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Parenting elite athlete can  become an Olympic-size task

Only 11 years old weighing 64 pounds Ugne Dragunas is already competing an elite level world rhythmic gymnastics. | Phocourtesy~Dragunas

Only 11 years old and weighing 64 pounds, Ugne Dragunas is already competing at an elite level in the world of rhythmic gymnastics. | Photo courtesy~Dragunas family

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Updated: August 21, 2012 6:11AM

As I read — and fell in love with — the story of Olympian Anna Li, I couldn’t help but smile when looking at the photos of her young fans in the audience, as the Waubonsie Valley grad received her exuberant community send-off recently.

It’s no wonder these little girls were awe-struck. The 23-year-old alternate on the U.S. gymnastics team represents what the spirit of The Summer Games are all about: talent, tenacity, sacrifice, passion — and parents who know how to navigate that slippery slope between motivation and downright pushiness.

Li’s parents, former Olympians themselves, can obviously relate to their daughter at every level of accomplishment. But most parents aren’t that lucky. Talk to Ausra Dragunas, a personable scrub technician at Edward Hospital in Naperville, and you realize it’s not easy being the mom of a child who plans to turn Olympic dreams into reality.

Only 11 years old and weighing 64 pounds, her daughter Ugne is already competing at an elite level in the world of rhythmic gymnastics. In June she placed eighth at the Junior Olympics in Orlando, Fla. She just returned from Bulgaria, where she trained with former Olympians, placing fifth in the Pearls of Varna competition held there. And the end of July, she’ll head to the U. S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY, as a member of the Rhythmic Youth Elite Pre-squad.

The first challenge a parent faces, says Dragunas, is figuring out what the child really wants to do ... and that’s not necessarily the same passion Mom or Dad had. From from an early age, her daughter showed “zero interest” in the activities she enjoyed, like softball, diving and dance. And she turned up her nose at ice skating, as well

Then one day, Ugne watched a live performance of rhythmic gymnastics — and she was transfixed. The child became upset when anyone even tried talking to her during a routine, and wanted nothing to do with food or drink as she sat in the audience motionless, eyes glued to the performance in front of her.

A star may have been born, but keeping its light burning can also be a challenge. This family, however, is used to hurdles.

Dragunas was a nurse in Lithuania and her husband Girenas was a forester, when their home burned to the ground after a lightning strike. The couple loved their homeland, but realized things were “going downhill” in the small country, with little opportunity for the next generation. After the fire, Dragunas won a green card lottery. The couple and their only child at the time, Ugne’s big brother Palius, arrived in Chicago in 1999 knowing no one, hanging on to a couple of duffle bags that contained all their possessions. Like so many immigrants before them, however, the couple worked hard — Dragunas cleaned homes and did child care before starting at Edward six years ago — and began to reap the benefits of this land of opportunity.

Ugne — born here and now going to school in Darien, where the family lives — showed remarkable skills soon after starting rhythmic gymnastics. But nurturing those talents doesn’t come cheap, with club fees, lessons, training camps and travel, both here and abroad. Sacrifices had to be made, including Mom’s own career goals: Because she kept so busy with her daughter, Dragunas says she’s not yet found time to study for her registered nurse’s license here.

All that being said, Dragunas believes the toughest challenge is knowing when to pull back.

“Ugne is the one doing the pushing,” she insists. “This is not about my dreams. I can support her, but it has to be what she wants. ... She is learning how to make choices.”

Dragunas and her husband are no different from most parents these days. Everyone wants to see their kids succeed, and when a child shows promise, we invest time, money and emotion in their dreams — often more than is affordable. It’s why training centers, clubs, personal instructors and traveling teams abound. It’s why parents give up weekends and vacations and news cars and family dinners — all to give their kids an edge.

That leads to an abundance of talented kids with big dreams, some of whom are very, very good. But in the end, only a tiny fraction are good enough.

Dragunas is convinced the difference lies in the heart of the child. “When I’m tired and suggest skipping practice for a day, my daughter says, ‘No, Mom, you can sleep in the car.’

“I don’t know where all this will take her,” she adds. “But as long as she believes in herself, we will believe in her as well.”

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