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Faces of Latter-day Saint Women: A Conversation with Mary Fredericks

By Johanna Smith

Mary was an elite child gymnast and is now a massage therapist for BYU athletes and Real Salt Lake. In that man’s world of professional soccer, she is known as “the little mother.” She lives in Spring Lake, Utah with her husband and four children: Anikin, Ren, Max, and Trinity.
 
You were trained to be an Olympic athlete as a very young child, and as a teenager joined the Church on your own. I imagine that your schedule, although involving you in something you loved, also separated you from others. Tell us a little about your background.
 
I was eighteen months old when my mom remarried. By then my mom had put me in jazz and tap classes, and apparently I was some sort of prodigy. When I was three, my mom had me audition for a Broadway musical, and I got a part. But that very same week, a friend told her about gymnastics. Mom made me decide at age three which one I wanted to do. I chose gymnastics. By age nine I was getting up early and going to school late because I was being groomed for an elite level. By sixth grade, my teacher suggested that my parents home-school me, which allowed me to basically live at the gym.We’d be at the gym by 6:30 a.m. I’d train until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. or later, with an hour for lunch or physical therapy. There was no family dinner—I ate dinner in the car, went to bed, and then started over. That was six days a week and every other Sunday. Basically I went elite—the highest level in gymnastics—by age ten. I was the youngest to ever do that at the time. The next youngest was Nadia Komenich; she had been twelve. That was normal training unless I was in competition.What happened to change that pattern?

When I chose to go elite, my coach sat down with me and my parents and explained what I was going to have to do to achieve it. Most coaches, when they know that an athlete has the ability to make it to the elite (or Olympic) level, generally sit down and explain the process, commitment, and sacrifice it will take. They want to see if the child and parents are willing before any effort is put into it. Basically there would be no normal school, no school dances, no church, no family activities, no camping, no skiing, and no other sports (because I couldn’t risk injuries). If I was at home, I had to be resting. When my family was off camping or skiing, I stayed with my coach. In the summer I was allowed only one to two hours of sun because it could drain me. But I was a loner, so it worked for me. I didn’t want to do any of those things anyway. I agreed, and that became my childhood. Sleep, train, eat.

That’s an incredible amount of both dedication and sacrifice for a child. So did it pay off? Were you in the Olympics?

I made the team, but because my number of injuries had leaked to the press—you’re only allowed a certain number before it’s considered child abuse, and I exceeded that number—I was petitioned off the team. So record books show I was on the team, but I was an alternate.

Were you disappointed?

I was very, very mad—at the sport, at everyone. You train your whole life for fifteen seconds of fame, and when it’s taken from you, you’re like, “Forget it.” I had a lot of rage. Because gymnastics was my life, I got really depressed. I had done nothing else for fifteen years; I didn’t know what else to do. I had been anorexic off and on, but it kicked in full force when I lost gym.

When that happened, I really relied on prayer. One thing my parents always kept from their Mormon days was that before every meet or competition, I would get a blessing from our bishop. I don’t know if they would do it for me or if they really believed, but the power of prayer is remarkable.

How old were you when you joined the Church?

I didn’t officially get baptized until I was sixteen and a half, but I was brought up in the Church until I was six, when my family went inactive. Like a lot of LDS people, they went to church sometimes, but sometimes they went to the lake.

But about the time I lost gym, the missionaries came every day to see if I wanted to talk. I had just gone through knee and wrist surgery. Every day I would turn them away, then go back to bed and mope and watch them leave. And every day I’d look forward to them coming, and think, “Okay, today I’ll talk to them.” Then a childhood friend came to me and asked if I would attend church with her, and oddly, my mom made me go. After that I took all six discussions in two weeks. I wanted to get baptized, but my parents didn’t want me to join “the cult.” The stake president and my bishop got involved trying to prove to my parents that it wasn’t a phase. I took a calling, read scriptures, and then paid tithing. The day after I paid my tithing my Dad called me from work and said, “You’re the cheapest person I know. If you’re willing to pay ten percent, you can get baptized.”

How hilarious. I wonder if in some way the solitude and dedication you learned in gym prepared you to join the Church despite your family’s antagonism toward it. But obviously you were a kid who knew how to do what you needed to do to achieve what was important to you. Was gym still a part of your life at this point?

I was still training on my own. I said I had no “Olympic void”; I’d gotten over it. It was shortly after the Olympics that I found other impending injuries. My surgeon said if I’d gone to the Olympics, I could have been paralyzed or dead.

How has your view of your body changed since you stopped doing gymnastics?

Even though I can eat now, I will battle with the mental disease for life, and because I was anorexic, I don’t really view myself as looking good. I’m never skinny enough, especially since I know I’m not going to get pregnant anymore. When I was pregnant or nursing, I was able to lock anorexia away, but since Trinity came and I’m no longer nursing her, I notice it more than I used to. I call them the mental monsters. It really hasn’t changed, though I try to manage it now. It’s just something I have to battle for life.

Is there a way to protect Trinity, your daughter, from that?

Truthfully, I told everyone if I ever had a girl, I would never let her do gym because there are a lot of power hungry coaches out there. But Trinity’s already showing signs she could do anything. I think, “We’ll put her in diving!” But at the same time, I want to be a good mom and let my kids find their own true potential.

I’d love to hear your perspective on the question we’ve chosen for this issue’s Focus Column: “How would you teach children (especially girls) to have self-confidence and respect for their bodies?”

With girls especially, you have to be careful when they go into certain sports. There are sports that are known for anorexia because they’re judged on body. Synchronized swimming, diving, gymnastics, ballet—those are your big sports for anorexia. Not that it will always happen, but they’re more prone. With any sport or anything they’re doing in life, you need to be involved but not overbearing. Make sure they’re eating healthy. Because I’ve had anorexia, I can tell quickly when other people have eating disorders. It’s the parents’ responsibility to educate themselves on signs. Also, daughters watch their mothers. My mom was always on diets and comparing her food intake to mine. It messes with you. You start thinking, “Am I fat? Is she fat? I don’t think she’s fat, but if she’s fat, am I fat?”

Teach them to exercise and put good food in their bodies. We call fruits and vegetables “sports candy.” Teach them that when they’re eating right, they can do their sport. I tell my boys how handsome and smart they are and try to give them constant positive reinforcement. I try to be involved in their activities, but not overly involved. I try to be knowledgeable.

About Johanna Smith

reminds us to feed our muse. Raised in the northwoods of Canada without electricity or a phone, Johanna’s biggest challenge when she moved to Utah to attend BYU was falling asleep with the sound of the refrigerator humming. She has a BA in Linguistics, dreams of making her own artisan cheeses, and refuses to let her husband spray chemicals on the lawn. She lives in Pocatello, Idaho, with him and their daughter on five weedy, beautiful acres.

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