|Jonathan Horton provides hands-on assistance at the Right to Play
Gymnastics Festival on Sept. 15, 2013 in Harlem, N.Y.
NEW YORK -- Olympic medalists Gabrielle Douglas, Jonathan Horton and Alicia Sacramone kicked off a new partnership between USA Gymnastics and the Right to Play organization at the 2013 Gymnastics Festival in Harlem.
The Olympians, and USA Gymnastics as a whole, hope the partnership can help bring athletic opportunities to inner-city kids who often don’t get the chance to play sports.
“Every kid deserves a chance to succeed in life,” said Steve Penny, CEO of USA Gymnastics, “and we have a responsibility to connect with them.”
In Harlem, kids from around New York City were able to participate in hands-on gymnastic activities and were also able to watch gymnastic demonstrations from U.S. champions.
“I think it’s so important to be involved with foundations like Right to Play,” said Douglas, who won the all-around gold medal in addition to a team gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “It’s all about giving back. You have to give back to the people who supported you the most.”
The Right to Play organization was founded in 2000 by Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic gold medalist speedskater from Norway. The group’s mission is to use sport and play to educate and empower children in disadvantaged communities. Koss was inspired by a trip to Eritrea when he realized that children from war-torn countries do not have the opportunity to play sports.
“And I thought, if we are going to fundamentally change the prospect of peace, then we have to put children who are suffering from violence into programs like Right to Play,” Koss said.
But the lack of opportunities for children to play is not just an international problem. Koss recognized that sports can be beneficial to inner-city kids in countries such as the United States as well, and that’s how the partnership with USA Gymnastics was born.
“Children in the United States actually have difficulty accessing programs as well,” Koss said. “So when I sat down with Steve we said, how can we lower the threshold for children in inner cities? And we said, ‘Join gymnastics programs to learn life skills.’”
For National Gymnastics Day on Sept. 21, 2013, Right To Play and USA Gymnastics have awarded 26 grants to USA Gymnastics member clubs to support the innovative programs and initiatives they have created to increase gymnastics’ exposure and accessibility to children from disadvantaged or lower-income families.
Douglas, a Right to Play ambassador who hopes to return to competitive gymnastics next summer, said she knows just how important the work of organizations like Right to Play can be.
“For me it was really hard growing up,” said Douglas, who grew up in Virginia Beach before moving to Des Moines, Iowa, to focus on gymnastics. “My family and I struggled. We were homeless at one point. Foundations and resources like this were tremendous for us. When people would donate some money it would help us a lot. So I know how foundations like this support kids and help their self-esteem. That’s why I’m proud and so honored to be an ambassador.”
Deana Parris, a member of the U.S. trampoline and tumbling national team, also spoke about how gymnastics boosted her self-confidence.
“Gymnastics taught me a level of confidence I didn’t know I had,” she said. “It taught me strength I didn’t know I had. Now we have to give back. It would be rude not to.”
Many of the athletes were excited to share the lessons gymnastics taught them over the years and were looking forward to passing on the sport’s positive message.
“We can make an impact that we don’t even realize at this point,” said Horton, a two-time Olympian and two-time Olympic medalist, who is a Right to Play Athlete Ambassador. “We can inspire. We can give hope to other kids and give them the opportunity to have a little spark in their life.”
Not only are the Olympians exemplifying great physical health and fitness for local kids, but they’re great social role models, too.
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a local community organization in New York City, was excited to have such incredible role models for the area’s children.
“These athletes are hard-working folks who are planning on going to college, and they need to be accessible to our young people,” he said. “I don’t care if these kids can ever do a floor exercise. But if they decide to live their life, and not do drugs or alcohol, then I’m happy.”
“There’s a lot of celebrity influence out there and it’s not always for the best reasons” said Sacramone, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist and Right to Play Athlete Ambassador who retired from competitive gymnastics in 2012. “So I want to try to use whatever status I do have for the greater good and try to teach these kids how to be the best version of themselves.”
Right to Play has programs in more than 20 countries. The program’s weekly activities have reached more than a million children around the world. One of the goals for Right to Play is to have 10,000 U.S. children registered in inner-city programs by 2016.
“If I can help one child, then I can have a purpose,” Koss said. “You need to live for something, not just off something.”