Saturday Diary: For the joy of the sport, and the littlest fans

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Holding up a team program for an autograph, the 11-year-old girl looked up in awe at the collegiate athlete and told her that she too was a gymnast, adding with a mix of shyness and pride that she had advanced a notch in her grade school-level training.

The college student bent down to make eye contact, smiled and said enthusiastically, "Good for you."

The child was my fifth-grade daughter Alicia. The athlete was a member of the University of Pittsburgh women's gymnastics team, which minutes earlier had absorbed what must have been a deflating loss to rival West Virginia University.

No one would have faulted Pitt team members that January night if they chose to quickly retreat to their locker room and stew in their collective disappointment. Yet there they were, in dark blue warm-ups, cheerfully mugging for photos and signing autographs for dozens of young girls -- in short, being the very type of role models we always say college athletes are supposed to be.

And this was no special occasion. The same scene, lasting the better part of half an hour, repeats itself in Pitt's Fitzgerald Fieldhouse after each home gymnastics meet: a clinic of gentle nurturing delivered on the same mats where team members fiercely compete.

I thought about that scene again the other day as I read up on the latest black eye that big-name, big-money college sports had inflicted on itself.

This time, the focus wasn't on some superstar athlete arrested after a campus brawl or for drunken driving. Instead, it was the head coach of a Division I men's basketball team who apparently believed that grabbing players by their jerseys, throwing balls at their heads and tossing in anti-gay slurs was a recipe for success.

The firing of Rutgers University coach Mike Rice this month was accompanied by questions of why his abuse, known about for months, did not lead to his ouster until after a video of his tirades was aired on ESPN. Had the hunt for prestige and money once again trumped the notion of doing the right thing in the first place?

Not surprisingly, this latest incident provoked the familiar hand-wringing about the state of college sports, the loss of purity and how somewhere there must be a solution.

In fact, I believe the answer -- part of it, at least -- has always been staring at us.

I believe that among the campus track squads, swim teams and other less-glorified sports you will encounter the personification of what college sports is supposed to be. But America by and large never gets all that excited about the types of college sports that serve as a springboard to the Olympics.

This is sad, because those sports have so much to offer. I would see that during every trip I took with my daughter and her friends this winter to Fitzgerald Fieldhouse, where one can arrive late for a gymnastics meet and still get a good seat and the admission fee is roughly the same as what it costs to park.

There are no corporate boxes. No big-name TV sponsorships. No aloof athletes. And while the crowds are respectable, there are plenty of empty seats, too.

The spectators who do show up are a courteous bunch who seem to appreciate the sport for the sport itself -- win or lose -- and the sheer athleticism involved in doing flips on a balance beam and intricate tumbling passes in rapid succession.

The crowds sometimes include members of other unsung sports teams on campus who file into the stands and cheer wildly in solidarity, perhaps because they also know how it is to sometimes feel overlooked on their own campus.

I must confess that I don't really understand much about gymnastics, a sport Alicia has grown so passionate about that she crosses off the names of opponents from a Pitt schedule hung on her bedroom door, as if she were on the Pitt team herself.

I couldn't tell a back handspring from a front tuck, and each time during a meet that a gymnastics gaffe rolls off my lips, my daughter shoots me an annoyed look and blurts out, "D-a-a-a-a-a-a-d!"

But even I know that what takes place at those meets is special, and not just because of the sweat and energy expended in the quest for a win.

Imagine a basketball player in the NCAA Final Four sinking a crucial three-point shot and then, once the roar of the crowd subsides, going to the edge of the seats and tossing a free T-shirt to the youngest fan in sight. Right in between plays.

That's essentially what happens during Pitt gymnastics meets. Team members scoring 9.8 or better in an event celebrate not by excessive self-congratulation but by tossing a T-shirt into the stands. Perhaps not by coincidence, the freebies lobbed skyward usually land in the arms of the smallest children.

During one meet, my daughter and her friend repeatedly scurried through the stands to position themselves for a shirt but lost out to kids half their size. Alicia pouted playfully but then said it was good the shirts go to the littlest kids.

I thought about what my daughter had just said and then looked back in the direction of the athlete who, knowingly or not, had just delivered a powerful lesson about success and what it means to share it.

It's a shame more people weren't around to witness it that night.

It might have even done some good at Rutgers.

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Bill Schackner is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1977).


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