We tell ourselves we are doing this for our children: the early mornings, the cold walk to the costly rental car, the long drive through predawn murk to distant suburb where we wait, huddled against glass doors to a not-yet-set-up-for-competition gymnasium, parents bundled in parkas and hoods, daughters wearing down coats and sweats over sparkly leotards while their mothers do a last-minute hair touch-up, securing bow, sprinkling pixie dust and applying eyeliner. The 6-year-olds, in dawn’s first light, with faces bright with artificial blush and lip gloss, stand with their teammates, the girls from NYC Elite here, the girls from Long Island Athletic Club there; the parents, yawning, sipping coffee, freezing, check their watches and wonder when this damn gym is going to open.
It had become a dreaded ritual in our family, the predawn patrol Saturday, the loading of girls into car and then the long drive and the inevitable argument and dispute about which turnoff and exit—we don’t have a GPS—while the kids slept in the back. I would wonder how did an innocent, three-hour-a-week, after-school activity evolve into a team membership, many thousands in annual fees, more spent on private training and another couple hundred on leotards and uniforms and sweats and, don’t forget, the competition fees and, oh yeah, my favorite, the $20 they charge you, as the parent, to go and watch your precious little flower in this competition. When did a little healthy fun turn into a grueling parental obligation, every bit as ghastly in its early rising and road-tripping as being a hockey mom, the same planning, mapping, spending and cheering, and ultimately for what, I began to wonder? So little Lola can be judged and—oh no, she only got an 8.2 on the beam—and take home a “Participant” trophy? Why, my wife and I begin to wonder, are we doing this?
‘One guy wrote in and asked if the kid didn’t have the correct gene, should you euthanize him?’
When I ask my daughter, Lola, if she enjoys being on the team, she says yes, “but I hate practice.”
Ah! “So you don’t like the team.”
She shakes her head. “I love the competition.”
Eye of the tiger, that little lover of American Girl dolls has, eye of the tiger.
At one point, my wife, Silka, considers offering Lola her pick of American Girl Doll paraphernalia—bed, desk, baby carriage, anything—if she would quit the team, before deciding that would send the wrong message (the message where if you think of ways to wake your parents up early, then they will give you money to stop). But like sports parents everywhere, we are, for better or worse, committed to doing everything we can so our little Lola can march onto the mat to the accompanying Axel F. routine music with her mincing, toes-pointed walk and attempt to dazzle with forward roll and back-bend kick-over. She is, at 6, more of a competitive athlete than I ever was.
And mornings like this, I curse that fact.
IS THERE A purpose in all of this? I sometimes wonder as I watch the girls and their feckless attempts to vault and execute on the beam. What is the endgame? Say Lola continues, despite her Iversonian approach to practice, to excel and somehow, after another 10 years of even earlier mornings and, I presume, plane trips to even more distant cities, where ever-larger numbers of even more coordinated and competitive little girls will aggregate in even larger sparkly human caravans of cuteness; say she reaches that upper echelon of girls who might some day win a scholarship. These girls are—how can I say this and remain politically correct? I can’t. Have you ever seen Shawn Johnson or Nastia Lukin? They are cute, adorable, and built like hobbits on HGH. Silka, Lola’s mother, is the same height as I am, 5-foot-11, and she’s the shortest person in her family. What are the odds that our little Lola is going to stay little throughout her gymnastics career? And, do we really want her to end up a female Super Mario with taped-up ankles and multiple knee surgeries by the time she’s 16?