That’s Kid’s Stuff: How Old Do You Need to Be to Attempt a World Record?

By Michelle on September 3, 2010 | ,

Where should we draw the line for children setting world records?

In remote parts of Alaska, a teenager is more likely to ask for the keys to the Cessna than the car. In Boulder, Colorado, kids start rock climbing around six years old. Sailing families on every coast take years at a time to cruise to different parts of the world, homeschooling their children at sea. Depending on where you live and your familiarity with such endeavors, you might find the parents of these children irresponsible. For example, I don’t know anything about hunting, so I think it’s insane that in places like West Virginia you can hand a loaded firearm to a fifteen year old and send him out on his own to shoot wild game. Or, if you’re willing to supervise and are a licensed hunter over the age of twenty-one, you can let your five-year-old niece bag her first deer. I’ve never shot anything in my life, except tequila, so my first instinct would be to call social services.

In January, sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland set sail on her boat, Wild Eyes, from Marina Del Rey, California, in an attempt to become the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the world. For over five months, she demonstrated why her parents trusted her enough to support her dream and let her go. Unfortunately, halfway into Abby’s journey, a three-story-high wave in the south Indian Ocean crippled her boat by snapping the mast, and Abby manually set off an emergency beacon for rescuers. It’s hard to say which hit Abby the hardest, the 60-knot winds and 25-foot swells that ended her dream, or the media accusations that her parents were negligent for allowing her to make the trip in the first place.

A quick read of Abby’s blog demonstrates that for almost half a year Abby handily tackled less than ideal conditions aboard Wild Eyes, including faulty wind gauges, deficient solar power, leaks, major storms, engine failure, and the emotional isolation of living alone in a small space that smelled like squid. Abby grew up on boats, and the storm that damaged her rigging had nothing to do with being a sixteen-year-old girl. If anything, Abby’s response to the crisis showed maturity and experience beyond her years and proved that she was well prepared for emergency situations.

While Abby waited for days on her disabled boat to catch a ride with a French shipping vessel, thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero was home in California celebrating his new title as the youngest person to summit Everest. In December, he plans to knock off Vinson Massif in Antarctica and become the youngest person to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. But one out of every twenty-five people who attempt to summit Everest dies, and one out of every ten who make the summit dies on the descent. If you’re into probability, the fact that the boy’s dad and stepmom went with him to the summit meant that they’d not only put Jordan’s life at risk, but also gave him pretty good odds of losing at least one of his parents if he survived. Jordan’s attempt and successful summit brought media debate, but perhaps less so than the squall surrounding Abby’s fractured sailing quest. Why? Because Jordan is alive, well, and one peak shy of conquering the seven summits. Jordan set a world record. Abby went home.

I’m thinking that a child’s success or failure shouldn’t be the litmus test for deciding whether or not a parent is being reckless or irresponsible. Within the bounds of the law, a mom or dad must decide whether or not a child is mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to tackle a particular feat, but that type of discernment can be tough when the child is begging to do something that no child his or her age has ever done before. Without precedence, how do you know exactly where to draw the line?

Thirteen year olds can summit Everest. Sixteen year olds can sail solo. Not all, but as Jordon and Abby have proved, some. Kids are breaking barriers. They are redefining what is reasonable and prudent. As women, we know all too well what it is like to be discounted for our mental, physical, and emotional ability where athleticism is concerned. In 1966, Roberta Gibb opened her mail to find her Boston Marathon entry rejected with a short note stating that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. She snuck into the race and finished with an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She didn’t die. Her ovaries didn’t fall out. And while I will never run a marathon, I know many other women who can, and do, and are thankful that Gibb paved the way and proved the world wrong. Not all women can run a marathon, but some can, want to, and if given the chance – will. Perhaps our kids, when they are ready, deserve the same opportunity.

~Michelle Theall

Underestimating the Winter Warlock: How I Conquered an Icelandic Glacier

Underestimating the Winter Warlock: How I Conquered an Icelandic Glacier

Final push up H16

I’m a forty-three year old woman and I’m crying. Sniveling. Angry. Weak. I want to take my trekking pole and hurl it at the sturdier mountaineers in front of me, but they are too far ahead and that would require precision and more energy than I have left. On the positive side, I’ve managed to scale the highest peak in Iceland without impaling myself on my ice axe or yanking the seven other people, who were roped up to me earlier, into a crevasse.

I underestimated Hvannadalshnjukur (H16), maybe because it sounded like a condition easily treated with a dose of antibiotic or ointment, but mostly because it is only 6,900 feet high. I live at 5,300 feet and trained at 10,000 feet for weeks prior to tackling the glacier. But, H16 starts at sea level and gains 1,000 feet every mile. This was fine for the seven miles up, but on the return trip, my legs lurched and my quads quivered in protest. Still, it gave me a taste of what it means to be a true mountaineer, and tears or no tears, I chewed up that savory satisfaction of having accomplished something new and difficult and spectacularly beautiful (while eating Icelandic chocolate and hot soup served to me once I’d finally reached the bottom).

The tears came from a place of fear. On the descent, I fell behind. I wondered if anyone would notice that I wasn’t with the group any longer. Though we’d left the ice by that point, we traversed steep, dew-covered scree with exposed drops that made my already shaky legs tremble even more. One misstep and bye-bye. But that didn’t happen. I can thank the claymation Santa Claus is Coming to Town classic for getting me down that mountain, because the song I kept singing was Put One Foot in Front of the Other…you know the one…the Winter Warlock’s icy heart melts and he has to learn to walk again…and soon you’ll be walking out the door…but I digress…

Back home safely, I’d like to “play the MS card”, something I can do because I have Multiple Sclerosis. Drop the excuse of my disease on the table like a note getting me out of PE for cramps. But I don’t want to blame my wobbly descent on MS because that means it’s affecting my ability to do things I love, and as difficult as it was for me to climb that glacier, I loved it and I did it. So what if I shed a few tears? I can climb fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado. I didn’t travel all the way to Iceland to do something easy or accessible. And perhaps this is the greatest lesson I learned on H16: I underestimated myself as much as I underestimated the mountain. I have yet to reach the limits of where I might go on the power of my own two feet.

Of Course I’m Irritable, I have IBS!

I have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. There, I said it. It’s been hard for me to admit because the name alone sucks. I realize it’s tough to make cramping, diarrhea, nausea, gas, and bloating sexy, but maybe that’s because the PED (penile erectile disfunction) folks hired all the superior PR professionals. Every former quarterback in the NFL takes a little blue pill and brags about it on national television. Imagine what it might do for IBS if, say, Angelina Jolie appeared on a commercial during American Idol and said, “Please excuse my toots, I have IBS.”

The idea isn’t so farfetched. According to the International Foundation for Functional Gastric Disorders, over 25% of the world’s population suffers from IBS—and around 70% of them are women. Line up four movie starlets in a row, and at least one of them has IBS. She’s just not talking about it.

I didn’t want to have IBS. I tried to blame everything else for the rumble in the jungle that woke me up at night and had me scrambling for facilities twenty minutes after every meal. I rectified my other health problems in an effort to eliminate the gastronomical events that were taking over my life. I had a uterine fibroid removed. Replaced all my mercury fillings. Became a vegetarian. Started taking fiber pills and pro-biotics. Got tested for gluten intolerance and parasites. Had an endoscopy and colonoscopy to rule out Crohn’s Disease, colon cancer, polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, and GERD. As a result, I have more pictures of my intestines than I do of my dog.

IBS is one of those diseases where you find out what you have by what you don’t. There’s no definitive diagnostic criteria. It’s like taking the leftovers in the fridge and trying to make something edible from it. Really, you’re just guessing, and no one’s all too certain about the quality of the results.

I’m reassured by my physician that I can’t die from IBS or lose part of my colon or become incontinent. I’m given a prescription to Bentyl, which works really well, but also makes me high as a kite if I take the recommended dose. With one quarter of the population suffering from IBS, you’d think that doctors would have more answers about IBS (what causes it, how to stop it, what to eat when you have it) than some chick I found on the Internet named Heather—but you’d be wrong.

Heather Van Vorous has written a couple books about living with IBS, and she’s right on the money with her advice. I find out I’ve been doing everything wrong. IBS is caused by the gastrointestinal tract’s overreaction to inflammation. Inflammation is caused by certain trigger foods, notably insoluble fiber and high fat foods. Vegetables, meat, butter, oil, dairy, and whole grains irritate the gut. Soluble fiber including fresh sourdough, French bread, corn cereals, most starches, and even refined sugars do not. Good news. Now, I am a forty-three year old woman who is living on Sugar Pops cereal and sweet potatoes.

Of course, no one can live well on the nutritional value of a box of animal crackers, (though I am still trying to prove otherwise). I take a multi-vitamin, drink peppermint tea and Eater’s Digest tea (fennel is a key ingredient), and try to begin any high-trigger-food meals with soluble fiber first. I’m learning to embrace my IBS and come out of the water closet about it, so to speak. If only some Hollywood A-Listers or Olympic gold medalists would join me, my journey to acceptance would finally be complete.

For more about IBS go to: or

Kindergartener and Pre-schooler Expelled Because They Have Two Mommies

Part two of Teaching the Cat to Sit (the memoir I’m writing) begins with the statement, “Make no mistake. God is in the people, but the people are not God.” Meaning that all to often, I’ve confused the actions (especially those made on behalf of religion) of human beings with being shunned, judged, or ostracized by God.

In the 1980s, Father Rudy Kos headed up All Saints Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas. He sported a Tom Selleck mustache, had been married and divorced prior to being ordained, and lived in the rectory of the church with a teenage boy he’d adopted. You can probably sense where this is going. Kos headed up the teen group, and because he oozed charisma and cool, he gained immense popularity among my peers. Until one of the altar boys committed suicide and twelve others came forward to sue the Catholic Diocese in the precedent-setting case won against a religious institution for hiding and covering up for a pedophile priest.

Fast forward to 2006. My partner of twelve years and I adopted a son from Boulder County Foster Care. He’d been neglected, starved, and near-drowned. I’ve no doubt angels watched over him in his first year of life, because his survival seemed miraculous. He didn’t choose his parents–those he was born to, in foster care with, or adopted by. His birth certificate now shows his legal parents to be two moms. In 2009, we enrolled our son in Sacred Heart of Jesus private school. We believed it was important to raise our son in a faith. Our first question to administrators was whether or not our son would be ostracized or punished in any way because he had gay parents. They said no. And, they lived up to that promise. The teachers and parents at the school never treated our son any different than any other student. And, we weren’t the only gay parents at Sacred Heart. When we arranged to have our son baptized, Father Bill Breslin called me in for a conversation that led to us pulling our son from the school (click here for Boulder Weekly interview).

A few weeks ago, Sacred Heart announced that a kindergartener and pre-schooler (siblings) would not be allowed to re-enroll at the school because their parents (two moms) were living in “open discord” with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the policies of the school. He said that this policy did not apply to children of single or divorced parents because those were not ongoing events or choices–they were one time events. But, the school has not addressed whether or not they’d be willing to turn down the tuition of parents who admit to using birth control or do not observe Lent or attend Mass regularly.

Sacred Heart is a private school. They can make whatever rules they choose, and parents can decide whether or not to send their children there. But for a Christian school to selectively punish children for the decisions of parents makes a mockery of the religious institution. Acceptance does not equal approval. And it begs the question: What would Jesus do?

Winter of my Olympic Discontent

It’s no coincidence that the US Women’s Ski Jumping team started petitioning the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the right to compete in the Winter Olympics in the year 1998. After all, that’s the same year the IOC decided to add Curling instead. Yeah, I’d be ticked off too. No offense to curlers, but c’mon. I think ex-NBA basketball player, Charles Barkley, summed up my sentiments quite well yesterday when he said, “Curling is not a sport. I called my grandmother and told her she could win a gold medal because they have dusting in the Olympics now.”

1908 Curlers Working up a Sweat

Admittedly, Curling takes skill and strategy. That’s why it’s been called “chess on ice” (please note that as of the time of this post, the IOC has refused to comment on whether or not it will consider chess for the Summer Olympics). I’d say that even cheerleading takes more athletic ability than curling, but I don’t want to insult cheerleaders.

Okay, so knocking one sport isn’t going to benefit the others. I get it. But, the IOC’s decision in 1998 to accept one sport over another justifies this scrutiny. The curlers are innocent. But the IOC is not.

Everyone knows ski jumping is a viable Olympic sport. We know this because men have been jumping in the Olympic games since the very first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Yet, ski jumping remains the only Winter sport where women are unable to compete for medals like their male counterparts. And that is a tragedy.

Rather than admit discrimination, the IOC argues that women’s ski jumping does not have enough participation or countries with women’s teams or world-class competitions to warrant official status in the Games. Um, but the gal ski jumpers have more competitors than women’s bobsled, snowboard cross, or ski cross did when they were sanctioned. I smell a rat.

Female ski jumpers deserve official status because they’ve earned it in their own right. But, if that doesn’t work out, they’ve still got another four years to switch over to Curling.

One plank or two? A snowboarder tries Nordic skiing and lives to tell about it…

Leave it to a place like Devil’s Thumb Ranch to lull you into the peaceful trance that says “yes” to everything. With over 6,000 acres of groomed nordic terrain, I could have just defaulted to my go-to winter sport of running with Yaktrax on, but the PR woman, Holly, convinced me that I was a wuss if I didn’t try Classic Nordic Skiing when she had all the equipment ready for me, along with one of the best instructors around. I’ve not been on a pair of Nordic skis ever, and hadn’t been on Alpine planks in fifteen years. So, I had reservations, and lots of questions. The biggest one was: I thought this was like snowshoeing. You mean, it’s difficult enough to require lessons? The answer is yes, if you want a solid start into the sport. Okay. I’m game.

Things that surprised me:

1) The boots are comfortable. You could dance in them if you wanted. Onlookers were thankful I didn’t.

2) The skis and poles are so thin and light, you’ll forget you’re carrying them. My apologies to everyone I clocked in the noggin’ on my way to the trails.

3) The tip that worked best for me (in terms of stance and posture) was when the instructor told me to pretend I was staggering forward after drinking too much. Who knew he’d tailor the lesson just for me?

4) The number of times I ended up on the ground. I was told it would be overkill and nerdy to wear my boarding helmet.

5) How comfortable I felt in zero degree weather with no hat and just a baselayer. Truly, there is no warmer way to be under a blue sky, moving your body, shadowed by 12,000 foot peaks, than gliding on a nordic trail. Sitting by a fire would not have taken the chill off as well as Classic skiing did.

All and all, I had a blast, learned a new sport, and only have a few bruises today. The bottom line: Nordic is an extremely beautiful way to get out in the snow and get a hip-flexor-stretching, glute-burning, quad-strengthening workout.

Jonathan Edwards, Tiger Woods, and Prop 8

Jonathan Edwards and Tiger Woods. Those two names don’t make me think about health care or golf. Instead, especially when mentioned in the same sentence, they bring to mind words like infidelity and lies. Let’s not be fooled. Playing a great round of 18 holes doesn’t make you a moral man and neither does running for office. Edwards and Woods made vows to be faithful to their wives, not to me. So it’s weird that I feel cheated and disappointed (but not at all surprised). We’ve come to expect and perhaps accept that married men stray. Cheating isn’t like tripping over a curb. You don’t “slip up.” No one’s pants breakaway like they do in some TV comic pratfall. You don’t “fall” into bed. It’s action and decision. Just like marriage.

Marriage is essentially a legal vow to be each other’s one and only. And, it doesn’t mean one and only Scrabble partner or bill-paying buddy. When you get down to it, what essentially separates “lovers” from “spouses” is a formal agreement to be sole sexual partners, until death do us part. That’s the biggest distinguishing factor. After all, your best friend can be a lifetime companion for you, emotionally and financially. And a lover might say forever, but those are just words and only words when there is a legal option available to show you “really mean it” and sign on the dotted line.

For 2.5 weeks now, the courts have listened to testimony to decide whether or not to overturn Prop 8, the proposition banning gay marriage. No matter where you sit on the fence, gay, straight, married, or single, you have to admit that marriage has been cheapened by public infidelities and a 50% divorce rate. Still, gay people in this country are fighting for the right to marry. Maybe there’s something better, a step above marriage they should be legalizing for their relationships instead. After all, if you want to learn to be a great golfer, emulate Tiger Woods. But if you want a lifetime commitment, why not aim higher?

When is a woman too much of a man to be a female athlete?

So, the IOC just recommended gender-testing centers to determine eligibility when an athlete exhibits sexually ambiguous characteristics. Caster Semenya, the woman who won the 800 meters at the world championships this past summer, seems to have spurred the scrutiny with her masculine build, low voice, and hint of an Adam’s apple. Excruciatingly embarrassing for her to be called out in such a public manner, however, I’ll argue that you have to be fair to all athletes.

Men and women compete in separate categories in most sports because of the inherent inequity in speed and strength. If a tad more testosterone didn’t boost performance, we wouldn’t be having debates about steroid usage, right? Unlike cheating in sports though, Caster Semenya just is who she is and wasn’t trying to put anything over on anyone else. In November, the I.A.A.F. ruled (after gender-testing results rumored to show Semenya as a hermaphrodite) that Semenya would keep her world title and prize money. However, it has not ruled whether or not she would be allowed to continue competing as a woman. The question becomes–where do you draw the line? If a woman’s natural testosterone levels are higher than other women (on par perhaps with a man’s), should she be allowed to compete against women? What if she has ambiguous sex organs? And how do you single out an athlete for testing without crushing her spirit and reputation?

The answer seems to be that the IOC cannot consider this matter on a case-by-case basis. They must return to standardized gender-testing for all athletes (as they did a decade ago) or risk demoralizing and humiliating individuals. And, as inane as it sounds, the IOC must determine the criteria it will use to decide when a woman is too much of a man to be a female athlete.