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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fourteen

       When Nadia won Olympic gold in 1976, what made her famous wasn't just her run of perfect 10's throughout the competition, but the fact that she was fourteen years old. Four years prior, Olga Korbut was the darling of the games as a 17-year-old. Suddenly she seemed ancient.


        The age issue in gymnastics has always been controversial, and minimum age requirements have bounced back and forth over the years.  Recently China was stripped of their 2000 Olympic team medal when it was revealed that they had competed an underage gymnast. 


         Is it so bad that some of the best athletes in our sport are young teens? Maybe not. There's a lot to be said for the inspiration they give to very young children to get started in gymnastics or other sports.  And if they're that good at fourteen, why make them wait? Just as child violin prodigies may headline a symphony at Carnegie Hall, some of these gymnasts are simply that gifted. 


         But a big problem I have with gymnastics is this huge rush to the upper ranks. As the standard age becomes lower and lower for the elite level, there's a trickle-down effect.  And your 14-year-old level 6 is feeling ashamed for being fourteen and "only" a level 6. And beyond specifics, I've got another problem. Here I am trying to convince my husband that gymnastics is the hardest sport, and his argument is frankly a good one: "How can it be so hard when your best athletes are just teenagers?" 



          Thanks to my trusty DVR keyword:gymnastics setting, I happily stumbled upon the recent Pacific Rim Championships, which had both junior and senior competitions. And Jordyn Wieber is this amazing 14-year-old. These girls were so solid in the competition. Really, really impressive. And then they lined them up for an interview.  And it was so painful, that then and there I realized that maybe fourteen is not a good age at all for a gymnast. Any gymnast. Any person, really. 


          For the sport of gymnastics to be more respected, we need representatives who are older and more experienced. Because they're going to be scrutinized in the gym as well as in the press. I'm not sure that 14-year-olds should be put under the pressure of performing in front of millions of people around the world and then having to talk about it. At fourteen, I was 75 pounds of awkwardness and ill-advised bangs. I couldn't handle the pressure of conversing with a sophomore. 


          These girls dominated the competition, and they are fantastic gymnasts. But, they can still be fantastic when they're 18. Or 20. And they'll have added experience, knowledge, and poise. So what's the rush?