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!

No Longer a Gym Mom (aka: When Your Kid Quits)

Gymnastics Team Coaching

My daughter is the tiny one on the right

My daughter quit competitive gymnastics last year. At the end of a great Level 8 season, she announced, “I’m done.” And that was it. I thought it would be so hard when she gave up her sport. After all, she had been a gymnast since the age of 4 – nearly 8 years. Nearly 8 years of eating, breathing, and sleeping gymnastics. 8 years of living in leotards and eating meals at the gym, and being covered in chalk dust.

But you know what? It wasn’t that hard. My daughter was done. And she happily moved on to explore new things – a soccer team, drawing cute comic books, and playing with her brothers and toys and hamsters more often. Every now and then, she complains that she can no longer do a great split or a standing back tuck. But then…who cares? She is no longer being judged on her ability to do so. And I am no longer shelling out thousands of dollars a year to fund her sport. Which I did, because yes – I thought my daughter had that special something that could take her to the Olympics, or at least a university scholarship. (But then again, she is a disciplined, dedicated, mostly straight-A student. So who needs gymnastics for a scholarship?)

bye bye money

 

It’s funny, how our culture convinces us parents that it is not good enough for our kids to just explore the world. To paint pictures for fun. To try a few different sports for the joy of it. To toss a Frisbee, fly a kite, ride a bike. Remember when that was childhood? But now, ours is a culture of elitism and one-upmanship. Part of it is for parental bragging rights (Look at my Johnny! He just won the state Taekwondo Championship!). Part of it is fear (If my kid isn’t the best of the best at something, she won’t get into a good university).

All of it is rather ridiculous. Because here’s the thing – great universities still accept great students. Good universities still accept good students. And it makes more sense to invest those thousands of dollars into a college savings fund each year instead of throwing it toward competitive sports, hoping for that rare scholarship.

And we parents, we know this. We know perfectly well that if little Jenny never accomplishes much more than a few Girl Scout badges and a season or two of recreational volleyball, then she will not be any less of an accomplished adult than the kid who played first-chair violin until graduating high school (because we also know that hardly anyone continues to play their band instruments beyond high school, even for pleasure). And yet, we persist in our ridiculousness, pushing our kids through the gamut of competitive lacrosse and football and soccer and gymnastics, feeding them dinner in the car, and helping them with homework late into the night. And we assure ourselves that we are creating for our children a better future. competitive running for medals kids lacrosse

So I, too, told myself. Until my daughter quit. And I didn’t know before what a good thing it was to quit, until suddenly, I realized that my daughter has time. She has time to daydream. She has time to finish her homework, then play with her dollhouse, or watch Spongebob, or ride her scooter around the neighborhood. She has time to be a kid who is not on the fast-track toward becoming an elite athlete. And maybe this is what it takes to create for her a better future. Silhouette, group of happy children playing on meadow, sunset, s

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

Why Are There So Many Black Athletes in the Olympics?

Sisters Venus and Serena Williams changed the face of tennis when they appeared on the tennis scene around a decade ago, and are still winning Grand Slams and bringing home Olympic medals today.

“Mom, why are there so many black people in the Olympics?” my 12 year-old son asked me last night, when my three kids and I were sitting around the television, watching the opening ceremonies together. It was obvious why he asked that question. As nation after nation marched past on the screen, it was interesting to note how many of them had darker complexions and probable African heritage, like me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the only countries that were not represented by at least one black athlete were North Korea and Iran. Though I could be mistaken.

I didn’t really know how to answer my son’s question though. Um…because Black people are awesome at sports? No, that’s just a stereotype. Even though I’ve always been pretty good at sports. Even though my kids appear to be graced by some natural athletic talent. Even though my sisters, my brother, both my parents, many cousins, and even my aunts and uncles (including one that used to play for the Minnesota Vikings) have all excelled at one sport or another at some point in their lives. Even though I cannot recall having ever met a single black person, within my family or outside, who was not coordinated, good with a ball, and able to run fast. Ooof! Now I am only perpetuating a stereotype. Or is it?

Yes and no, say anthropologists. Although it is illogical (and, in fact, racist and ridiculous) to say that all people with dark complexions are superior athletes, there is some actual evidence of high concentrations of people in certain regions of Africa with a great deal fast-twitch muscles — the muscle structure that gives one the ability to sprint very quickly, for short distances. There are other genetic reasons, too, for success in particular types of sports, such as shorter torsos/longer legs, increased lung capacity, and higher levels of testosterone than the general population. No, not all black people have these genetic tendencies. Okay, I probably do. And at least two of my kids appear to be built like me. But not all of us! Really, I think that natural talent is only one side of the coin, anyway. It takes interest in sports, too, which often comes from one’s family culture. And some sports are expensive…one reason one comedian used to joke that “Black people only do sports you can do for free in the park.” With the rise in more affluent Black American families, we are starting to see more black athletes playing sports that were traditionally accessible only to wealthier white families, such as tennis, gymnastics, and swimming. (Let’s not forget…the stereotypes also suggest that black people cannot swim, which is now negated by the appearance of more black Olympic swimmers).

Cullen Jones is only the second Black American swimmer to qualify for the Olympics and bring home a gold medal.

So what did I tell my kids last night? “I don’t really know why there are so many black athletes. But isn’t it great to see so many different types of people come together to compete in sports?” Because although it is a neat feeling to see people who look like me do well in sports, that is not the point of the Olympic Games. It is about people with every shade of skin color, from every region of the world, representing their countries in the ultimate competition. And one day, should my own children be among the group of Americans marching around the Olympic stadium during Opening Ceremonies, I hope that people will not see them and say, “Look, there goes a black athlete!” But instead, say, “Look, there goes a great American athlete!”

Olympic gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco are excelling in sports that were traditionally closed to many black athletes, due to the high cost of training and lack of facilities.

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