For young gymnasts with Olympic aspirations, the pressure to master ever more difficult stunts often takes a toll. And it’s compounded by the persistent message, implicit in the judging system and reinforced by countless coaches, that their best is never good enough.
Says Shawn Johnson, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist on the balance beam: “We just kind of grow up with this mentality that you aren’t ever fit enough; you aren’t ever perfect. And I think that gets ingrained in everybody’s mind. So you’re constantly trying to be better. And you’re constantly trying to find your worth in someone else — in what they say, how they perceive you, how they look at you. And it’s hard.”
But has the emphasis on athleticism over artistry done anything to reduce the joy of the performers or spectators? And can the answer truly be found on the faces of the athletes immersed in world-class competition? Joan Ryan wrote extensively about the physical and emotional consequences of elite-level gymnastics and figure skating in her 1996 book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.”
“They are among the youngest competitors at the Games,” Ryan wrote in an e-mail exchange about Olympic gymnasts. “They know little of the world beyond their sport. They are carrying the hopes of their parents, coaches and federation officials on their shoulders. They have one shot. And if they fail, they fail on the biggest stage there is. That’s a lot to handle for teenagers who are barely old enough to drive. . . .
“Maybe we expect them to be more joyful than other elite athletes because unlike every other athlete in the Olympics, most of the female gymnasts look like children.”
Just because a routine is phyisically grueling, Geddert says, doesn’t mean it can’t be artistic. Similarly, just because a gymnast doesn’t telegraph joy doesn’t mean she’s not experiencing it.
Gymnasts manifest joy in different ways. Gabby Douglas, 16, who’ll compete for the individual all-around title, radiates a smile that rivals Korbut’s, which stretched from one pigtail to the other. Jordyn Wieber, by contrast, has never been “a smiley person,” as U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi puts it.
Wieber’s quest for all-around gold ended in tears, when she missed the cut for the finals. But she stormed back with a lion’s heart two days later to help the U.S. to the team gold medal, proving the very definition of a champion.
“I think Jordyn enjoys what she’s doing,” says Geddert, who is also Wieber’s personal coach. “I don’t think any of these kids don’t enjoy it because they put in 30, 35 hours a week training—and for 10 years. For some, maybe it’s the challenge that’s enjoyable. But if it’s not enjoyable, you can’t make them endure what they have to go through. I mean, we’re in America! We can’t make ’em do it.”