North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

#100 – Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

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Just finished book #100 of the challenge this afternoon. It was Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, an expose of the cruel and chilling world of figure skating and gymnastics.

Coming from my utter lack of knowledge of both of those sports, perhaps I found the book a little too shocking. Things have surely improved since it was first published, but still, I wonder how much of these changes cannot be undone? The ages of the athletes have plummeted, the skills they need have climbed through the roof and the methods are brutal and primal at best.

It blew me away ,more then anything I’ve read in a long time, that a grown man could scream in the face of a 12-yea old girl that she looks like like a swollen cow.

It was a pretty bleak book to start off with. The next book on the list – Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – promises to be a little lighter. One down, 99 to go. Review after the break.

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Who knew gymnastics was so horrifying?

Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes is a chilling, sobering look at the world of women’s gymnastics, where the coaches yell and taunt at young gymnasts while their parents overlook – or exaggerate – the abuse, creating a culture of destroyed confidence, eating disorders an. It’s an unflattering portrait.

Ryan tells of the sad fates of several promising girls who were sucked into this world by their talent, chewed up and used by ego-driven coaches and, once they proved too weak or useless for coaches, disgarded like scraps, often the worse for wear.

It’s names like Julissa Gomez and Christy Henrich who resonate throughout the book. All young gymnast prodigies, all three were quickly brought down by it’s envrioment – Gomez broke her neck in a risky routine and was dead by 19, Henrich developed an eating disorder likely brought on by over-zealous coaches and starved herself to death. Ryan brings their and many other grim stories into deadly sharp focus, squarely planting the blame at coaches.

It’s these coaches, she writes, that have created and fostered an environment that’s extraordinarily detrimental to these young athletes. The average age, weight and size of gymnasts has plummeted (Ryan says it’s gone from Womens’ gymnastics to girls’).

Ryan saves the worst for coaches like Bela Karolyi or Rick Newman who have pushed cruel, Eastern Bloc-influenced coaching methods to the forefront to create winners. Their gyms often feature long, harsh training sessions and verbal abuse from coaches push these young athletes past their mental and physical limits – insults about the weight of these girls is not uncommon. Ryan writes of many cases of girls breaking down, both mentally and physically – stress fractures and broken wrists seem almost scarily common in these gyms.

This isn’t to place the blame squarely on coaches, however. Ryan also writes of parents blinded by the dream of an Olympian daughter who look past whatever problems their kids have and often convince their children to keep competing. They refinace their houses, they take second jobs and move across the country to go to these gyms where maybe a coach will mould their daughter into a winner. Ryan summarizes their ambition by asking what do their parents value more: their daughter being healthy or winning?

But it’s winning that often blinds everybody, the coaches, the parents and especially the athletes themselves who do everything to win, regardless of the risk. Ryan’s book is a sobering, chilling look at what these drive to win-at-any-cost attitudes have done to these young athletes. It should be required reading for any parent looking to put their kid in figure skating, gymnastics or the like.

View all my reviews >>

One Response

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  1. It sounds like a very interesting, although sad book. The competitiveness and abuse of some coaches and parents, certainly isn’t limited to the elite athletes working towards the Olympics. You can see them at the local arenas and schools pushing their very young children too hard. Some of these kids are only six or seven.


    September 24, 2009 at 12:55 am

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