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Molding Perfect Athletes

Athletes have always had the pressure to perform to the best of their ability. This also meant you had to look your best and always be in top shape. You had to fit the image that society felt you should look like. Your coaches and teammates were your worst critics. This is especially true for a female gymnast. A gymnast's body is always under scrutiny, and this has caused many problems in the sport. Girls have died from anorexia, heart attacks, etc. because of their constant strive for perfection. She always wanted to please the coach and the team. My identical twin sister and I were perfect examples of this. No matter where we had trained, the standards were pretty universal of what you should look like. Nadia Comaneci, the Olympic gold medalist from Rumania, was the image every gymnast would shoot for. Your body should look like a nine year old, even if you are thirteen or fourteen already. The media played a huge role in maintaining this strive for perfection. Television had the greatest impact on me. I will share with you some experiences I had with television in my past.

My parents are from Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. They escaped to America in 1964, but were granted amnesty in the late seventies. My sister and I lived there on and off at a very young age training with some of the best coaches in Eastern Europe. Gymnastics was a huge deal in Eastern Europe. My first memory of how television had impacted me was at a practice. Our coach had sat us down to watch an old gymnastics competition on television. It was still a communist country, so television channels were limited. But they loved their sports so that was always on the television. He constantly showed us the gymnasts such as Nadia and her colleagues and would run off their statistics. Even the announcer would display on the T.V. the stats of the gymnast that was performing. If Nadia weighed in at 75 lbs., that was where we should be at. I can still remember watching these competitions, thinking I have to lose weight, I am 77 lbs. I am fat. I have to be the perfect size.

In 1984, the gymnast Mary Lou Retton had won the gold at the Olympics. She was displayed all over the television. They called her the "powerhouse" gymnast. She was short but stocky. She did not fit the image of what the female gymnast was supposed to look like. The world loved and revered her, but she was always scrutinized for her figure. The media would speak of her, but the fact she was a different frame was always mentioned. She was the "stocky gymnast" that "wowed" the world.

I remember telling my coach that I thought she looked strong and powerful on television and that I wanted to look like that. He told me she was "lucky" and that I do not want to look like the "fat" American. I am supposed to be tiny and graceful if I really want to make it. I was with a new gym and a high school in the United States in my later years. My parents did not want me so involved with gymnastics but they knew it was my life. I thought it would be a different attitude in the U.S., at least not as strict. I was already in a few professional competitions and thought I was doing okay. My new coaches viewed some of my competitions. They wanted to tell me that on television I looked a little heavier, which made me look less graceful and I needed to lose weight. I wanted to be the image that they wanted me to be. I lost the weight. I was 16 years-old and five feet tall and 77 lbs., but damn was I graceful now.

I was 18 years old when I was hit by a drunken driver. My gymnastics was over so I was told. I was in rehabilitation for awhile, and then begged to try to get back into gymnastics again. I started with my gym again doing state competitions. I was in different shape obviously because of the accident. Also that whole puberty thing finally took full swing, so I got those things called hips and breasts that gymnasts are not supposed to really have. Their growth is stunted usually so the body grows late. The rehabilitation allowed me to develop finally because I was actually eating that stuff called food. My last fond memory of the wonderful world of competitive gymnastics was at a state meet. An announcer had made a statement that I was too old and out of shape, and that the television could pick it up. But I was given credit for "trying my hardest again". I was 19 at the time, but still five feet tall and only 90 lbs. I was out of shape, because the media and the television said so.

The world of gymnastics is improving when it comes to being more health conscious. But it still is not what it should be. The television media is not the main culprit in my experiences with gymnastics, but it did play a role. Young kids watch television and it puts ideas in their heads. They dream of being like what they see in television. Television keeps images of what we should be like alive, and influences the young minds.

February 1999

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