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Not Dreaming of Olympic Gold

I’ve been watching the Olympic gymnastics competitions all week. A gymnast would waver slightly off-balance after doing a full-twisting backflip on beam and you’d hear the commentators say something like, “Ah! Oh, that is going to cost her.” If it was worse you might hear something like “this is catastrophic.”

So when the reigning world champion didn’t make it into the final all-around competition because her “tiniest mistakes added up” and she came in behind two of her teammates, the look on her face broke my heart.

Mistakes in gymnastics are so devastating at this level – you can work your entire life to that moment and if you’re not perfect, your Olympic dream can be gone in one misstep.

I was a gymnast for many years. Every year before a big competition, I’d be in tears because I’d think about how I worked so hard all these years and tomorrow I could fall and have to wait another year to have the opportunity to try again. By then you could have gotten injured, grown too much or any of the many things that can happen in between.I was in acro-gymnastics, which is much more forgiving than artistic gymnastics. You can make mistakes and it doesn’t guarantee a loss. And you can do the sport much longer than peaking at 16. But even then (although maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it because I don’t think everyone is crying before every big meet) there is just so much on the line in such a small space of time that equals years and years of dedication and very hard work. That, of course, is not unique to gymnastics and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. But I don’t think anyone should feel all is lost if they step out of bounds with the edge of their heel. Or that success is defined so narrowly (and subjectively) that anything less than perfect makes you a loser. Sometimes accepting our imperfections is a thing of beauty – life is, as they say, much of the time about the journey and not the destination.

Dreams are meant to be chased, whether we achieve them or not. I love gymnastics and there is a lot to be said for the discipline, toughness and dedication it instills. But to me, the negative outweighs the positive here when it shapes how a girl comes to define herself. I’m sure that’s not true for everyone – I am sure some may only take away the good with them. But I think many do not.

That’s why I hope my daughter doesn’t dream of one day making the Olympic gymnastics team. I realize it’s not the worst thing that could happen. I want her to grow up chasing her dreams too, but I don’t want it to ever be “catastrophic” if she steps on the line.

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