Every four years we get to see how different parents go for the gold. Not just parents, but Olympic parents whose families are tight-knit and who themselves are self-sacrificing, with tearful post-medal stand hugs and commercials praising them for their dogged efforts to support dreams of gold. This year we even have a mom-to-be, eight months gone, competing.
While I marvel, I also struggle to understand and approve of the parenting extremes we traditionally encounter in women's gymnastics. I want to be impressed, yet feel family values and community are benched in favor of a more sleek and impersonal family unit.
Back in 1976 when Nadia Comaneci made the perfect 10s they no longer offer in the world of women's Olympic gymnastics, I remember being shocked by the revelation that Romanian girls left home and made the team their family at an early age.
Today it's Gabby Douglas' story that reminds me parents of Olympic hopefuls often make choices that both create and break families of all kinds.
Years after watching those perfect 10s go up for Ms. Comaneci, we learned of her emotional breakdowns, eating disorder and diva-gone-bad attitude. These are things that parents struggle to correct, but coaches and strangers trying to fill those roles can sometimes miss.
The question is, have these babies come a long way, or have the foster families – coaches and host families – raising them at critical developmental junctures, just gotten more adept at spinning the media? Do the ends justify the pre-Olympic means?
While Comaneci was the product of a state system, Ms. Douglas is part of a social system that should perhaps be the next reality show right after Dance Moms. There is a wow-factor to the similarity of the tug-of-war between trainers, parents, and little girls raised both to perform and be ruthless in their dedication to the sport, rather than emotional or social ties.
Douglas is well known here in Virginia Beach as a prodigy who, for seven years, was part of the Excalibur gym family. I have never been there and am not a gymnastics mom, but it's all over the papers here these past few months.
Still, visit any highly competitive training facility in sport, child or adult, and it truly is a family complete with all the love and dysfunction of the real thing. There can be infighting, sibling rivalry, there can even be parenting disagreements (between parent and coach or child and coach) that lead to a form of divorce.
Parents can be crazy, particularly during Olympic madness. (Ask even the most low-key coach at a tiny tot tumbling program anywhere in America how enrollment rockets and pushy moms sprout around the mats during this time.)
Douglas left Excalibur a year and a half ago to move to West Des Moines, Iowa – without her single mom and three siblings. According to our local paper The Virginian Pilot, "Natalie Hawkins, Douglas' mother, entrusted the youngest of her four children to Liang Chow, a former Chinese national team member who also coaches 2008 Beijing Games gold-medalist Shawn Johnson."
It's something I can't fathom doing. I would like to think I would move to Iowa and pick corn for a living before letting my teen move in with a host family and entrust them with their body, mind, and education. Of course life is always easy from the cheap seats and her daughter is an Olympian. My finances would never allow such a move and then I would be uprooting three other kids in favor of one hopeful, so again, I should lob Nerf balls and not stones here.
As the mom of four sons of course you never want to judge, lest you find yourself in a similar situation in the next pin of the wheels of fate. Yet the tendency to judge other parents is pretty powerful when something that hard core comes down the pike.
Gabby is 16, so doing the math I still wince. It makes me almost feel absurd for getting misty over my 18-year-old leaving for college in two weeks.
Yet you can't argue with the Olympic results. So maybe I'm the bad parent for not sending my sons away to better schools.
"I wanted to make my Olympic dreams a reality, so I told my Mom, 'I need a better coach, and I need a better coach now,' " Douglas told Time magazine. I'm sure she's a lovely child, I adore her smile and am rooting for her and shouting at my TV set like anyone else, but all I could think of was Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and what happened to her. It made me ask, "Who's the parent?"
However, all the reports today talk about how this Olympian has blossomed in Iowa, living rent-free with a host family that homeschools her. Her mother, by all accounts, is thrilled with the result as she and her other three children cheer on the family member they have seldom seen in close to two years.
Perhaps the stability and not just the coaching is what this child really needed coming from a home where her mother, who according the Virginian-Pilot divorced the same man twice and has struggled on disability to provide for her needs.
So everybody wins? Probably not the local trainers at Excalibur and all those like them who will forever be the Silver Medalists of the training games. They were the foster family that gave an Olympian her foundation, but ended up at odds and written out of the will. No Olympian Day card for them. While I see the logic, I also see that loyalty isn’t much of an issue in the life lesson department sometimes, when the gleam of precious medals becomes blinding as Olympic year approach.
I realize that I do not have what it takes to be any kind of Olympic parent. My hat is off to you all. Yet I wave my hat and smile for the parents who chose the path that kept them walking right beside their child. The path where everyone is under the same roof or at least in the same state at the end of the day.
I believe that there is a deeper strength we must train into a child, a tempering that forges their ability to win in life and still be on the medal stand. The kind of Olympic mom who is up at 5 a.m. making toast and hugging her child and whispering, "You can do this," in her ear before the event. I would not be able to give that responsibility to a stranger because those are the golden moments all parents treasure – win or lose.