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Stretched and strained

What kind of hardship faces teen athletes who are hoping to compete at the top level of their sport?

What kind of hardship faces teen athletes who are hoping to compete at the top level of their sport?

March 07, 2006|by CAILEIGH OLIVER

The Winter Olympics are over, but the bios of some of the athletes show just how many hardships they faced trying to get there.

I spoke to a couple of friends on my gymnastics team - 4-Star Gymnastics. Since we all have been going through some rough times with our skills, and all of us have had injuries, I figured they would be able to help explain why athletes stick with their sport.

Kayla Churchey, a 15-year-old from Falling Waters, W.Va., has participated in gymnastics for 13 years. Each week, she practices for 16 hours and also attends a dance class.

Kayla admits that sometimes she has felt a bit of pressure from her family to go to the gym. She has been sidelined with a sprained ankle, appendicitis and a recent fracture in her big toe and foot.

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But she says the person who puts the most pressure on her is herself. Why?

"I love to compete," she says, and that includes showing off her gymnastics routines in front of competitors.

I also talked with Leanne Heinlein, a 14-year-old from Gerrardstown, W.Va. Leanne practices gymnastics as many hours per week as Kayla, but she also spends almost eight hours a week practicing dance - ballet, lyrical, jazz, modern, pointe, hip-hop, cheer dance and tap.

Dancing lets her perform for an audience.

"I just love being in front of the crowd," she said. That includes audiences at gymnastics competitions.

The time commitment clashes with other things, especially school requirements. While both Kayla and Leanne agree that there is no pressure from friends to skip practice or competitions, school projects can compete with gymnastics practice. Both girls have had to leave practice early to finish up school projects.

Sometimes, they say, a day at high school tires them out before they get to practice.

There also is the risk factor. Gymnastics is physically strenuous. Kayla injured her big toe in mid-February while working a new skill on balance beam. She continued practicing for a couple of days until a doctor told her it was broken. Now she has to use crutches for a couple of weeks.

It takes a lot of determination to stick to a sport. When I first started competing, I was on a team of about 20 girls. Only four members of that team, myself included, are still competing. Some of the others quit because they no longer enjoyed it; others quit because they didn't like the pressure that a gymnast experiences; and some gymnasts and their parents were disappointed when the young athletes didn't advance their skills as quickly as expected.

There also is pressure on the families. Competitions can be held in other states, so usually the whole family is pulled into going and watching. This can put pressure on siblings, and can also make them dislike the sport.

Sports also can put a strain on a family budget. Getting involved in a sport usually means buying uniforms and equipment and paying for trips, which includes gas, lodging and food.

So why do athletes continue with sports in the face of such pressure?

Some say that athletes endure pressure for the medals, but few gymnasts are at the top of their brackets and earning medals. What motivates average or below-average athletes to practice and compete?

One motivation is the simple joy of doing something you love. Well, I can say quite honestly that sometimes athletes can get so involved that they don't want to quit. They enjoy it so much they don't care about anything but the sport.

Sometimes, the motivation to push hard is not the awards, it's love of the sport.

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