Genetic Engineering for the Preteen Set

When I asked Mr. Friedman, who has two grown sons, if he would have given them an ATCN3 test if it had been available, he pauses, and then says: “I don’t think I would have my children tested. I think I learned far more about my sons’ interest in sport by watching them do sport. We learned who our children were at a very early age without genetic testing.”

I HAVE TO admit to a certain ambivalence when I was asked by an editor to have myself and my daughter undergo this test, to determine her proclivity for “strength, power sports,” like gymnastics. To call my own athletic career disappointing would be an overstatement. It was a non-career, feckless in Little League, a few seasons of disappointing flag football, years of goal-less soccer capped by a completely undistinguished run of coeducational college soccer. I have continued playing soccer into my 40s, and for a few years in my 30s, was a serviceable though unspectacular mid-fielder. My wife was a more promising genetic package: tall, muscular and strong, a physical specimen, a talented child athlete, an accomplished equestrian. Who did my daughter take after?

But was this information I even wanted? Perhaps, before those early winter mornings of wiping ice from windshields and huddling in cold Long Island parking lots, I would have declined. Let little girls be little girls. Let Lola pursue gymnastics as far as her talent would take her, even if she ended up like one of those squat little homunculi who performed in the upper age groups, as long as she was happy. But then, one hung-over morning, squinting into the blinding sun rising into our faces on the Long Island Expressway—I had forgotten my sunglasses—I reconsidered. Lola didn’t love this sport THAT much. She hated practice. She complained when the coaches made them do sit-up drills—and why should 6-year-olds be doing sit-ups, anyway? Who does sit-ups when they’re 6? Shouldn’t they be playing with My Little Ponys or some shit like that instead of going through some pint-size basic training?

Maybe it would be nice to know if she really does have a future at this. Say the 577r allele, the variation of the ATCN3 gene that allows for full expression of the alpha-actinin 3, is in full effect. How would that change my feelings about early rising and unpleasant, distant gymnasiums and moms in loose-fitting denim cheering for their daughters and tinny-sounding routine Muzak played over and over and over again? The test was easy enough, a mail-order kit, a swab inserted into Lola’s mouth and then sealed in a little plastic pack, and then all of it sent back to Colorado. I did it. And a few weeks later, the results came in.

AS YOU WATCH the little girls lined up before their floor routine or their tentative first forays on the beam, you can’t help but gasp at how adorable the whole production is. The tiny little legs and arms, no thicker than celery stalks, the sparkled and shimmering leotards, the hair pulled back into tight buns, you almost wonder at how these good-natured little darlings don’t all just sit down to throw a big tea party.

It is hard to remember that these little girls are competing against each other and the other far-flung teams, from Rye and Port Chester and Staten Island, girls as eager and enthusiastic as our New York City kids, parents who seem more driven, coaches who seem more focused.

As a father, you can’t help but get caught up in the competition. I look at those other little girls in their blue-and-gold or pink-and-silver leotards and find myself silently scoring their floor routines—look, she didn’t land that kick-over!—and thinking, ‘Come on, Lola, nail it. Nail it!’

The team is invitation only, the practices three days a week, three hours a day, the routines judged and scored so that your little girl’s disappointing 7.9 is on display for all the parents to see. So much seems to be at stake—the judges, the attendants holding up the scores, the parents leaning forward, silent and tense—that it is hard to remember that absolutely nothing is at stake.

We forget, in the midst of our national orgy of sports celebration, as we slide back and forth on that vast continuum between Olympic Games and this little cold gymnasium, that for the kids, for Lola, this is supposed to be fun. Nothing else. She’s not thinking of how good she’ll be at 14 or even how good she’ll be next week. She likes dressing up in a leotard and doing cartwheels.

So it was a little bit of a surprise when she told me, just a day after her last meet, that she wanted to quit the team, citing, once again, her dislike of practice. My wife and I asked the dutiful questions. Was she sure? Did she want to give it one more try? And then my wife called the gym to tell them Lola was out.

A few days later, we receive the results from Atlas. I have the variation in one set of genes; as I already well know, I am an unlikely elite athlete. My daughter Lola, however, lacks the variation of the ATCN3 gene on both sides; in other words, she is a fast-twitch, strength-power genetic type all the way, a potential elite gymnast in the making.

But I’m never going to show her those results. Let her find her own way.

editorial@observer.com