Achieving The Perfect 10
Aired August 10, 2003 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, now, jump, jump. Give me some feeling, please, on this opening over here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like it. I like it. Come on, now, swing and arms up!
BILL STRAUSS, DIRECTOR, PARKETTES NATIONAL GYMNASTICS TRAINING CENTER, ALLENTOWN, PA: One percent of all the athletes in the United States reach the level that these kids reach.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're in the air, and you're going right through it.
SILVIO COCCIA, FATHER OF PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: Kids who don't have the talent and the heart ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's just pretty bad.
SILVIO COCCIA: ... they'll weed out sooner or later.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mighty painful.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you think of all the things that go wrong, that's where the fear sets in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The power of negative thinking.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's like going to extremes. And I never thought I was going to go there.
KRISTEN MALONEY, FORMER PARKETTES GYMNAST: We don't like second place in this country. Second place isn't good enough.
BOB BIGELOW, AUTHOR: Yes, someone's going to break through and become maybe the teenage or adult superstar. But how about all the other ones who didn't make it?
(END VIDEO TAPE)
AARON BROWN, HOST, CNN PRESENTS: Whatever happened to, it doesn't matter whether you win or lose - it's just a game. You're supposed to have fun. An estimated 20 million children play in sports leagues throughout the country, but increasingly "play" has become a relative word.
Welcome to CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown.
There's trash talk and fist fights, a win-at-all-costs mentality. And that's just from the parents in the stands.
The line between supporting our children and pushing them too far is a fine line indeed. Today youth sports is a multi-million dollar industry modeled after pro athletes.
And like those professional athletes, children are expected to perform under pressure, to play with pain, to sacrifice family for tournaments and training far from home.
And perhaps nowhere are the pressures greater than in elite gymnastics. With just six Olympic slots every four years, the competition is fierce and the stars are few.
CNN's Carol Lin explores this unique corner of children's sports, as CNN PRESENTS "Whatever It Takes: Pursuing the Perfect 10."
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
CAROL LIN, CNN NEWS: Allentown, Pennsylvania - a factory town. An unlikely setting for this warehouse. It holds 1,000 Olympic dreams.
Some parents commute up to five hours. Others quit their jobs and move across country, so their children can train here at Parkettes, a gym that's been producing Olympians for 30 years.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Head up, head up. Good girl. Good job.
LIN: The girls start as young as two.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Roll all the way. Oh, oh.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.
LIN: In a race against time and even their teammates.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Twist. Roll. All right.
LIN: The coaches are trained to find and nurture champions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go.
LIN: The ones who have a rare combination of mental top hopes, physical prowess ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, guys.
LIN: ... and perhaps most importantly, rock-solid support from their parents.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, come on, come on. Don't stop.
LIN: Today these girls are preparing for a nationwide talent search that will rank them against other 7- to 11-year-olds.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fourteen, 15.
LIN: It's called TOPS - short for Talent Opportunity Program.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, strong.
LIN: It's purpose, to identify the strongest, fastest and most flexible girls and keep tabs on them until they're old enough for the Olympics.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, Ash. Come on, girl.
LIN: Ashley Barry, age seven, and her parents, are about to find out if she has what it takes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, that's a good one.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ashley, first of all, you notice right off the bat, she's incredibly strong. She's got a beautiful body and she's very lean.
LIN: But there was something that neither her parents nor her coaches knew at the time. Ashley was training on a broken ankle. X- rays later indicated she broke it in practice the week before.
MRS. BARRY, MOTHER OF PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: One of her coaches said to Ashley, you know, your name isn't - carries - I don't know, all these people ...
ASHLEY BARRY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
MRS. BARRY: ... is that it? The one who vaulted and, you know, won the gold medal on the broken ankle.
But she used to be so sensitive about any pain. Her tolerance was very low. And I said to her, you know, Ashley, gymnasts get hurt. And sometimes you can get hurt in gymnastics, and, honey, you've got to learn how to suck it up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Careful. Watch your foot.
MRS. BARRY: Today's an exciting day.
ASHLEY BARRY: Yes. (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
MRS. BARRY: You don't have to be nervous.
LIN: During the two-hour drive to the competition, Ashley's ankle begins to swell.
MRS. BARRY: This is enough, kiddo.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ashley, what are you a good gymnast in?
ASHLEY BARRY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Suck it up, that's right.
MRS. BARRY: Yeah, but not too much. Honey, your ankle's swollen. Ashley, here you go.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Push, push, push, push, push, ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just one more. Come on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jump.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More, more, more, more.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You've got it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Oh, can I say ooh.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, what are they going to do with her ankle?
LIN: Ashley's parents aren't allowed inside the gym (ph). So they watch her through the window.
MRS. BARRY: When she did the pushups, that upset me. Because I didn't realize at first that she was doing it on one foot.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't drop your head starting.
MRS. BARRY: I was just so upset. And I thought, well, it's my duty to this little child.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Push.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, you can do it.
LIN: As the day wears on, the pressure builds.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't just give up, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Do it.
MRS. BARRY: You'll see many break down, where they just start crying and had to leave.
You could see how hard they were on themselves. And I don't want Ashley to be like that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Go!.
LIN: Because of her injury, Ashley sits out the sprints ...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big jump, big jump.
LIN: ... and the vertical jump. But her coaches let her compete in everything else.
MRS. BARRY: It was funny, with those leg-ups. She was pounding her ankle against the bar. And this child had breaks in two parts of her ankle and a ripped ligament. And it was going right through me.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, baby. You've got a good swing. Come on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, come on, come on ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, baby. One more!
MRS. BARRY: No, they were all proud of her. Her poor ankle.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Girls, let's not let down, OK? Keep working really hard on your condition. Work even harder. Don't stop. Don't let up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How did you do?
LIN: Ashley and her teammates won't know if they made the cut for a while.
MRS. BARRY: Where's your crutches?
LIN: But they don't seem too worried right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ashley, do you think that's going to the Olympics?
ASHLEY BARRY: I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think they're so dedicated. Us having (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... I mean, they enjoy it. They look for it. And it's such a good structure and discipline for them.
LIN: A month later, Ashley's parents find out if she made the team.
MRS. BARRY: Ashley just missed it by six numbers. Because what they had done with TOPS was they give her zeros for what she didn't compete in. And I guess we really didn't expect that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Gymnasts rule.
LIN: Despite the setback this year, Ashley's parents haven't given up on the Olympic dream.
MRS. BARRY: Go USA.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, neat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cool.
LIN: They think she has what it takes.
MRS. BARRY: She does want to go to the Olympics.
She is very driven in her sports. There's a change that comes over her, you know, let's get this done. Let's do our best. And to me, that's remarkable.
LIN: For Kayla Stark (ph), age 10, gymnastics is a job. Four to five hours a day, five days a week.
She's on the brink of becoming an elite - the exclusive club from which Olympic team members are chosen.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a rollercoaster. I mean, one day she'll go into the gym and she had an excellent day. The next day it's, you know, crying.
LIN: Her parents try to keep her going by giving her incentives.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, what are some of the things that you've gotten out of us over the years?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A cat.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cat.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hamsters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hamsters, bedroom furniture. Sort of the bribe-encouragement method.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, ...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm so proud of you.
LIN: Like other parents of talented athletes, Kayla's parents are haunted by a question. Is this her dream or theirs?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are we really staying altruistic to her dream to encourage her? Are we doing her harm?
LIN: Doing harm or nurturing a champion?
For Tiger Woods' father, it was never a question.
BOB BIGELOW, AUTHOR: Because, obviously, Tiger Woods is a great golfer and seems to be a pretty good kid. He has ruined my life the last five years.
LIN: Bob Bigelow is fighting a losing battle against a hyper- competitive youth sports culture. A former pro basketball player and author of "Just Let the Kids Play," he says too many parents push their kids so they can be like Tiger.
BIGELOW: When I was a child, the vast majority of my sporting activities were playgrounds and sandlots, just like this place here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who's the faster one? Let's see.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go, let's go.
BIGELOW: Now the majority of our youth sports activities are organized and governed and administrated by adults.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, look at that.
LIN: Here in the Virginia suburbs, parents are demanding lessons for kids, as young as three.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is her second sport. Tennis is really her first sport. So, maybe one day she'll be the next Venus or Serena. We're hoping.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do it - all the way around.
LIN: Parents are hoping and paying more than ever before.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These kids are paying anywhere from $500 to $1,500 just to join the team. And then they have to buy all the accessories.
And by the time you're done with the hotel fees and everything, you might have spent $5,000 on your kid by the end of the year.
LIN: Joe Sipaloni (ph) is a softball dad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's very competitive today. If you're sitting on the sidelines and you're watching your kids not play, it gets - it really gets tough.
LIN: How tough?
It was a typical Saturday afternoon football game.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was about five or six guys just (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An outraged fan triggered a brawl when he punched one of the players in the head.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fight continued here next to the stand. That's when parents jumped out and got involved in the melee.
BIGELOW: The biggest problem in organized youth sports is very simple to explain -- too many adults who want to compete through children.
LIN: What's the impact on kids when adults take their games too seriously? Child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld.
ALVIN ROSENFELD, CHILD PSYCHIATRIST: I think kids feel that they're going to be winners or they're going to be nothing.
I think there's every reason to believe that this overscheduled life style is directly connected to the amount of ADD, depression, eating disorders, et cetera, that we're seeing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're going to start on this mount.
LIN: Brenda Uzelac is the mother of an elite gymnast and she's a coach.
BRENDA UZELAC, GYMNASTICS COACH: You have a lot of the parents, I think want to live the gymnastic world through their kids.
And some of them just really are miserable. But they keep doing it and doing it, because they want to keep their parents happy.
That's usually the type of kid that will be a very talented gymnast, but in the end will burn out.
LIN: In fact, 75 percent of all children drop out of organized sports by age 12. Why? They say it's not fun anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Slow, slow.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The biggest thing for Kayla (ph) is to get in that rut, quit and then regret.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good girl.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As she begins to have doubts, should we encourage her to quit because it's taking away her childhood or other aspects of her life that maybe she wants back? And some days, as parents, we're like, you know what? Please, you know, let us off this train.
BIGELOW: What we are in youth sports to do is to develop better children.
LIN: Bob Bigelow's message to parents - stop trying to manage their careers and just let the kids play.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're on my team. BIGELOW: The honest answer is, they don't need us. I'm trying to bring the competitive nature of youth sports back to the children where it belongs.
LIN: At the Parkettes Gym in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the elite gymnasts are the jewels in the crown.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You get the blue right over there.
LIN: To stay on top, they work six days a week year-round, with fewer than two weeks of vacation a year.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make it look good.
LIN: All of them are home schooled.
Seven-year-old Ashley Barry's mom studies the elites for signs of things to come.
MRS. BARRY: I look at the older girls.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the way to your toes, guys, ...
MRS. BARRY: And I just -- I just can't imagine. In a way, I sort of - I hope that she decides she doesn't like it, because it's hard.
I mean, there's a lot of sacrifices for the family when it gets up to the higher levels.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where's Nicole Harris?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nicole Harris, she's like the troublemaker. Right there.
LIN: Nicole Harris is an elite.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Excellent job.
LIN: She left her family in New York when she was 13 to train at this gym, which meant living with her teammates' families in Allentown.
Her coaches say she's a relentless contender. But her emotions get in the way.
NICOLE HARRIS: I get very frustrated.
Like, I want to do something perfect, and I can't. And I try over and over. And then I get so mad.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait a second. Where are you going?
ROBIN NETWALL, GYMNASTICS COACH: Nicole. Now, Miss (ph) Flexibility. My utmost challenge. Loves to be onstage. Loves to be number one. Gets very, very upset when she isn't.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see this? I lost half of that because of Nicole.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five different moves from Nicole Harris.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, all right ...
LIN: At the elite level, the drive for perfection has to come from the girls themselves. And parents are often pulled along for the ride.
Today, Nicole's parents and younger sisters are moving from Long Island, New York to Allentown, saying good-bye to their old life as they follow her Olympic dream.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So how were you when you (UNINTELLIGIBLE), around eight?
NICOLE HARRIS, PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: I saw it, yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She worked out that as her -- would be her signature. When she wins gold in 2004 ...
NICOLE HARRIS: Hey, I ...
MRS. HARRIS: My last day in the OR.
LIN: Nicole's mom is leaving a job she's had for 16 years.
MRS. HARRIS: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wish you and your family, and especially your daughter, who is the reason for all of this, nothing but the best.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
LIN: Her younger sister Kim has mixed feelings.
KIM HARRIS, SISTER OF PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: I don't want to leave my friends. And next year's fifth grade, and I want to graduate with all my friends.
Nicole gets whatever she wants. Yesterday I asked for something and my parents said no. And then my sister asked for two things, and they said yes. And my dad took her to (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi, there.
LIN: Nicole's dad will keep his job as a New York City firefighter, which means commuting 2.5 hours each way.
MR. HARRIS: Remember this (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?
NICOLE HARRIS: Yes. MR. HARRIS: Look how small you are.
LIN: Her parents say Nicole's belief in herself keeps them going.
MRS. HARRIS: I say to myself, maybe we should just stop all this. But that's not Nicole. She wants to go and she wants to do this. So, we're going.
I mean, I can't imagine Nicole without it in her life.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Go up and square out.
LIN: Her family may have faith in Nicole, but she doesn't always have faith in herself.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eyes and straight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Unbelievable.
NETWALL: You've got to believe in yourself. Remember, you don't have to hammer and work so hard.
Come on, now. Nice and straight. Straight legs.
NICOLE HARRIS: Sometimes it gets very hard and you're like, I can't do this anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I like (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you just -- you don't have enough rest (ph) before it.
NICOLE HARRIS: I want to do it. I really do.
NETWALL: You know my answer to that. (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
STRAUSS: Nicole, where's your pride? You've got to fight through it. You've got to fight through this emotional boloney.
You know what your problem is? You care too much. Just relax.
You're too intense. You're trying too hard. You're working too hard. Just relax, OK?
LIN: As Nicole's family says good-bye to their old life, Nicole wonders, too, what she's given up.
NICOLE HARRIS: I mean, I'd like to see what it'd be like if I didn't do gymnastics.
We all do. We all say, what would it be like? We all do. We always talk about that.
I don't think I'd be able to go back to school and feel normal ever again. I don't think I could. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now both feet. Want you to try it again, five times.
LIN: Nicole Harris is one of nine elite gymnasts as Parkettes, any of whom could become the next Olympic star.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on, Annie, over the top.
NICOLE HARRIS: I'm 12.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Open and open again.
ANN FOGERTY, PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: I'm nearly - this is going to be my second year.
LIN: Ann Fogerty is one of the youngest elites.
NETWALL: Just because you're 12 years old doesn't mean you have to look like a 12-year-old.
CHRISTINA COCCIA, PARKETTES ELITE GYMNAST: Sometimes it's like something aching. Your mind's saying, OK, stop. You can't do it anymore. But then your heart's like, you have to do it.
LIN: Christina Coccia, known at the gym as "Sharky," has had a rocky climb to elite status.
SILVIO COCCIA: I told her a couple of times. I said, look, it's just chewing everybody up. I mean, if you're not going to take that next step, then let's just get out.
And she just looked at me and said, "no."
OK Sharky whatever you want.
CAROL LIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Krista Jasper's coaches says she's a natural.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's a performer. She loves to perform.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): She's an American idol. She should see an Olympic team eventually.
You can't do any less than what I'm asking. Or you might as well not do it.
LIN: Pressure for these girls is a constant. Pressure not only from themselves, but from coaches who point out every bobble, every imperfection.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Do you see this? These are all deductions, OK? Stay with it.
LIN: Coach Donna Straus (ph) says the sport is good for the girls. Maturing them beyond their years.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): You're in this position, Crystal, I don't care that you don't feel like doing this.
I find that teenagers today don't have a work ethic. Gymnasts have a very good work ethic. And they know how to budget their time, and they know how to strive.
BILL STRAUS (ph): We're going to keep going until we do it.
LIN: Donna and her husband Bill Straus have run the Park Heads gym for over 30 years. Using different coaching strategies to turn the hormonal teenage mind into a finely tuned machine.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Yes, there you go.
BILL STRAUS (ph): I don't know about your event, but their doing great bars.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you're having a bad day, he'll give you a hug. He'll sit down and talk to you. Big bear hugs.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They play the good cop/bad cop pretty good.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
BILL STRAUS (ph): Take that out. I don't want to even see it.
Donna's always more strict and stern with them.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Listen to me, demand.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She'll push them just as hard as she thinks she can push them. And that's what makes champions. That's why Parkettes (ph) has the legacy that they have. And that's why they have the elite team that they have.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Where's the dismount? Did you not listen to the following directions?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Donna wants her way, she gets her way.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): It has to have feeling.
LIN: What Donna wants from Annie (ph), is more star power.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Come on arms, arms, arms. Sell Annie, sell, perform.
ANNIE: My coach is always reminding me, you have to have personality. And sometimes I don't. Like smile, and be like showy, and sometimes I don't like to show in front of people.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Annie, it's not going to work to the level of the script. You're moving back, and that's not a threat. It's a fact.
We coach Annie hard. The job that we have to do with Annie is daily.
BILL STRAUS (ph): Don't just jump off.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): It's daily reminding her for her work ethic, for her belief in herself, for the constant output.
LIN: But if you ask Annie, she wouldn't mind more hugs.
ANNIE: I would like that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, I don't think that's something you're ever going to have to worry about. Over hugging is not likely.
LIN: It's the night before the elite zone meet. Annie's parents try to keep things low key. But her coaches expectations are clear. Big smiles and no mistakes.
Sharky is exceeding her own expectations. But Nicole knows she could have done better.
BILL STRAUS (ph): I keep telling you, and telling you, and telling you. Stop second-guessing yourself. Let's show a little bit of maturity here please.
LIN: Annie's coaches are watching her, to see how she handles the pressure of competition.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my gosh! What the heck was that?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on Annie. Come on Annie.
ANNIE: Well I try to picture just like me, and the beam, and nobody else. But sometimes I get nervous, I'm like shaking. I don't like that. I just tell myself to have fun, and try my best. Because that's what really counts.
LIN: Her coaches are not pleased with her performance.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Annie, why are you competing? What is the purpose of competition? To try to win? Do your very best? I mean do you have any goals? Or do you just think it's more important to have bobbles of people give you attentions? I mean what is the purpose of that performance level?
ANNIE: I think she, I think she was mad.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): We have other stuff that could go in, but we can't put it in because you just aren't ready for it. I'm not done. Because I'm tired. I'm very angry right now, at you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think she just was talking about you need to focus more on practice.
ANNIE: I didn't really get why she said that, but I don't know.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): (UNINTELLIBLE) walk in here thinking that they're great, even when they're not. She does the opposite. And she could be really great right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know where your coming from. And I think that was the point that she was trying to say. You know, treat everyday like an important day. But it's not an easy thing to do. It's not an easy thing to do.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Think what you're doing now.
LIN: Are adults asking to much of these girls?
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Solomon, could you like help with her?
LIN: Child psychiatrist Alvin Roosenfeld (ph) says yes.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Just settle yourself down.
ALVIN ROOSENFELT (ph): Kids are not being permitted to be kids. They're being forced to be professionals. And I think we're robbing their childhood.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): They're kids. And if there's not someone there motivating and demanding the finished product, they're not going to put in 100 percent effort. So it's all what the coaches demand.
LIN: At the Elite Zone meet in Allentown, Christina Kasha, the one they call Sharky (ph), is feeling confident.
CHRISTINA KOSHA (ph): I connected all of my seals, and got a really good score. And that got me even more pumped up for floor.
DONNA STRAUS: Come on push it, push! Come on, come on. You alright? Keep going, keep going. Sit down. Sit down. Whap your head?
KOSHA: On my last pass, I think I got a little over anxious, and I missed my legs on my double pike, and landed on my head, and had a little bit of a concussion.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She was having an excellent meet. And when she did that, it's like everything just drains out of you. And it's like now what? And it's hard to see them fall like that.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Work your arms in the double lay. OK. Work straight. Head up, head up. Don't let them know it hurt.
LIN: Sharky heads back to the gym to prepare for the next big meet. Working through tendonitis, and fevers to boot, and inflammation of the growth plate in her heel.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So what did they tell you when your heels were hurting you?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Suck it up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because there's nothing you can do. There's nothing for the heels you can do. So it's like suck it up, you'll be OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just told her I said...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Almost all gymnasts go through it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... I said you have to stick with it.
LIN: Olympian Kristin Malony trained at Parkettes, where her determination to suck it up is legendary. Now she's on the disabled list of UCLA's gymnastics team.
KRISTIN MALONY: I've had four surgeries on it. Had a couple rods put in. Had some dead bone scraped out. And stuff like that, but it just didn't want to heal.
LIN: Elites like Kristin are a challenge for doctors, says UCLA's teen physician, Arellia Motine.
ARELLIA MOTINE (ph): ...coaches. They've learned to ignore signs of pain, which obviously that's not a good thing.
LIN: But Coach Donna Straus says the ability to deal with pain separates the champions from the rest.
DONNA STRAUS: You know we've had gymnasts that have injuries. And if the doctor tells them it's not going to get worse, and if you can work with the pain, you can do it. And we've had kids able to do that, and some can't. And that has to come from them.
LIN: As youth sports become more competitive, with longer seasons, and extra practices, doctors say they're seeing more over-use injuries. As many as eight million every year. Little League elbow, runners knee, swimmer shoulder, gymnasts back, all of these were almost unheard of in children 20 years ago says Dr. Motine.
MOTINE (ph): Instead of free playing that we used to see when we were younger, we're seeing young kids that are exercising from four to six hours a day, five to six days a week. So we're seeing a lot more problems with burn out, with over-use injuries.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank goodness it's Friday.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And back doing your usual training? Haven't stopped at all?
LIN: The gym refers injured girls to Dr. Gregor Hawk (ph). Paige Sypiloni missed the last meet due to back pain.
GREGOR HAWK: So now if I bring you up and over this way, any pain?
PAIGE SYPILONI: Yes.
LIN: Dr. Hawk looked for cracks in her spine, but didn't find any.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How's your back today?
LIN: Despite the pain from over-use, she's cleared for the next competition.
HAWK: Gymnasts are so very active, we can't do what we do to an average athlete or a high school athlete, and put them at rest, and let them heal. If we do that, she'll lose her season.
DONNA STRAUS: Tall, nice.
LIN: Nicole Harris is also working through her back pain.
NICOLE HARRIS: I think that no matter how much it hurts, you just have to deal with it. And the coach tried to tell me that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a very fine line when you can -- are aloud to step in as the parent. I mean like this is my kid, this will always be my kid. But you have to like kind of walk on eggs shells with it.
LIN: The girls not only learn to work through their pain, but to worry about their weight.
JOHN HOLMAN: If you don't teach them at a young age how to control their bodies, when they hit 14, 15, you have a big problem.
LIN: Nicole knows at 14 what she eats is a great interest to her coaches.
HARRIS: I just want regular pizza.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIBLE) and then Mrs. Straus is going to say don't get that.
LIN: But just one comment from a coach could send a perfectionist teenage girl down the road to an eating disorder, according to Dr. Motine (ph).
MOTINE (ph): They're like God sometimes to the gymnasts, and what they say is like gospel to the gymnasts. They need to be very careful.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there's a meet coming up you get weighed. I mean it's the difference between like a quarter pound.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't have a scale until I don't know, six months ago. Because I knew she would be obsessive about it, and she is.
LIN: The Parkette coaches say they show the door to any gymnast with an eating disorder.
LIN (on-camera): But like other elite athletes, gymnasts are always at risk of falling into the female athlete triad. A chain reaction that starts with exercising to much, and eating to little. That can stop the menstrual cycle, which can lead to brittle bones, and premature Osteoporosis.
MOTINE (ph): Unfortunately, we have seen athletes in their 20s that have has all of those problems, and they unfortunately have -- some of them have had bones of a 70-year-old.
LIN (voice-over): : Over exercising can also delay growth and puberty for a while. Which isn't necessarily considered a bad thing in gymnastics.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you grow four inches, it just changes everything. The mass, the body, the frame. If you grow that much, it's just going to make it that much worse.
LIN: Short, thin, and prepubescent has been the image of perfection since Olympian Nadia Komenichy (ph) first achieved a perfect 10 at 14 years old, five feet, and 85 pounds. But perfection has a price, says child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld.
ROSENFELD: If your goal is to be perfect, you always will be inadequate. And you always will have a problem with your self-esteem. If your goal is to be the best you can be, and to really try hard, you'll do fine.
LIN: Here at this classic meet at Virginia Beach, gymnasts from around the country will try to break out, as up and coming stars.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): No matter what happens, OK?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK.
DONNA STRAUS: I want to see you up your performance level.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on Annie.
CAROL LIN: Annie coaches hope she'll impress the judges.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go. OK Annie (ph), keep them coming.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have to make this kiddo, you have to make this. Way to give up Annie, way to give up.
ANNIE: When I finished it, I just said thank God I'm done.
DONNA STRAUS: Was that a try what you just did? What kind of a try? Is there such a thing as a quitters try like lackadaisical?
BILL STRAUS (ph): Let's see what Nicole does on the floor.
LIN: Coach Bill Straus (ph) is worried about Nicole. Whether she'll be able to do the doubled piked back flip in competition that she couldn't do in practice.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's doing very well. I can see a smile on her face every so often.
LIN: Nicole faced down her fears.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't you think you could do a double lay out without a thought?
LIN: Now, Sharky must confront hers.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): And you're going to be choked by me if you mess this up.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She wouldn't be here if she wasn't good. She's got to believe that, and she'll be fine.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Do you want to go get her? Just relax honey.
LIN: Sharky's coaches are afraid she's torn her Achilles tendon.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you get her? Because I have to get Tia, she's next.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She'll be OK, she's tough.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, she's semi walking. That's always your goal, to walk out of here. See what happens, back to the mill on Monday.
LIN: Sharky's season is over.
Now the other girls find out if they've qualified for the National Championship. Nicole places fifth, the rest of her teammates, Tia in sixth, Kristin in eighth, and Annie in 10th, also qualified. And in 19th place, so does Lou. They've all made the first cut on the long road to the Olympics.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK what are we doing with you? Are you going to come with us?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Probably not.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Take you home for a little while?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.
LIN: From here, lots of tests, and no guarantees. Tonight, Nicole's hard work paid off. But Sharky learned a hard lesson.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These kids are out there on the spotlight. Just by themselves. And they have one shot. And if they're doing a floor routine that they've nailed 50 times a practice, and like her classic (ph), she didn't get up, and she got hurt. That's it, the days done. The year is done. No nationals, no nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Very good.
LIN: Is it worth the sacrifice? How far should kids, parents, and coaches go to pursue a dream?
KRISTIE PHILLIPS: Cover of "Sports Illustrated", The New Mary Lou.
LIN: Kristie Phillips went all the way. She started at age four. Moved away from home to train with a better coach at eight, and was crowned the next Mary Lou Rettin at 14.
PHILLIPS: I enjoyed the attention. I enjoyed the popularity. But didn't quite realize what else came with it. You know, if I didn't perform. If I wasn't the best. Knowing that if I didn't make this, those last eight years of my life that I'd lived away from home, that my brothers had eaten Roman noodles for weeks because they don't have money to go to the grocery store. I had all that on my shoulders.
I knew that they were counting on me to fulfill a dream and hopefully be able to reimburse, you know get something tangible out of it. And that didn't happen.
LIN: It didn't happen she says because puberty hit during an Olympic year.
PHILLIPS: I became held responsible for the way my body was changing. I can't stop nature dudes.
LIN: Kristie was named as a second alternate to the Olympic team in 1988. But she wasn't aloud to go.
PHILLIPS: You know and that was like devastation. I didn't win the Olympics. That's what I was supposed to do. Of course I didn't do it. I was a failure.
LIN: At 17, Kristie left a note for her mom, saying she didn't want to live anymore. She says it was a cry for help.
PHILLIPS: I didn't know who I was. Gymnastics was my life. It was not a part of my life.
LIN: At 19, Kristin Maloney did make the Olympics. For her the sacrifices were worth it.
KRISTIN MALONEY: It was kind of like a dream come true to make the Olympics. It was a hard but good journey that I went through.
LIN: Will she try again in 2004?
MALONEY: I don't think so. Because it's a lot of hard work. And to be honest, I don't think my body could take it anymore. I just want to finish out college, and figure out what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.
PHILLIPS: What's the most important thing about today's competitions?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Having fun.
PHILLIPS: You guys are all.
LIN: After years of struggling, Kristie Phillips has finally figured out what she wants to do with her life.
LIN: She recently opened a gym in North Carolina, where she's more interested in raising self-esteem, than creating champions.
PHILLIPS: They're like glass that is you break them to many times, they're not going to be able to put themselves back together. They're not going to be able to come to you when they're feeling bad.
That was an awesome handstand you silly goose.
And sooner or later, all those feelings being stuffed down, are going to explode, just like a volcano.
LIN: Six months after 7-year-old Ashley Barry competed on a broken ankle, she broke her other ankle while training for a meet.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's been a hard year. Two breaks, and three months in restriction in training, can put a crimp in your style.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on baby, you have to get 20.
LIN: For Ashley's parents, the line between doing harm, and nurturing a champion is getting harder to find.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her poor ankle.
ROSENFELD: For every 100 girls who try to be a champion, maybe one, or one tenth of one make it.
DONNA STRAUS (ph): Sharp. Nicole, your hips are back. I love the innocence of childhood, where they just know they're going to go to the Olympics, and that's their dream.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are a lot of gyms, some of which who teach gymnastics as a pleasurable sport. Some of which aim for the stars. And if you're aiming for the sky, I think you're likely to crash.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's over.
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR, CNN: Seven-year-old Ashley tried out for Tops again this year, and she's waiting to see if she made the team. The team that could put her on the fast track to the Olympic Games. However, ongoing problems with her ankles have slowed her progress.
And as for the elite, but emotionally charged Nicole, she missed the 2003 U.S. Championships after breaking her hand, but she continues to train full time in hopes to still qualify for the 2004 Olympic games. Sharky also missed the 2003 U.S. Championships, with a broken leg. And so she has set her sights on the 2008 Olympic Games.
And that's it for this edition of CNN PRESENTS. I'm Aaron Brown. Thanks for joining us. And we'll see you next week.
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