Right to Play, USA Gymnastics teaming up to give disadvantaged kids access to sport and play

  • Article by: NANCY ARMOUR , AP National Writer
  • Updated: July 16, 2013 - 3:45 PM

Gabby Douglas wants every child to have the chance to be an Olympic champion. Or college student. Or anything else he or she dreams of doing.

USA Gymnastics and Right to Play announced Tuesday they are teaming up to bring gymnastics and other play activities to disadvantaged children. As part of the partnership, Douglas will be an athlete ambassador and promote opportunities for at-risk kids.

"It was a struggle for me growing up," said Douglas, who won gold in the women's all-around at last summer's London Olympics after helping the U.S. women win the team title. "Gymnastics and sports are really expensive. If I didn't receive grants and people helping me get to my dream, I would never have got to the Olympics.

"This program is very important for kids who don't have (resources) so they can go after their dreams."

Right to Play uses sports and play programs to improve health, develop life skills and foster peace in more than 20 countries. Until now, most of its programs have been in war-torn and developing countries. But many U.S. children also lack access to play and sport, said Johann Olav Koss, Right to Play's president and CEO.

That's a serious issue in a country where the prevalence of childhood obesity has almost tripled in the past 30 years, and approximately 17 percent of children 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"It's a 21st Century problem, and we might have a solution to it," said Koss, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating from Norway. "You can't just do it by saying, 'You have to be active.' You have to make it available. And there couldn't be a better partner than USA Gymnastics."

USA Gymnastics will host a "Right to Play Gymnastics Festival" on Sept. 15 at the Harlem Armory, giving New York kids an introduction to basic gymnastics, and is encouraging member clubs to hold similar programs in their communities. Douglas will co-host the New York event with two-time Olympic medalist Jonathan Horton and Alicia Sacramone, captain of the U.S. women's team at the Beijing Games.

Right to Play is also hoping to take advantage of the federation's technical expertise for a pilot program teaching gymnastics and acrobatics to kids in Uganda and two other foreign countries.

And, beginning next year, any money generated by National Gymnastics Day will benefit Right to Play. Since 2001, gymnastics clubs around the country have raised more than $1.8 million for the Children's Miracle Network, the event's current beneficiary.

"It's a very high-level partnership, which we haven't done before," Koss said. "We truly believe in the success of this. I believe in it because of our mutual platform of values in what we want to create. I don't think it could be a much better sport to join forces with."

Though Right to Play has more than 300 professional and Olympic "athlete ambassadors" to raise awareness — Douglas, Horton and Sacramone join the likes of track and field star Allyson Felix, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara and swimmer Ian Thorpe — this is the first time Koss' group has partnered with a national governing body.

The high profile of gymnastics — and American gymnasts, in particular — made USA Gymnastics a logical choice. But gymnastics also made sense because its basic skills provide the building block for fitness.

"It is the most important quality young people learn, how to exercise," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "How to tumble. How to roll over. How to do cartwheels and somersaults. How to use your body. I think it's important for kids of all walks of life, but especially kids that wouldn't normally have that type of training."

That's what made the program so appealing to Douglas.

While the story of Douglas leaving her home in Virginia Beach, Va., at 14 to train in Iowa is well known, there were plenty of other sacrifices before that. She and her three siblings were raised by a single mother, and money was tight. If Douglas hadn't had the support of her family and others around her, there's no telling if she would have made it to the Olympics, let alone the very top of the podium.

"I want to continue to make a big impact on other people's lives. Because I know how hard it was for me," Douglas said. "I'm blessed to be in this position where I can say, 'Anything is possible.'"

That message, Koss said, can have as big an impact on a child's life as teaching them how to stay fit.

"She is such a symbol for young girls," he said, "a symbol of possibilities."

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