and always an incredible workout.

I am also a huge fan of professional soccer. I know, I know…this is so un-American of me. Especially since my favorite team, Manchester United, is part of the English Premiere League.

"Chicharito" from Manchester United -- One of my favorite soccer players.

Or maybe I am actually a trend-setter, leading the charge of Americans rushing toward a sport that the rest of the world discovered long ago is the Best Sport Ever. They don’t call it the Beautiful Game for nothing.

My boys, who are 7 and 11-almost-12, play recreational soccer.

Soccer game day from August 2010

Sadly, neither one of them is particularly athletic. Yes, I love and accept them no matter where they excel or struggle. But I also confess: I am one of those awful sports parents who expected all of my kids to be coordinated and fast and aggressive little athletes, and sometimes it is painful for me to watch my sons play sports. Especially when my 7yo insists on chasing dragonflies across the soccer field instead of the ball (Really, kid? Come on–kick the darned ball! Please?) But the point is not for them to be soccer superstars. The point is for my kids to enjoy being active, to be part of a team, and to learn new skills.

Then there is my 10yo daughter.

Daughter at a Level 6 meet last spring

The polar opposite of her brothers, my daughter is a natural athlete. She competes on a Level 7 gymnastics team and pretty much lives at the gym, where she swings giants on the bar, flips handsprings and layouts across the floor, and breathes chalk dust 16 hours per week. She does all of this without complaint, despite sore muscles, lack of leisure time, and paper bag dinners four times per week.  If only I could be so dedicated! Well, I guess I am dedicated in the financial sense. This month, I spent around $1300 on my daughter’s sport (competition leotard, warmup sweats, new workout leotard, partial annual team fees, and tuition–approximately $275 per month!!!). Coming soon is competition season, during which I must be dedicated to lots of traveling, hotel expenses, and sitting on hard bleachers for hours every Saturday. But that’s what it takes to be a super Sports Mom. And for my kids, I am all in.