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In Awe of Teen Olympians


The author, herself a young athlete, wonders how the young Olympians can accomplish so much with everybody in the world looking on—and commenting on their every move.

As a 16-year-old runner, I get extremely nervous at my track meets. I sweat, talk to myself, and run to the bathroom. I am on a high school track team, far from elite and international competition, and I’m a mess. So it’s hard for me to imagine young women my own age, and younger, competing at the Olympic level.

As I watched Lia Neal, the second African American female swimmer to make it to the Olympics at just 17 years old, Kathleen Ledecky, youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer at 15, Erica Wu and Lily Zhang, both 16 years old and gold medal winners in women's table tennis doubles, and Missy Franklin, 17, who won four Olympic medals in swimming, I felt nervous. So what must it be like with the whole world watching and depending on them to win?

The pressure has been most acute on the Fabulous Five: Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, Jordyn Wieber and McKayla Maroney who made history by winning first place in the women’s gymnastics team competition—the first time for the United States since 1996. Not one of these girls is over 18. But they handled the pressure and stress, television cameras on them, their eyes glued to the scoreboard, as their teary eyed opponents stepped from the stage.

This isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. We’ve watched the triumphs and tragedies of teen girls competing in gymnastics before. Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, Kerri Shrug, Mary Lou Retton, to name a few, all had their time in Olympic spotlight, leaving an impact on their viewers.

However, this Olympics is different. The Fabulous Five and other young female competitors must face the intense glare of the 24-7 news cycle, endless loops of their performances online and on YouTube, and comments posted and tweeted about their every step, hug, smile, and clothing change. The pressure to be good while looking good is hard for any girl in these pressure-cooker years, but painful when you have to read or hear comments like this: “her breasts are small.” “She’s short.” “She's too fat.” “She’s too thin.” “Why doesn’t she smile more?” “Too much makeup.” “Is that acne?” “Her hair’s off.” “She’s overly muscular.” “I hate that leotard.” “Her parents are crazy...”

In many ways, it’s most difficult for Gabby Douglas because she’s African American in a sport where pretty little mostly white girls have been the norm. She’s got the weight of the black community on her back, and its scrutiny. Right after winning her two gold medals and making history, Gabby had to deal with a barrage of comments about her hair, mainly from other black women. Some twitter viewers complained about her hair, describing it as “jacked up,” “unkempt” and “embarrassing,” some users even going as far as to say she doesn’t belong on camera and shouldn’t be following the looks of her Caucasian teammates, but rather sporting the “all natural” look. The whole controversy sparked a debate about Douglas’ physical appearance vs. her graceful jumps and powerful twists and flips. This all took place during the all around women’s individual gymnastics competition, and it’s what Gabby had to view after happily winning gold.

Finally, while she was still participating in the individual competition, she responded as might be expected: like a hurt 16-year-old girl. In a Sports Illustrated interview, she said: “I don't know where this is coming from. What's wrong with my hair? I'm like, 'I just made history and people are focused on my hair?' It can be bald or short, it doesn't matter about (my) hair.”

But it was Douglas’ mother who really blasted back, telling Fashionista.com, “How ignorant is it of people to comment on her hair and she still has more competitions to go? Are you TRYING to ruin her self confidence?” Even actress Gabrielle Union responded to the comments, posting on her twitter account, “Gabrielle Douglas is a winner I am proud of her. She is beautiful exactly the way she is. She's #Gabulous. #byehaters. Anyone who insults a TEEN who's accomplished so much while displaying grace and dignity is beyond lame and should be ashamed of themselves. #byehaters.” In her last events, the beam and bar finals, Gabby did not do as well as she had hoped, but the truth is, who would blame her. At this point no one should be surprised if the stress and exhaustion finally caught up to her.

By and large, the girls wear the pressure well—or the best they can. And we teenagers must acknowledge and appreciate that. While my classmates and I were practicing running or hanging out with each other, spending our summers vacationing or working on summer homework, the Fabulous Five, Michael Phelps, Allyson Felix, Rebecca Soni and Leonel Manzano (to name a few) were in the gym, the pool, the weight room, and on the track working out, all in order to find their place in the Olympics and bring entertainment to fans. In an age in which kids and teens get far too little exercise—and spend far too much time on Facebook—these Olympians are role models. We should look to them in order to see that anything can be accomplished with enough focus, dedication and hard work.

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