One night recently, my 5-year-old daughter told me, “I wish you were on the women’s gymnastics team in the Olympics.” While trying not to laugh at the thought of what I would be like on some of the apparatuses at this stage in my life, I asked her why she wanted me to be on the Olympics team.
“So I can watch with Daddy and cheer for you.” My heart melted and the little gymnast that always lived inside of me did a triple flip and stuck the landing.
Not many people know that I took five years of gymnastics, which I adored, and which has fed my addiction to watching the Olympic gymnasts every four years. My daughter has taken a semester of gymnastics and both of my children regularly take swim lessons. So, this summer has been shaping up to be an exciting time for them to be able to personally relate to the events in Rio.
About a week before the Olympics started, I showed my daughter footage of both the US men and women gymnasts. She was fascinated. However, she really became intrigued by Simone Biles, partly because of her talent and the flips she could do on her floor exercises—and partly because she has the same name as a friend of hers.
After watching some of the women’s gymnastics finals, she asked me why I had stopped taking gymnastics when I was younger. I had been asked to participate in a competition, I told her, but I hadn’t understood the rules correctly and didn’t do a full floor routine. But, upon reflection, I wasn’t sure that that was why I stopped. I think I stopped because I had less time.
As the Olympics continued, we all sat down and watched many different types of events. Since my 7-year-old son is very numbers oriented, we thought starting with some swims that had broken world records was a good beginning. We showed them Katinka Hosszu’s (Hungary) remarkable qualifying swim for the finals that smashed a world record.
“Pizza arms!” my daughter shouted, as Hosszu started doing the breaststroke that my daughter was learning at her own swim class. My son jumped up and down excitedly as he watched Adam Peaty (Great Britain) break his own world record.
We watched unusual sports on streaming like women’s handball and table tennis. My daughter got bored with the table tennis relatively quickly but my son tried to figure out the complicated rules of handball with us. “It’s like soccer and basketball all in one.” I told him and he furrowed his brow.
When my 7-year-old gymnast goddaughter visited from New Zealand a couple days later, she was very eager to watch the women’s gymnastics. She understood many of the elements, and had even done some of them. She carefully watched the floor exercises, quickly noticing how bouncy the floor was to assist them with their flips. She even offered up critique for a woman doing a beam routine, and said a friend of hers could do the same thing. Her dad and I exchanged grins.
My goddaughter said she liked the uneven bars because she feels it’s where she can prove herself. But she watched Gabby Douglas’ (USA) routine and was impressed. She remarked repeatedly on the strength of the men who were doing the still rings.
This got me thinking. As we’ve watched, the kids have sometimes observed the athletes’ reactions to their own failures, successes or each other’s. “He’s not happy with that dive,” my daughter said one time as she watched a male diver burst into tears after he and his partner did a qualifying synchronized dive. I had to explain that he was overwhelmed by his emotions and crying was his way of letting it out. He was going to his first Olympics.
At other times, they’ve noticed that members of other countries have congratulated the winning athletes: swimmers will lean across lanes to hug each other, gymnasts will hug each other after accomplishing a great feat on an apparatus, teams will shake hands. We pointed out that this is good sportsmanship. Even though all of these athletes are competing to be proven the best in the world, to get medals and represent their countries, they were still being good sports. And that is a critical lesson we are always trying to teach our children. It is, therefore, wonderful to be able to have it demonstrated on a worldwide stage.
It is fascinating to watch each of the children taken different things away from their Olympic experiences. For my daughter, this will be the first one she might remember. She is really just now starting on her swim lessons, but she might think more about how to move her own arms when she’s doing pizza arms after watching Hosszu do it. My son remembers a little bit of Sochi but had nothing to relate to at the time. His sportsmanship is something he has been working on when he has played baseball.
At the end of games, the kids would line up to high-five and say “Good game.” The spirit of this was sometimes undercut by a child who would say “Bad game” or other poor sportsmanship words. It is, therefore, important for my children to see how mature Olympic athletes respond to each other as good sports.
While it is not something that we have dwelled on, my children have, sadly, learned about how some professional athletes have cheated in baseball and in the Olympic Games. We have emphasized to them that cheating is not okay. Rules are in place so that everyone is working from the same level.
More than anything, I want my children to understand that it is hard to get to the professional level of a sport and that, even at the professional level, they still make mistakes. I want them to understand that Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky had to work hard over many years to swim as fast as they do. I want them to understand that there are still important goals that are being reached by women like Simone Manuel, who became the first African American to get a gold medal in an individual swimming event.
And I want them to understand that the Olympics is a place that countries come together to compete in a friendly, spirited way—in celebration of our shared love of sports.