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Is There a Michael Phelps in the House?

I’m not trying to raise an Olympian, but I hope the Games will inspire my kids to try something new.

It’s the kind of hunger you wish to see more of: a child’s desire to improve, learn more, maybe even be the best. A fire in the belly to achieve – not the kind that’s sated with a cracker.

At my house, the demand is more about handfuls of Goldfish than craving sailing or swimming lessons, some impulses we’d welcome. But the 2012 Olympic Games could change all that.

As we turn on the TV this week to close-ups of determined faces and stories of how the Olympic athletes got there, I’m hoping a little inspiration leaks out of the tube and into my kids. They may be weak in their genetic gifts for sport, thanks to me. But can I expect that, out of dozens of events over 16 days, they might discover something worth trying?

There are the kind of kids that can’t wait to get out the door in the morning, and then there’s us. Books and screen time and make-believe, too, still rule our home – indoors. I’m certainly grateful for the ease this brings to my life. We’re not the kind of parents who spend weekends on the soccer pitch or afternoons shuttling between lessons, partly because our kids are so content not to. And in the city, we don’t have a window onto a yard where I can just let the children run free. It limits our outdoor hours. So sometimes, you just want to boot everyone out.

Turning armchair – even highchair – athleticism into action does work for some. Michele O’Brien has seen it. As the gym director for TumbleKids in Watertown, she says that “every four years, clubs across the country experience a surge” because of the Olympics. “There’s usually a 20 percent increase in enrollment.” At TumbleKids, classes start for boys and girls as young as 15 months (with a parent); while Ms. O’Brien coaches the competitive team.  

For the scaredy-cat mom in me, gymnastics is far from the perfect sport. On the plus side, it’s unique and accessible in that both professional training and recreational enjoyment can start at a very young age. But according to the “Epidemiology of Injury in Olympic Sports,” “gymnastics has always been seen as a sport with a high risk of injury, given the nature of the skills being undertaken, as well as the intensity and number of hours of training….”

Plus, I need only look as far as my daughter’s class at school, in which both competitive gymnasts earned injuries and back braces this past spring. Atypical I know, but it’s still scary. Yet that combination of artistry and intensity and power keeps gymnastics a perennial draw.

For local inspiration, Massachusetts residents need only look as far as Needham and Burlington, where Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman lives and trains, respectively. At 18, she’s one of the younger members of the 500-plus Team USA, but the eldest female gymnast. The five-member athletic gymnastics squad is a contender for team gold, and team member Jordyn Wieber is the reigning world all-around champion. (If Scrabble were a proper-name game, ‘Y’ would be an easy play: Aly’s and Jordyn’s teammates are Gabby, Kyla, and McKayla).

Will watching the men and women in the Olympics make my children want to check out free Community Boating on the Charles River, or repeat that level 3 class in swimming once again to improve their strokes? I realize I’m not raising an Olympian, as Procter & Gamble’s ads have taken to pulling heartstrings with, in their stories of athletes and moms. Aly Raisman’s commute from Needham to Burlington for her training is one I’m happy not to have. Sixteen-year-old Gabby Douglas’s mom was worn down by Gabby’s siblings' persuasiveness before she let her daughter move 1,200 miles away to train. But, you would do it if your child had the dream, right?

Take in enough athletes’ stories from the Games, and you could conclude what O’Brien has observed herself in 25 years of coaching: The drive to compete and succeed comes from inside. “I can always tell the kids who want to get better,” says O’Brien. “They’re at the front of the line, looking me in the eye. You can just see it in their eyes, their body language.” She describes her own children and family as laid-back, but they’re all high-achieving athletes and admittedly busy.

The best my husband and I can do (and really, he takes the lead in this department), is keep showing our kids what fun there is to be had in the myriad offerings they can take advantage of. Whether in school, the arts, or sports – as far as motivating your children goes, O’Brien reminds me to let them dabble, learn to be on a team, and they’ll find their passion.

As you’d expect, the parents who hold their own competitions in the waiting room, comparing their kids to others on the gym floor, are not O’Brien’s favorites.  As a teacher, she wishes parents could just encourage their kids’ best effort, at every chance.  Parents can help by getting the kids to their commitments “on time, well fed, well rested, ready to go.”

She says we should support our kids and then just be happy with that. “We’re all going to have a bad day” occasionally, says O’Brien. “But if you try hard, something good is going to come from it.”

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