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Aurora gymnast Anna Li  offers hope for the sport

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Updated: August 14, 2012 6:08AM

It’s no fun to watch Olympic gymnastics with old gymnasts. Our conversations go something like this:

“Did you see that move on bars? Bet she just ripped a few callouses off!”

“Remember when the bars were set close enough to wrap? Routines were prettier then.”

“Can you believe they’re doing double full lay-outs on floor? We had to tumble on wrestling mats! I didn’t see a spring floor until college!”

But our real gripe is that it is no longer “women’s gymnastics.” The competitors are usually pre-pubescent little girls.

I grew up watching eight millimeter video of the 1968 Olympics, where fully developed women danced gracefully through routines full of creativity and the expression adult human emotions that children have not yet experienced. Vera Caslavska, a 26-year old Czechoslovakian woman, won the all-around title that year.

But Ludmilla Tourischeva of the Soviet Union, with her style grounded firmly in rigorous ballet training, would remain my hero for many years to come as I competed in high school and college, trained as a judge, helped my former coach run a summer gymnastics camp in western New York, and taught at First State School of Gymnastics Wilmington, Delaware.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Anna Li of Aurora is showing the world that women can still compete at the highest levels. For her to make the U.S. Olympic Team at the ripe old age of 23, after most gymnasts have “retired” to coach or judge, gives me hope for the sport.

Gymnastics has come a long way from the days when floor exercise music could only be a single instrument (and I remember one competitor using a tape of her brother playing tuba), there were no springs under the floors to send ladies flying and flipping into the air as if launched from a trampoline, and balance beams at rural schools were sometimes made of wood! But one thing remains the same — it takes incredible sacrifice and focus.

There has always been a dark side to the sport, where young girls are pushed toward a “perfection” that includes a body without a single ounce of fat, which can perform death defying stunts. This, of course, can lead to horrific injuries, eating disorders, and postponed menstruation from the starvation and stress.

There is, of course, the beautiful side — the self expression that comes from writing your own routines rather than hiring a choreographer, the sensation of literally flying through the air, and the satisfaction of accomplishing a trick you never thought you could.

These are some of the healthier things that drive gymnasts to endure the ripped hands, bruises, torn ligaments and broken bones. And of course there is the beauty the audience sees in witnessing the jaw-dropping limits of human flexibility and agility that result from years of rigorous training.

But given the high stakes — the potential surgeries, the broken fingers and toes that will never heal quite right, and the absolutely endless hours in the gym, I have to wonder if it borders on child abuse to push small children into this life. It can stunt their physical and emotional development when they live in a gym from age 4 until their “retirement” at age 18 or 19.

I wish there were more women like Li in the sport who know the costs and freely chose the sacrifice — women who have life experience beyond the gym, who can show us something deeper in their performance than just some outrageously difficult tricks strung together — women who remind us that women’s gymnastics was once performed by women, not children with forged birth certificates.

Thank you, Anna Li. May you live out your dream; may God go with you and protect you from injury; and may you have the opportunity to show the world what real women’s gymnastics can be.

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