For two years, Gigi Halloran has driven her daughter Shelley 55 miles round trip, five days a week, from their home in Northwest Washington to gymnastics practice at the Marvateens Gym in Rockville.
"Most parents pray their children will quit," Halloran says of the time-consuming trips in the afternoons after school and on Saturdays. But she adds that she and her husband, Michael, a lawyer, let their 3 children make these types of decisions. "If they lose interest, lessons stop," she says.
"I don't think it's absolutely necessary (to go that often)," Halloran adds while sitting on the sidelines watching Shelley, 10, compete in her first major event, the Capital Cup, held last week at Montgomery College in Rockville. "But the program is planned that way." The strenuous schedule requires the students to give up other activities, Halloran says, "especially in junior high school. The girls who can't study and take the workouts eventually have to give up."
The gymnasts' mother figures that her time and the expense -- $140 each month for lessons -- are worthwhile. "She enjoys it and there is a chance she can go on to big international competition. When she first started, she progressed through three levels in six months. That takes most kids two years."
Halloran, clad in a gray wool skirt and turtleneck sweater, sometimes seemed as interested in the sport as her daughter. When her husband asked if she would be attending a cocktail party with him after the meet, she politely declined and stayed at the competition until 10 o'clock that night.
Like most mothers, she sits on the edge of the bleachers, watching closely as her daughter performs a floor exercise or swings gracefully on the parallel bars or leaps onto the vaulting horse.
In a sport where back and neck injuries to girls weighing 50 pounds can be as severe as those received by 210-pound football players, Halloran says, "We all try to tell ourselves that bad injuries don't happen often. A broken finger here and there, maybe."
Shelley Halloran was not only the youngest competitor at the meet but also the only girl from Washington. A fifth grader at Horace Mann Elementary School, she is a straight-A student who has no plans to reduce her gymnastics training.
Although she did not rank high in the final standings of the Capital Cup competition, her score was better than she had expected. "I only found out the night before that I would be able to go in as substitute," says Halloran, who wears a navy blue warm-up suit over her red leotard after performing in the vaulting competition.
Competitors could score a maximum of 10 points in each of four events; a perfect score would have been 40. Halloran's final score of 27.70 (6.00 in the parallel bars, 7.95 in the balance beam, 7.00 in floor exercises and 7.75 in the vault) was "very respectable," according to one of her coaches, Mitch Speiser. Three hundred gymnasts from 43 clubs in 14 states competed in the Capital Cup.
Speiser, who teaches more than 400 young gymnasts, says, "Shelley is one of a handful that has Olympic potential. Don't ask me how I know, she just feels like Olympic caliber. If I ask her to do 10 handstands, she does 10 handstands in a performance like nobody else. She puts on a show. If I tell her that she is off line a half an inch, she corrects the problem right away. Not by three-quarters of an inch, but exactly half an inch."
Halloran took up gymnastics when she was 6 years old and living in California. "I heard about this sport when I was taking dancing lessons," she says. She dropped dance and began gymnastics.
Shelley says what she enjoys most about gymnastics is "trying to do a scary thing and finding out I can do it."
Watching the 57-pound brunet go through a rigorous routine on the beam -- walking, running and doing splits on an apparatus four inches wide, 16 feet long and four feet off the ground -- a spectator never would have detected that this agile athlete fears this activity most.
"Sometimes a miracle happens and I do good. I only fell off once," she says. "But a true miracle would be staying on the beam all the time."
On the two days a week that the young gymnast doesn't make the D.C.-to-Rockville run, she practices at home.
"I have a barre in the doorway of my bedroom," young Halloran says.
Her older brother recently gave her a book on gymnastics for her birthday, but Halloran hasn't read it yet.
"It's very simple," she says. "I just don't have time to read it."