Random thoughts after Week 1 in Rio

We are one week into the Rio Olympics and I have some thoughts-- well, a lot of thoughts, but here are some serious (and not so serious) personal highlights. I'll focus on the big three that sociologists like to think about: gender, class, and race.

One aspect of the gendered coverage I am less convinced by though is the motherhood. If you'd ask me in 2008 I likely would have given you a   different reaction, but the fact is that I have created two human beings since then. And, honestly, I am in AWE that people like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Dana Vollmer (Girl, I totally noticed in an NBC interview when you commented on when your *first* child was born-- could you possibly be swimming pregnant?! Walsh Jennings did do just that in London...) had children who are younger or the same age as my youngest and they are performing at the top of the world, sometimes better than before. Now, don't get me wrong, it's not like my body could do what they did before childbirth anyway. But I DO find it noteworthy that they are physically so amazing not that far removed (months!) from pregnancy and labor/delivery. Additionally, they sure ARE making a big deal out of Boomer Phelps and Michael Phelps being a new dad, so I think parenthood is a big trope and the reality is that Phelps didn't grow Boomer, so this is legitimately a big deal. And if anything shows how insanely powerful women are.

  • Class is the unspoken element in much of life, but especially in the Olympic games. An overt mention came from an unlikely source for me: my personal favorite gymnast (for her personality/leadership more than her gymnastics style), Aly Raisman. During an interview with Bob Costas after her 2nd place finish to fellow teammate, Simone Biles, Costas asked about the sacrifices they have made to get here-- like missed proms, Friday nights, etc. Raisman responded that in the end it's not a sacrifice because they were lucky to have *parents* (looking at you Al Trautwig) who not only paid for them to do this sport, but who COULD pay for them to participate. I rarely hear athletes, let along younger ones, mention this. It's clear Raisman's family is very well off (watch Gold Medal Families for evidence of this), but good that she pointed this out.
  • As the Games progress class and race become more entwined, especially as we move from swimming to track in Weeks 1 and 2 (Note though the historic swim[s] by Simone Manuel though- unfortunately complete with offensive headline!). The racial background of all the participants, and especially the Americans, changes noticeably. Some attribute this to the cost-- it costs "nothing" to run, but you have to have access to a pool to swim, for example. But this is changing.

Already since Track & Field began we have a new gender story emerging-- the father/daughter pair, and coach. In general this is more positive as it shows fathers investing in their daughters, a change Title IX helped enable. One big story that already occurred, on night 1 in a Field event was Michelle Carter in the shot put. Her coach is her father, Michael Carter, who won silver in the same event in 1984, making them the first father-daughter duo to medal in the same event. There are a whole bunch of other firsts associated with this duo (check some out here) and the backstory on her getting started in the sport, as relayed here, is fascinating. Look for more NFL father/coach and Field daughter stories as Vashti Cunningham makes her debut later this week...

One of the things I liked about Carter was her putting on lip gloss right after she won-- totally what I would have done, and taking NOTHING away from her incredible physical feats. It's important to remember this is a valid choice as well... But now I need to make some superficial remarks. I can't help it.

  • I couldn't find a picture but Costas was trying to power pose it the first few nights in studio and it was awkward. He's changed it now.
  • Katie Ledecky has one of the strangest hairlines I have ever seen. At first I thought it might be from a swim cap, but no one else has this so it must not be?! Her left side is soooo much further back than her right and it's all I can see when she isn't setting world records...

Katie Ledecky of the USA celebrates after winning the Women's 800m Freestyle at the London 2012 Olympic Games Swimming competition, London, Britain, 03 August 2012. Photo: Marius Becker dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

  • It simply cannot be possible that this Canadian synchro diving team couldn't find suits that actually fit.13942418_10206799600575204_62366869_n
  • When I watch tennis on Bravo and I see The Real Housewives of New Jersey promos, it reminds me that most of these women actually have no talent/skill. A mistake on Bravo's part to so clearly remind people of that?!

If you aren't following Leslie Jones on Twitter to get her thoughts on the Olympics (especially now that she is IN RIO), you are seriously missing out. SLAY ALL DAY USA!


Ready for Rio: Gold Medal Families

Today the Olympics officially begin! My whole family is very excited (Carston and I are especially psyched for gymnastics, and John for Track & Field, though Q is undecided...). IMG_8703

In honor of the Opening Ceremonies tonight I'm writing about Lifetime's docuseries Gold Medal Families.

The 8-part 1-hour each episodes followed 6 Olympic hopefuls (artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, two divers, a swimmer, and a boxer) on their road to Rio (or not). While at times I would have liked a longer focus on individual athletes (each segment compressed a lot of short snippets on different athletes), overall I found the series riveting.

l_gold_medal_families_premiere_key_art_horizontalThe things I liked:

  1. I love that the series focused on diverse families. We see immigrant families, a single-parent family, a same-sex family. We see only children, an adopted child, a mixed race child. We see families that are quite well off and families that aren't. You get the idea. In short, it shows America.
  2. I really liked that the show didn't just focus on the "star" children, but also the parents, and *most* importantly the siblings who made sacrifices themselves over the years. Some siblings, like Aly Raisman's brother Brett, seem heavily invested, while her sisters are less so (perhaps a same-sex dynamic at play there). Others train together. All miss out on time and money devoted to the Olympic hopeful, which is important to show.
  3. While some of the training in certain sports was shown more than others, I really enjoyed that they showed how hard these young people work both "in" their sport and outside of it. For example, the divers weren't just shown diving, but also doing gymnastics-like training using computers and mats outside of the pool. They also showed rehab and weight training for the swimmer, etc. This is one of the explanations for improved Olympic performances overall, so it was nice to see.
  4. Sadly, but importantly, it also showed those "left behind." Historically the Olympic stories focus on triumph and who makes it. Perhaps because this was about TRIALS it was inevitable that many would be left behind, but it is important to show. It appears most are young in their respective sports and will continue. Check back in four years.

Room for improvement:

  1. If a second season (or Winter Olympics edition) happens, I would have liked some explanation of how each of the five sports handle Trials. It's clear that some happen much earlier than the Games begin. Why? How does that impact preparation?
  2. Connected to that is that little context was given overall for how good these athletes were. (Spoiler alert!) Two of the athletes are in Rio, one not surprising at all, given she is a repeat competitor. But how realistic were the chances when only *one* rhythmic gymnast goes, for example, or only 2-4 swimmers in each event. We never get a sense of how many are vying for limited spots and if the featured athletes are contenders, almost sure bets, underdogs, or just getting experience.

For many athletes just making *any* Olympic Trials is a success. And for others, especially those outside the US, just making any Olympic team is a major success. While we will be focused on medal counts, and colors, the next fortnight, its' useful to remember those performances truly are extreme outliers.

Enjoy the Games, and lookout for another possible medal-worthy performance from Aly Raisman's parents!


I'm an All-Around Gymnastics Fan: My events include reading, watching, commenting, and writing

I'm a big women's gymnastics fan. Knowing I love dance, sports, and nearly all things feminine and strong, this should come as no surprise.  If you know me it's also no surprise that while I took gymnastics as a kid I didn't last long.  I was flexible, but I was also fearful (I would think to myself, "Why should I risk falling off that beam when I can read a book about someone else on the beam?"). It's been a thrilling 24 hours for fans of USA gymnastics, with the women's team winning the team gold in decisive fashion.

As Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas prepare to compete in the All-Around competition I've been preparing for my own All-Around gymnastics meet.  My best event is the first- reading- and I'm really trying to up my game in the last event- writing.

1) Reading- Every four years the gymnastics shelf at the library gets restocked.  This year the bookshelf is especially full (likely due to the continued popularity of Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, and Shawn Johnson from the last Games) for both kids and adults.

First is Donna Freitas' Gold Medal Summer, which I especially enjoyed knowing Freitas is a professor (of religion).

The message of Gold Medal Summer-- that you should pursue your dreams and not give them up for romance-- is a good one for young girls (especially because the romance still comes eventually).  The protagonist, 14-year-old Joey, has an interesting back story with her sister and family which gives the book more layers than the typical middle school activity-romance-friends storyline.

Two new series about young girls doing gymnastics are also aimed at young readers.  The McKenna American Girl books, which I've written about before (and which has now been made into a movie, discussed more below) are better for the elementary school crowd. 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu lends her name and expertise to another new series, The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts, aimed at middle-grade readers.  My favorite was Book 2, Balancing Act, because it obviously is meant to reflect some of Moceanu's own experiences as the child of Romanian immigrants.

I also liked that Moceanu and Thompson present important, and often overlooked, aspects of gymnastics in Balancing Act. They highlight that earning an NCAA scholarship is a worthy and important goal for many gymnasts-- that the Olympics aren't the end-all-be-all for most.  They also highlight that there are many hidden costs associated with competitive gymnasts (it's not just tuition and fees but also ace bandages and ice packs and hair accessories).  The characters aren't as nuanced as they are in Freitas' book, but the background knowledge is a bit deeper. The New York Times Book Review ran a review of the series and Freitas' book if you're interested in more comparisons.  I thought the observation that these particular books do not portray typical stage parents of the main characters is right on, but stage moms do make appearances in other parts of the stories.

In addition to her fictional series Moceanu also just released her memoir, Off Balance.  Readers get a sense of her gymnastics training along with an often shocking look at her family life-- including the discovery of a long-lost sister.  If you've been watching the Olympics and wondering why Bela Karoyli never mentions Dominique's name, you'll find out why he doesn't by reading Off Balance.

A different new memoir about gymnastics provides some insight as to why people like me-- non-gymnasts-- get so into the sport. Dvora Meyers' ebook Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is a quirky look at how love of a childhood sport can continue throughout young adulthood and offer continuity through unstable life stages.

Another quirky, recent book is My Father's Dream of an Olympic Trampoline: Life Story of George Nissen, written by Nissen's daughter Dagmar. Because it's written by his daughter the tone is a bit over-laudatory.  But it was fascinating to read about how the trampoline was invented and marketed (and how it got its name from Nissen's time in Mexico). I also found it fascinating how Nissen's experiences as a gymnast and as a diver helped create the trampoline, now used for training in both (if you've been watching the springboard and platform diving you know how acrobatic the divers are).

Why did I include a book about trampolining here? Well it's not just artistic gymnastics that's included in the Olympics, there is also rhythmic gymnastics and trampolining.  Yes, trampolining is its own sport in the Olympics as of 2000.  I'm actually very excited to watch the Olympic trampolinists who perform some truly out of this world high-flying tricks.

2) Watching- Speaking of watching I try to give my reading eyes a rest by watching television.  In addition to coverage of the sport itself (from nationals to Trials to the Olympics) there have been two different television specials about gymnastics.

The first is McKenna Shoots for the Stars, based on the American Girl books. Despite an all-star cast-- including the somewhat head-scratching trio of Nia Vardalos, Ian Ziering, and Cathy Rigby-- the movie is cringe worthy at times thanks to an overly saccharine and staged feel.  I actually laughed out loud when McKenna, upset about an injury, melodramatically rips her gymnastics posters off her wall.  You can get a taste of it from the trailer if you watch around 1:13.

A more interesting take was a three-part, two-hour long documentary on Aly Raisman, Quest for Gold [now achieved!] shown on the Comcast network (you can also watch all of it in chunks on the website Gymnastike).  I fell in love with Aly's father and brother while watching the last part of the documentary.  There's a great scene of them watching Aly at Nationals (only her mother went with her to that competition while the rest of the family stayed in Massachusetts) and yelling at the TV for her to stick.  If you haven't seen the now viral video of her mom and dad watching her compete bars in Olympic team prelims then you're missing out.

One television show is glaringly absent from my line-up and that's ABC Family's Make It or Break It. I don't have anything against the network (as you know, I've been watching Bunheads), but I never got into this show-- probably because I didn't love the inspiration for it, the movie Stick It.

3) Commenting- While I've converted my husband to the dark side of emotional gymnastics viewing it's still great to commune with other fans via message boards and Twitter.  My favorite gymnastics blog is Get a Grip. The author also puts together the wickedly clever and funny Gym Memes.

I tweet about gymnastics fairly often and I love reading comments from gymnastics commentators and expert fans. I put together a public list of those who provide some of the best insight.

While this seems like the shortest event for me (the vault of my All-Around fan experience, if you will), it actually takes up quite a bit of time!

4) Writing- In addition to tweeting and blogging I do write articles.  Researching a recent short piece on Brestyan's American Gymnastics Clubs (that appeared in July's Boston Magazine as "From Coddled Kids to World-Class Gymnasts") was great fun because I actually got to see both Aly Raisman and Alicia Sacramone train (for the record they were both vaulting while I watched and Aly also worked on her beam set-- which she'll now be competing on in the Olympic event finals!).  I was professional on the outside, but fangirl-y on the inside.

It's been wonderful to see Aly share her gold medal with Mihai Brestyan who is clearly a dedicated, but level-headed, coach.  Even during such a busy time Mihai spoke with me for over an hour impressing me with his thoughts on developing young talent in the US.  One important point that didn't make it into the printed article is that Bretyan knows not everyone is an Aly or Alicia. He emphasizes NCAA gymnastics as a wonderful outlet, and as a way for families to recoup all they have invested monetarily in gymnastics over the years in the form of a four-year college scholarship.  Local news is already reporting families with young girls flocking to the gym in Burlington.  While their daughters might not end up as Olympians, or even college athletes, parents should know that Brestyan will help mold their daughters into all-around people.

And All-Around fans like me will enjoy watching from the sidelines.

Pint-Sized Phenoms: The "Prodigy" Edition

When I started this blog series I deliberately chose to name it "Pint-Sized PHENOMS" and not "Pint-Sized PRODIGIES." I think the word prodigy has so many connotations and can put undue pressure on children to meet a certain standard both now and in the future.  It is only certain fields that are amenable to creating prodigies (notably music and chess, mainly because of their rule-bound nature) and kids can excel and be phenomenal in a variety of fields, like volunteering, that don't lend themselves to a prodigy label. Plus, the label "prodigy" has an expiration date while being phenomenal at something can happen throughout the life course. This week I was reminded why I dislike the word prodigy.  Zoe Thomson has been getting a lot of Internet attention. She's an eight-year-old guitar player getting the prodigy label.

While Thomson's number o f viewers continues to increase I can't help but think about the long-term implications of being labeled a music prodigy.  For instance, people will make assumptions about her and her family's mental health and social skills.  Especially after this study was published last month in Intelligence. The study finds that prodigies are more likely to have autistic family members and it's gotten a fair amount of attention (here's the Slate article).

I don't think those findings would apply to sports prodigies though, as the focus there is more on physical prowess.  Take 12-year-old Travis Wittlake, Jr., just featured in Sports Illustrated as a "future game changer."  He's already won back-to-back national titles in all three types of wrestling.   His father is a former wrestler and a wrestling coach, so that's his family connection.  Travis has been in the spotlight since he was 7 (see video below) so let's hope he can handle the increasing pressures he'll face from his family and the public as rising national star.

Proving that being an early standout doesn't just apply to boys when it comes to strength sports, 10-year-0ld Naomi Kutin is truly amazing.  She's been breaking weight-lifting records for the past few years (while still observing the Jewish Sabbath, which is significant because she can't compete in the many competitions that are held on Saturdays).  Her family seems amazingly supportive and wise-- especially her mom, who you can see in this video below.

Note that, like Wittlake, Kutin's father is a weight-lifter, which has surely helped her technique and passion. (Personal question: I wonder how Orthodox the Kutins are given Naomi's weightlifting attire?)

Another set of religious athletes who I would consider phenoms for a different reason are the boys featured in this Time LightBox feature on the National Youth Boxing Championship held last week in Acre, Israel.

The boys, aged 9-13, were Jews and Arabs who squared off in the ring together-- fighting without incident and without politics.

The upcoming Olympics offer another opportunity for sports to transcend politics.  This week the US team was finalized and its rosters boost some pint-sized phenoms (and, yes, prodigies).  At 15 swimmer Katie Ledecky is the youngest team member. She'll be racing in the 800-meter freestyle and many would call her a prodigy.  Interestly, girls the same age, like gymnast Kyla Ross, aren't considered prodigies since their sport favors the small and young; veteran Alicia Sacramone, at 24, didn't make the five-member gymnastics squad, which is made up entirely of teenagers.  Just goes to show you can be young and phenomenal, but not a prodigy (Note: for more on Sacramone's coach, Mihai Brestyan, who'll be at the Olympics with his new 18-year-old star Aly Raisman, check out my recent piece in Boston Magazine!)