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It was summer 1996, and this was a gymnastics camp unlike any other. This was Bela Karolyi's gymnastics camp. Karolyi is the legendary gymnastics coach who trained and took credit for Olympians including Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Nadia Comaneci.

This camp was for the best of the best, those young American girls on the short, fast track to the Olympics. Karissa Chock was there in Texas, a 14-year-old girl working under the master. One night, after a hard practice, she found herself in a room with six other elite gymnasts.

"Almost all of us said we wanted to quit the sport," she said. "It was a relief to find out I wasn't the only one. We all just wanted to be normal kids. We were working 5-6 hours a day for 5-6 days a week. But we didn't quit because we didn't want to let down our coaches and our parents."

Now married, Karissa Chock Yeremin gave a big sigh when she told the story Monday. Hers is a cautionary tale, one in which her message is rather simple: Look before you leap into a sport. Gymnastics is not the quick Olympic snapshot we see once every four years, when little pixies fly through the air doing acrobatics that would make a stunt pilot envious.

There is the upside to gymnastics and it is significant: Yeremin went to Cal on a full-ride gymnastics scholarship, was captain of the team her last two years, was part of a U.S. international contingent that competed in Belgium. Yeremin was a Scholastic All-American in 2004 and Pac-10 All-Academic her last three years at Cal. In the Cal record book, Yeremin still ranks third all-time in both the balance beam and vault. She received a degree in sociology.

Then there is the downside.

In 1997, during a practice on the uneven parallel bars, while strapped into a harness, a connecting rope stuck in one of the metal bolts that secured her. Yeremin's head hit the top of a metal bar.

Three days later Yeremin began experiencing double vision.

It's a condition that exists to this day, 16 years later.

"The doctors examined my eye tissue," Yeremin said. "They did extensive testing. They have no idea why I still see double."

It is remarkable Yeremin competed and competed so well at Berkeley, seeing two of everything. Her sight impairment is on the diagonal, meaning one image is higher than the other and at a 45-degree angle.

"You adjust," she said simply.

Yeremin compensated for her vision disparity, but what she couldn't resolve, what she never found as acceptable parameters, was becoming comfortable with the stress an elite gymnast experiences.

"It takes a particular type of person to handle the pressure that comes with rising to the elite level," said Yeremin, who taught at Petaluma Junior High School for four years. "It's very intense. The pressure was too hard for me. I always performed better in practice."

With three meets left in Cal's 2004 season, that reality never was more apparent for her. Yeremin dislocated her left elbow. Her college career was over.

"But I didn't feel any remorse," said Yeremin, who grew up in and went to high school in Huntington Beach. "It almost felt like a relief."

Sure, there were injuries. She cracked a couple of ribs when she was 9. She dislocated her elbow twice, dislocated an ankle another time. She broke a toe. She suffered a bulging disk in her back. She was recently diagnosed with scoliosis, an abnormal curving of the spine. It's a condition, Yeremin is convinced, arising from years of back injuries sustained through gymnastics.

"Sometimes I feel like a grandma," Yeremin, 31, said of the lasting effect of her injuries.

As an aside, Yeremin felt less pressure to excel at Cal then when she trained with Karolyi.

If asked for advice by parents of an up-and-coming gymnast, Yeremin doesn't offer discouragement.

"Those parents know their child better than I do," said Yeremin, who grew up in Novato. "And who's to say? Their child might be the one who has the right temperament."

Yeremin answers questions honestly, painting a complete picture as opposed to a rose-colored testimonial to the sport. She still loves gymnastics but will not gloss over the aches and pains, to the sacrifices, to the obsession, to the intensity. Most important for her, and what is most relevant, is realizing the significance of the word "kid" in kid's sports.

She has Malachi, almost 3, and another son, Elijah, due to arrive in February. She has spoken often with her web-developer husband, Gera, on what to do when their sons want to compete in sports. What to say? What to do? All parents, at least the good ones, want the best for their kids. But when is there too much parental influence? When does a kid feel he or she is playing for mom and dad, not for themselves and definitely not for fun?

Yeremin believes she found the answer in a book by a mother who wrestled with this problem.

"She was writing about her daughter swimming and found what I think is a perfect way to express her involvement," said Yeremin, a stay-at-home mom. "She said to her daughter, 'I love to watch you swim.' That's all she said. That was it. I thought it was terrific."

After all, her sons, like about 99.999999 percent of all kids, will never reach the Olympics or the NFL or the NBA or MLB. Sure, there's that rare bird who will reach the stars, and good for them. But for the others, for the rest of us, the playing should be for the right reasons.

And what Yeremin is about to say, well, this is not for the right reason.

"When I was growing up," said Yeremin, who began gymnastics at age 2, "I was Olympic-bound, at least that's what my parents and coaches hoped for."

It wouldn't have been a bad idea that, before they announced their expectations, they asked Karissa what were hers.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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