Kara started out doing gymnastics as something fun to do for an hour a week. But now she’s a fully fledged competitive gymnast.
I say ‘competitive’. She’s not Simone Biles yet. But she has steadily worked her way up from casual gymnast through to the development squad at our local gym. She’s now just one step from being promoted to the full squad.
This all brings obvious benefits. She is doing something she loves. She is forever practising her latest skills around the house or swinging herself around a railing when we are out and about. Obviously it’s great for her health and fitness.
And she is freakishly strong. If anything she is slightly below average in terms of physical strength compared to her gym peers but, as one of our friends observed recently, “Kara is ripped.” (Whereas I am wrapped in several thick layers of, er, padded insulation.)
Last weekend was her first external competition. This meant the excitement of an overnight trip with Mummy to visit the concrete cow scenery of Milton Keynes. A girls’ trip, a night in a hotel away from her brothers and the rare treat of a Burger King for dinner? For a six-year-old, it doesn’t get much better than this.
The competition featured girls from about a dozen different gyms, so there were 15+ entrants in each of Kara’s five exercises: tumble (floor), beam, uneven bars, vault and trampette. She came away with one bronze medal and a fifth place – a very decent showing for her first competition of which she was rightly proud.
Better still, she performed better in her judged routines than she did in warm-ups. Kara is quietly quite competitive and sets herself high standards. And as delighted as I was by her achievements, I was doubly proud because she demonstrated she has that competitive fire and focus that means she can perform at her best when the stakes are high and the chips are down. (Stake and chips – heh, there’s a half-decent pun in there somewhere.) She’ll go far in life with that attitude.
There are downsides to competing at a relatively high level, though. As with any serious sport, you need focus and dedication. What was initially one hour per week is now 9½ over three days a week. If she makes the full squad, that will increase again. Add in her weekly Rainbows and Beavers sessions and she has commitments five out of seven days every week.
Unsurprisingly, despite her boundless energy, she is constantly tired and frequently tetchy. She has already given up her weekly dance classes because she doesn’t have the time any more. Often it seems like every waking moment she is doing something, being somewhere.
That’s no bad thing but that level of dedication does require sacrifices. Higher-level gymnasts who are competing for places in the Great Britain squad train for up to 20 hours per week. That’s like fitting in three extra days of school every week. And during the holidays that punishing schedule continues; indeed, our gym puts on extra sessions, so there is no respite.
Of course, it’s not easy for us as parents either. There is the constant taxi service between our house and the gym. Kara’s gym-branded and personalised gear doesn’t come cheap. And there will be more weekend competitions all over the country. All this while remembering that we also have two other children who have their own needs and activities too.
A future dilemma?
All this is fine, to a point. But, if Kara keeps progressing, we will one day need to evlauate whether the time, expense and personal sacrifices are worth it. Can a child be a high-level sportsperson, maintain their standards at school and still have a life? It’s a near-impossible conundrum to solve.
I can see the dilemma that other parents in similar (or even more strenuous) situations go through. The ones who drive 40 miles at the crack of dawn five mornings a week to take their swimmer to train at an Olympic-sized pool. Or who sign up their junior Lionel Messi to a football academy knowing that it will impact their academic performance.
It’s not easy, either for a child or their parents. Is the pursuit of a dream worth the potential downsides and the long odds of achieving ultimate success?
For now, that decision is a long way down the road for us. The reality is Kara may well never reach that level where we have to make that call. And the level of sacrifice we have to make today is definitely worth it. Kara can’t wait to get to the gym; it’s never a chore. When a child has a passion like that, you nurture it lovingly and leave worrying about the future, well, to the future.
But one day we might have to make a difficult choice. One day.