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?
But if she’s really great at this—and the kid clearly has some chops—then shouldn’t we push her as far as her talent will take her? Or, even better, what if there was some way to know if Lola may have a future at this? What if there were a test, a genetic screening of some kind, to see if she, you know, has a disposition for this?
When it comes to youth sports, we have always been armchair geneticists. When we see a promising Little League pitcher, don’t we always wonder if his father played high-school ball, Legion ball or maybe even college or lower minors, and then extrapolate from there? Don’t we discretely take the measure of a promising basketball player’s mother and father to divine how tall this talented fifth grader might yet grow? What is that but genetics of the most basic, Mendelian kind, the assumption that athleticism is passed down from father and mother to son and daughter, like the pigment in green or albino pea pods? But despite our careful scrutiny, if it is still a genetic lottery, why isn’t Michael Jordan’s son more like Mike? Why wasn’t Jose Canseco’s identical twin brother good enough to stick it out in the major leagues? Obviously, our genomic inheritance does not entirely define us and our athletic prowess. But we know it plays a part, a big part.
And that is where my experiment with Atlas Genetics comes in. Atlas, a Boulder, Colo., company that previously specialized in growth supplements, last year introduced a take-at-home test that detects the presence of a variant of the ACTN3 gene that blocks the expression of the alpha-actinin-e protein. This protein, expressed in both copies of the gene, one from each parent, is associated with fast-twitch muscle movements and is present in a high percentage of elite athletes, as many as 50 percent of a pool of 107 sprint athletes tested by geneticists in 2003. In results published by that team in the American Journal of Human Genetics, only 6 percent of the elite athletes had this protein blocked in both copies of their genes.
What this means, according to Atlas founder Kevin Reilly, 55, a former football player and power lifter who competed in both sports at the University of Northern Colorado, is that this test can help to determine how likely you or your offspring are to become elite, “sprint, power and strength” athletes. In other words, the best athletes among us, to a higher degree, lack this variant and so express this protein and, possibly, are therefore faster and stronger.
What Atlas seems to be offering, in other words, is the possibility that you can ascertain the likelihood that the junior-with-the-good-jump-shot is 9 years old going on Lebron. With college as expensive as it is and youth sports leagues as sophisticated as they are, why wouldn’t you want to know if your little tiger has the game to, say, become Tiger, or at least win a college scholarship? Though Mr. Reilly is very quick to stress that this test should be a part of a complete evaluation process—vertical leap, 10-yard dash, a lateral side-to-side speed drill—he says that it is very hard to do those evaluations on an 8-year-old because they don’t have the motor skills yet. This test requires nothing more than a saliva swab. Mr. Reilly believes that his test should not be taken as the sole criteria in assessing a child’s likely athletic success: “If the only thing you use is the genetic marker and forget about the other tests, then you’re going to get it wrong.” But, he adds, for a parent who is “wondering if the $10,000 a year spent on hockey programs, travel and equipment for their 9-year old is a good investment,” wouldn’t they “be better to get into a sport where they might excel when they are 18?” And his tests help to identify those tendencies.
The implications, of course, are disturbing. Do we want to know this about our children? Do we want to think, while we watch our son or daughter walk a half-dozen consecutive batters: “Of course this is happening! What do you expect if you have the ATCN3 gene variant?” Extrapolate further. As we bring to bear ever greater levels of resolution on the genome, locating and identifying the proteins and amino acids that make for beauty or intelligence, do we really want to be able to test our children for each of those traits? This debate rages beyond the confines of sport, yet it seems that here in our little leagues and gyms is where the first real-world application is happening. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s test a 1-year-old and see if they have the genetic potential to be the next superstar,” cautions Mr. Reilly. Yet that is exactly what will happen, as some parents decide they want to know if this is time and money well spent. Where does this end? Boyd Epley, the founder of the University of Nebraska strength-training program and a consultant for Atlas, admits to worrying about the potential misunderstandings. “One guy wrote in and asked if the kid didn’t have the correct gene, should you euthanize him?” Mr. Epley believes that the test provides information, nothing more. “What you do with it is up to you.” Other countries, notably China, are starting to take these tests even more seriously than the U.S., and may soon begin applying the results as part of their athletic screening processes. “This is the future of sports; this will be part of the talent evaluation process going forward,” says Mr. Epley.
But some specialists in the field describe the process as being more primitive and less conclusive. “I think the bottom line is that there is no single gene that is identified that is the gene for athletic capability,” says Theodore Friedman, the director of the University of California-San Diego Medical Center’s gene therapy program. “And there will be no such gene. … There are some correlations, but these are absolutely not predictive values.”
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.