Most high school students look forward to graduating and attending college. However, 16-year-old Samantha Peszek and 17-year-old Shayla Worley have slightly different goals. Their gymnastics team won the gold medal and World Championships last September and they are looking forward to representing the United States in the Olympic Games this summer in Beijing, China.
That might be all that they have on their minds.
For an athlete, finding a balance between one’s personal and athletic life is difficult. In my opinion, some of the best guides about the issue are the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) television ads. They say that most student athletes “will be going pro in something other than sports” and should thus pay attention to other areas of their lives.
While participation in any sport would require some commitment, few sports require as much commitment as gymnastics. Gymnasts have to compete in at least two high-level meets per month leading up to the Olympics, and spend countless hours training to stay fit. This leaves them almost no time for non-athletic pursuits.
At the Tyson American Cup, a professional gymnastics meet held on Saturday, March 1 at Madison Square Garden in New York, Peszek and Worley placed third and fourth, respectively, out of eight competitors. While the American Cup was a “no-pressure” meet, meaning it had no effect on the selection of the U.S. Olympic team, both athletes knew they would need to work harder to achieve their goal: Olympic gold.
“Now that I’m getting closer and the competition is getting tougher, it’s not enough to just be on the Olympic team anymore,” Worley said. “I want to go there and come home with gold medals.”
But is sacrificing everything for a gold medal in gymnastics worth it? This question echoes the NCAA’s message. However, it is hard to imagine that any gymnast who spends most of her time on gymnastics would go pro in something other than sports.
Peszek, whose sister and mother are also gymnasts, admits that it is difficult to be a full time gymnast at such a young age. “I missed the first month or month and a half of school,” she said. “It’s really difficult because I come back and I have no idea what they are talking about.”
Academics isn’t the only unusual aspect of a young professional athletes’ life. Professional athletes, especially those whose profiles grow bigger as the Olympics approach, struggle to find a sense of normalcy. “A couple kids who I didn’t really know came up to me asking for an autograph and I thought that was weird,” Peszek said. “The people who I went to high school and grade school with, they just know me as Sam, which is what I want in a school because I don’t think of myself as famous.”
Nevertheless, being a professional athlete while still a teenager has positive effects as well. An athlete’s reaction to such pressure and publicity often increases his or her maturity and builds his or her character. “Just thinking about how much is going to be on the line the next time I compete just makes me nervous, even now,” Worley said. “When I’m there and I’m in it, I just remember to breathe and try to take it one step at a time.”
Breathing and taking it a step at a time seems to be all that a young, professional gymnast can do. With little control on the other aspects of their lives, gymnasts like Peszek and Worley can only do what they do best—compete.
In the end, someone should do what they love to do, whether it’s practicing medicine or professional gymnastics. Success depends on how much one wants to work for a goal. For most people, being well-rounded is important and, thus, one should not spend all his or her time on one pursuit. But sports will be the dominant aspect of the lives of these future Olympians. Because they have so much potential, it is understandable for them to give up being well-rounded in exchange for athletic success. After all, the NCAA only said that most, not all, student athletes will go pro in something other than sports.