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Verner: It takes more than genetics to excel

‘Safe to use on the youngest of athletes.” That’s what the website for Atlas Sports Genetics says, and in the most narrow of medical senses, I don’t doubt it’s true. Compared to collecting a soccer ball in the nose or eating a mouthful of infield dirt, a cotton swab swiped inside the cheek seems pretty benign.
Apparently, quite a few parents think so, too, based on recent stories in USA Today and other newspapers. Atlas Sports Genetics is among the companies looking to cash in on a nascent trend: Genetic testing to gauge a child’s physical potential for specific sports. Such testing, Atlas Sports Genetics assures, “gives parents and coaches early information on their child’s genetic predisposition for success in team or individual speed/power or endurance sports.”
Thus, through a mail-order testing kit, you can swab little Bobby or Becky and find out whether their sinews and synapses are better suited to sprints or marathons, basketball or badminton, soccer or softball. Or, perhaps — for those who landed in the shallower regions of the athletic gene pool — arranging towels in the locker room and keeping the water jugs filled.
Given our culture’s obsession with sports and the compulsion to groom kids for competitive success at ever younger ages, this shouldn’t be surprising — not when high school athletes are juicing themselves in pursuit of bigger, stronger, faster, and parents assault umpires at rec league events.
Nor should it be surprising that the cracking of the human genome, which holds the promise of ridding mankind of some terrible maladies, would open up a brave new world for identifying and enhancing athletic potential. If genetic testing can pinpoint a predisposition for diabetes or Huntington’s disease, then why not consult it for guidance on which sports to play? Along with helping identify potential candidates to be the next Michael Jordan or Roger Federer, maybe the test results would steer some kids away from sports where they’ll never excel, keeping those fields of dreams from turning into deserts of frustration.
But I can’t help wondering … If this type of genetic analysis had been available back in earlier eras, what would it have told Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League baseball? What would it have revealed about Roger Bannister, the first runner to break the four-minute mile? What would it have said about Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Billie Jean King … or Jim Abbott?
Abbott, you may recall, was a left-handed hurler for the California Angels and the New York Yankees. He was not, by his own admission, Hall of Fame material. But he had a respectable career. He was a collegiate All-American, pitched for the U.S. Gold Medal Olympic team in 1988 and threw a no-hitter for the Yankees against Cleveland in 1993.
Quite a few Major League pitchers have thrown no-hitters. Abbott was the first, and thus far only, one-handed pitcher to do so. He was born with only a stub where his right hand should have been. Whatever DNA might say, the fates are speaking pretty loudly to a kid who’s born with no right hand. Professional baseball wouldn’t seem within reach.
But Abbott didn’t listen to fate, and DNA testing wasn’t an option. He had to decide for himself what his life would be. He was determined from childhood to play baseball. As a youngster, he has recounted, he spent hours hurling balls against walls to refine the follow-through technique that enabled him to field, as well as pitch. Abbott wore a fielder’s glove at the end of his right arm. While completing his follow-through, he rapidly switched the glove to his left hand so he could handle any balls hit back to him.
Abbott, now a motivational speaker (www.jimabbott.net), acknowledges there were some who questioned his ability or, more bluntly, told him he was dreaming‚ which was true. He had to overcome obstacles.
“You have to be determined not to let someone else’s opinion of you define what you think of yourself,” he says in one of his speeches. “Only you know in your heart all the things you are capable of.”
Abbott’s story is one of sports’ most inspiring sagas. But for me, the inspiration doesn’t come from those images of a victorious pro pitcher fist-pumping the air after the last pitch of a no-hitter, or the collegiate hurler celebrating a Gold Medal. It’s the image of a freckle-faced, one-handed youngster, bouncing balls against a wall and somehow persevering against momentous odds and doubtful definitions.
No doubt, DNA holds some of the answers to who we are and our place in the universe. The rest of it, you have to decode for yourself.
• • •
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.

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