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HomeU.SAt Olympic Team Trials, U.S.A. Gymnastics Gets Warm and Fuzzy

At Olympic Team Trials, U.S.A. Gymnastics Gets Warm and Fuzzy

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Just before this week’s United States Olympic gymnastics team trials, a very eager worker flew to the host city of Minneapolis with protein treats, a collection of colorful bandannas and a stuffed turtle. Upon his arrival he was given a U.S.A. Gymnastics badge to wear around his neck, identifying him as “Goodest Boy.”

His name is Beacon, and he is a 4-year-old golden retriever therapy dog with soft blond fur that smells like champagne and raspberry shampoo. His job is to destress the American gymnasts at their major events, including trials, the competition that will determine the United States team for next month’s Paris Olympics.

“Beacon, I just love you so much!” the national team gymnast Joscelyn Roberson said as she laid down next to him for 30 minutes after a training session at the recent national championships in Fort Worth. “He’s so cute! I’ve already told people that this is the best thing that U.S.A. Gymnastics can do for us.”

Beacon, handled by his human, Tracey Callahan Molnar — who is a former rhythmic gymnast and a longtime coach — plays a warm and fuzzy role in an effort by U.S.A. Gymnastics to promote a culture that protects the well-being of its athletes.

For decades, the culture was just the opposite: At every level of the sport, it was not uncommon for tyrannical coaches to scare young athletes into subservience and silence as they — or other adults — abused those gymnasts physically, emotionally, or both.

In 2016, a sexual abuse scandal involving a former national team doctor, Lawrence G. Nassar, shed a bright, harsh light on what was happening, prompting sponsors to drop U.S.A. Gymnastics. Nassar is now in prison for molesting hundreds of girls and women.

At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in history, pulled out of most of her events because of a mental block — a move that made her just as famous for what she did not accomplish at those Games as what she did as the most decorated athlete in her sport.

“There’s no question that there was a lesson learned from Tokyo in terms of mental wellness being so critically important,” Li Li Leung, chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, said. “But if we just launch a therapy dog program, OK, great, you have a nice, cute fuzzy dog to pet. But it doesn’t mean anything unless you have everything else in place.”

Since taking over in 2019, Leung, a former elite gymnast, has focused on making her sport a better place for its athletes, in body and mind. She has made strides, but it’s a never-ending process, she said.

At nationals, a sports psychologist from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee offered mindfulness sessions in a dark, quiet room inside the arena. Carly Patterson, the 2004 Olympic all-around champion, was brought in to give the women gymnasts pep talks and advice. Local doctors and mental health professionals are now on-call during U.S.A. Gymnastics events as part of a mental health emergency plan instituted two years ago.

Sponsors have returned, including Nike, Xfinity, Samsonite and Skippy, and Leung said all of the federation’s sponsors must acknowledge that some of their money will go to mental wellness programs, including therapy visits for coaches and athletes.

“They’ve turned things around entirely and now they are clearly thinking, ‘What does the athlete need?’ and it’s so nice,’” said the three-time Olympian Sam Mikulak, who struggled with anxiety and depression when the Tokyo Olympics were postponed from 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sometimes, just being there is all someone needs to get through a tough time,” said Mikulak, who is now a coach. “And a dog brings that triple-fold.”

When it comes to mental health initiatives in gymnastics, Beacon is the star of the show.

He is Callahan Molnar’s service dog and they are inseparable. At home in Pasadena, Calif., near Los Angeles, they volunteer at a hospital and also head to the nearby California Institute of Technology, where students pet Beacon to unwind.

“I always felt that it would be selfish for me to keep him to myself,” she said.

Callahan Molnar, who turns 65 next week, experienced the power of a therapy dog when her husband, David Molnar, was undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer. He told her that their own dog, Tulsa, should be a therapy dog.

“That dog at the hospital helped distract him from, you know, the tough stuff,” Callahan Molnar said, adding that Tulsa started working as a therapy dog six months after David died in 2013. “I’m so sorry that he didn’t get to live to see it happen. This is sort of my way to honor him.”

After Tulsa passed away, Callahan Molnar got Beacon as a puppy and eventually enrolled him in therapy dog training, too. A few years ago, she and Caroline Hunter, the head of U.S.A. Gymnastics’ rhythmic gymnastics program, began discussing the idea of bringing him to events.

Leung was all in. She had brought her own dog — a Siberian husky named Suma — to the federation’s office during the pandemic and staff members fell to the floor to pet her. “They just melted,” she said, adding that Suma is now a therapy dog, working at the trials.

Dr. Maggie O’Haire, associate dean for research at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, remains fascinated that humans can have such strong reactions to dogs that they’ve never met before. An expert in human interaction with canines, she said petting a dog lowers humans’ perception of a stressful situation, and also decreases their blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Forming a bond with a dog provides even more benefits.

“It’s a signal of support and comfort and something that’s really valuable in these environments when you are away from home,” Dr. O’Haire said.

Therapy dogs often are called to work in places of extreme stress, like towns after a mass shooting, colleges during exams, airports and, more recently, sporting events.

Just this month, at the athletes’ request, more than 60 local therapy dog teams worked at U.S.A. Swimming’s Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Swimmers stood in lines to pet the dogs, allowing them to have “a normal moment” during a high-pressure time, said Ashleigh Coster, executive director of Paws & Think, Inc., the group that provided the therapy teams.

Beacon was scheduled to be the only therapy dog at his first event, an elite qualifier for rhythmic gymnasts in Indianapolis last year. But when Callahan Molnar learned that 300 athletes would be there, she enlisted three local therapy dog organizations to help. Eleven additional dogs, from a tiny, poofy Pomeranian to a 100-pound Great Pyrenees, volunteered.

At nationals, Callahan Molnar oversaw 19 teams of handlers and their good dogs, including Gus the Cavalier King Charles spaniel; Gilly the Scottish terrier; Twiggy the mini beagle; and many golden retrievers.

Luna, a white and wiggly American Staffordshire terrier, wore a huge pink bow and wagged her tail as if it were a windshield wiper on the highest setting. An especially enthusiastic yellow Labrador named Molly dramatically flopped over for a belly rub at the slightest glance, and licked the chalk from gymnasts’ hands and legs. Beacon worked morning until night.

“Not every dog is cut out for this, but it turns out that he’s good at it and he really loves it, which was a very important part of it for me,” Callahan Molnar said. “Even if he’s tired, even if he has been working for 12 hours, the second he hears his name, he’s like, ‘I’m up and ready and I want to say hi. Who wants to be close to me?’”

Turns out, lots of gymnasts, who shouted his name when they saw him. Judges, coaches and security workers, too, couldn’t resist a pat on the head or drive-by belly rub.

Brody Malone, a normally stoic gymnast who competed in Tokyo, was a giggling fan around Beacon. He said, “I love this dog! Who wouldn’t want to take a break from all this stress to love on a dog for a couple of minutes?”

Shilese Jones, a favorite to make the team for the Paris Games, traded a bathroom break for time with Beacon at last year’s nationals.

“I said, forget the bathroom, is Beacon in there?” she said. “I feel like he kind of blocks out reality and sometimes that’s good for us so we don’t overthink things.”

At this year’s nationals, they reunited like long-lost friends. He jumped to his feet when he saw her, licked her face and rested his big head on her open palm.

“Oh, he remembered me!” Jones said, laughing.

Jones, who was battling a shoulder injury that caused her to withdraw from nationals, said Beacon made her feel better mentally — and also physically.

“He distracts me from the reality of the pain,” she said while scratching Beacon behind his ears.

Beacon and Chester, another golden retriever, gave similar support to gymnasts when the new national team was announced earlier this month. Gymnasts who made the team pulled on new Team U.S.A. sweatsuits. The ones who didn’t were just feet away. Some tried to control their breathing so they didn’t cry. Others were teary eyed.

Beacon licked tears from one gymnast’s cheek and she smiled when he grabbed one of her slippers and tried to walk away with it.

A similar scenario is likely to unfold at the Olympic trials, where only five men and five women will make the U.S. team for this summer’s Paris Games. U.S.A. Gymnastics plans to have psychologists on site for the athletes whose names aren’t called and there will be a private room for those gymnasts and their families.

Beacon also will be at the arena, happy to see the gymnasts, whether they make the team or not.



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