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With the Winter Olympics just behind us, starry-eyed youngsters everywhere are dreaming of becoming the next Nancy Kerrigan or Bonnie Blair.

Those of us beyond the age of athletic promise may have visions of our children one day making it to the higher echelons of a competitive sport.

At the first signs of talent we sign them up for lessons. We become chauffeur and cheerleader. We fork out money for clothes, equipment, and more lessons.

"It's very challenging and it's very time-consuming, and you make sacrifices in your life to make space for that," said Lynda Waters of Tampa, whose 16-year-old daughter Becky is a national-caliber gymnast. "But I almost hate to call it a sacrifice because it's our choice. We just participate a lot in our children's lives."

Television rarely captures the daily rigors dedicated young competitors face: long hours of practice on top of school and homework; special diets; little time for things most kids call fun, such as watching TV and hanging out at the mall.

Hardly glamorous. Perhaps not even normal.

Yet through years of hard work, all the victories and disappointments, a young athlete's constant source of support is his parents.

"Certainly the child's God-given talent gives him part of the ability to achieve," said Jeff LaFleur, owner of LaFleur's Gymnastics and Dance Studio in Carrollwood, where Becky trains. "The other part comes from values the family has given to him. Family is extremely important."

Biggest fans

Art Foster plays three roles _ father, coach and biggest fan _ to his daughter Char, who at 14 is a whirlwind on the track and holds several state and national records for her age group.

The Oak Grove Middle School student last year set six national records in a single meet, among numerous other achievements documented by the trophies, plaques and ribbons that fill their Clearwater apartment.

Her goal is to make it to the 1996 Olympics.

"The year 2000 is a given," Art Foster added. "She will be what they call matured, seasoned."

"She has a talent that all I want to do is teach her to take it as far as she can," said Foster, who coaches track at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, where Char practices.

Char's mother, JoAnn, is more pragmatic: "A college scholarship, that's all I want."

Art and JoAnn Foster acknowledge that being the parents of such a gifted teenager is time-consuming and at times exhausting, not to mention a big financial commitment. Hefty sums of money can be spent honing an athlete's talent. Coaching, travel and lodging, clothes and equipment can cost thousands of dollars a year.

Many organizations try to offset some of those expenses with fund-raising activities and booster programs, LaFleur said.

Art Foster doesn't worry so much about the cost of keeping his daughter in track shoes. Char's abilities have so surpassed those of her peers that he's more concerned she'll get bored.

"Our next job is to keep the hunger alive in our child. How do you keep that drive going?"

Or should you?

There's nothing wrong with a little parental motivation, say those who have worked with child athletes. But there's a fine line that can be crossed if a parent loses sight of priorities.

An extreme example is pro tennis player Mary Pierce, a former Tampa bay area resident who filed restraining orders against her father, Jim Pierce, known for his repeated outbursts at her matches.

"Sometimes what happens is that the child becomes an object that the parent uses to play out his or her own vicarious desires for achievement," said Dr. Mark Lefkowitz, a Tampa sports psychologist. "I've seen kids who were trapped in a commitment to a sport that just overwhelmed them."

That doesn't appear to be the case with Becky or Char.

Art Foster said if Char were to quit today, he would be content with her decision.

At this point in Becky's career, she makes her own decisions, Mrs. Waters said. After two years of elite-level competition and winning the 1992 Southeast regional meet, Becky decided last year to drop back a notch.

"She gave up the chance of ever making the national team. That would have been a neat thing, but it comes with a price," Mrs. Waters said.

"It's very hard to keep your perspective. You have to constantly remind yourself, "Do I want this for my child, or do I want this for me?'

"(But) when a child gets to that level, you can't make them do flips on 4-inch beams if they don't want to."

Juggling act

Lefkowitz, the psychologist, said he has seen the toll high-level sports can take on a child. He has treated children who were depressed, burned out and overwhelmed by tremendous pressure to do well. He has seen children who felt dwarfed by the shadow of a parent who had a successful athletic career.

"The parent has to be very clear in his or her mind that this is the child's desire and not his own, but at the same time the parent has to offer opportunities to discover what talents and gifts (the child) has in life," Lefkowitz said.

LaFleur said he thinks parents need to be more educated about what's involved in high-level athletics.

"I try to talk to the parents and make sure we agree that we want the same things for their child _ for the child to be happy and to be successful. With those two goals in mind, we can move forward."

In fact, many families can find a middle ground and create a healthy balance. With proper support, there can be lots of positive rewards: enhanced self-esteem, physical fitness, learning about teamwork and sportsmanship.

Lefkowitz said a former patient who was an awkward adolescent with low self-esteem turned out to be an excellent cross-country runner.

"The sport was a vehicle that enhanced his self-worth," he said.

Becky, too, has learned more during her years in the gym than how to do a back flip or balance on a 4-inch beam.

"She has learned discipline, how to schedule her time, how to prioritize things and look at the whole picture and pick out what's important," Mrs. Waters said. "She's learned how to set short-term goals, long-term goals and how to adjust her goals."

An honor student at Plant High School in Tampa, Becky also manages to study every night.

Char's parents put a premium on education, too.

"I make sure she comes home and does two hours of study seven days a week," said JoAnn Foster.

"I'm not worried about Char's athletics," Art Foster said. "My concern is my child's academics. I want her to have the same intensity in the classroom that she has on the track. An education will last longer than a spike will."

A budding star

How do you know whether your child's interest in a sport is just a passing phase or the start of something big? You probably won't know right away.

Lynda Waters said Becky showed an interest in gymnastics at the age of 3 or 4.

"She came home from day care with blisters on her hands from swinging on the bars, so we put her in a gymnastics class. It was a real positive experience," Mrs. Waters said.

But it wasn't until several years later that her parents realized her true potential.

Char, who started competing when she was 8 years old, comes from a family with a sports background. Her two older sisters were runners. Her father was in track and football, and her mother was a competitive swimmer.

"With her sisters practicing, she was just sort of brought up into it. It seemed a natural thing for her to do," Art Foster said.

Although Char concedes she sometimes would rather be doing other things than practicing, she realizes the sacrifices her parents have made.

"I'm happy that they want to do it," she said.