One weekend recently we took the family to Braga to watch the first international artistic gymnastics tournament to be held in Portugal at 2nd division level. Clare was going to compete in the four events, balance beam, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise.
Clare has been doing gymnastics almost since she learned to walk. At home, of course! At the age of four, five, six…, we became used to seeing her doing cartwheels and handstands alone in the garden and in her room. We watched her grow, tumble after tumble, learning aerials from Youtube and back handsprings with her PE teacher at school (who had previously been a gymnastics instructor), which she would practice alone in the garden afterwards. But because there was no gymnastics club in our area she grew up without access to specialized training apart from a few extra classes with her PE teacher at school.
Then one day I found out that gymnastics classes had opened at the National Velodrome in Sangalhos, just 10 minutes away from where we live. I was thrilled. Finally Clare would be able to fulfill her dream of having proper rhythmic or artistic gymnastics lessons! I enrolled her that very day. And so at the age of thirteen, Clare started training with a team twice a week for two and a half hours.
She started with rhythmic gymnastics, the one with lots of ribbons, balls, hoops, ropes and clubs. But after four or five competitions, Clare wanted to quit: the trainer would scream and not tolerate any mistakes, and would get irritated if the girls were not doing their best. And the girls who competed were only there for the medals, not to make friends and have fun. Clare, for whom gymnastics was above all a means to savor life and give thanks for the gift of movement and the body, couldn’t take the pressure. So she left!
The girls from artistic gymnastics trained in the same training center too, on the same days. After some time, although feeling a little scared, Clare decided to try it out and she loved it. Leaving the balls and hoops behind, she dedicated herself to vaults and bars and in very little time had caught up with the advanced girls in the class. But she waited a year before entering any tournaments and only decided to compete when she saw for herself what her new coach and friends had assured her – in this team they competed for fun, to have a good time and to grow in friendship and knowledge. Here the trainer didn’t shout at the girls or lose his temper, and everything seemed to be fine always. And still the girls didn’t fail to give it their best and to improve superbly.
And that’s how at the age of seventeen Clare won two bronze medals, one in the beam and one in the floor exercise. The tears came to my eyes as I watched her, happy, discreet and pretty there on the podium next to gymnasts who had been training since they were tiny children. It’s only fair, I thought, that Clare should win a medal after spending more time with her feet in the air than on solid ground since her childhood. It’s simply fair…
We left the arena and went out to celebrate. And we’re still celebrating today, savoring this hard and well-earned success.
Yesterday afternoon, with her guitar in her hand, Clare was singing in the garden. She was learning how to play a song, Amar pelos Dois by our very own Salvador Sobral, with the help of YouTube. It sounded almost perfect to me as I sat down to listen.
“Just as well I never had the opportunity to become a top-level athlete”, she said casually. “The first division athletes train for five to six hours a day, every day, and all day every Saturday… They have no time for anything else. I have time to sing, to play the guitar, to write songs, to cook and to bake, to sew a few things, to play with my brothers and sisters, to go to mass and to pray. I love gymnastics but more than that I love living”.
I smiled and said nothing as I listened. Clare continued: “I mean it was great to get a medal, I was delighted, but.. well I thought it would feel different. I had waited so many years for that moment, and then it just happened. It’s not really so special after all…”
She stayed silent for a bit, and then said, “the other day, I watched a video on YouTube about a gymnast who got second place in the Olympics and since then she has fallen into a deep depression. She used to say that the worst thing for a gymnast is to reach the Olympics and get a second place. So close to first, and yet not managing! It was as if her life ended there. The judge who put the medal around her neck, instead of saying “congratulations”, said “so sorry”. That’s how it is mum. When you reach that level of ambition you become blind and nothing makes sense anymore.”
“Did you see what St. Paul said in yesterday’s reading from Acts?”, I asked.
“Yes”, she continued. “It said:
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Act 20:24)
What’s the price of a medal? What’s the value of the recognition we can get from people? What’s the worth of human reward? The reply might be shocking, but it’s the untainted truth: nothing.
Let us bring up our children making good use of everything we can – school, arts, sport, Church groups, nature and of course true free time – so that they can take full advantage of the gifts they’ve received from God and flourish, so that they can grow in health with a broad range of interests and sound curiosity, and so that they let themselves be in awe of creation, lifting up their heads from their screens and living life to the full.
But let’s not forget above all else to prepare them for Heaven. What does it matter if they don’t get the academic, artistic or sports results we set out for them? What does it matter (and forgive my frankness) if none of their dreams come true? What matters is that they become holy. And holiness is also achieved with its own measure of disenchantment, especially disenchantment with the world. Because the only medal that’s really worth winning is the one that the Lord will put on our chest when He receives us at the podium of eternity…