Duane Hofmann / msnbc.com
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/4/2009 9:04:22 AM ET 2009-03-04T14:04:22

Ava Anderson can’t run — not yet anyway. And the only iron she pumps comes via her tiny spoon. Then again, she’s just 13 months old.

But Ava was born with a genetic blend that will infuse her body with the explosive bursts of a power athlete and the steady engine of marathoner. Someday, this baby may blossom into a multisport, cross-training double threat. That’s not parental conjecture. That’s her DNA profile.

Her mom and dad had her tested.

Like more than 200 other parents to date, Hilary and Aaron Anderson paid $149 to Atlas Sports Genetics — a Boulder, Colo. company — for a sneak peek at their kid’s athletic horizons.

The Andersons received a home-analysis kit to check whether Ava has the inborn knack for strength sports (like sprinting) or endurance sports (like cycling). Then, to get the genetic scoop, they simply brushed the inside of Ava’s cheek with two cotton swabs, sealed the samples in a baggie and mailed them to an Australian lab used by Atlas. Although there are 20,000 strands of human DNA, the lab hunts for variations of just one: ACTN3, which can predict certain athletic skills, some experts believe. Five weeks later, the Andersons heard the verdict.

“She’s a mix,” said Hilary Anderson, who wasn’t surprised by the results given that she is tall and lean and that her husband once trained for the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team. “If she came back all endurance, we’d probably focus more on the long-distance type things. Likewise, if she was all strength, we would direct her toward power sports. This will let her try all sorts of things.”

Added pressure?
But the Andersons also understand one more thing about the test: It is drawing fire from scattered coaches, therapists and genetic experts who worry some parents will misuse the data and that the young science will inject even more pressure and politics into childhood games.

“It is simply dangerous,” said Casey Cooper, a sports psychologist who hosts a radio show on KLAA-830 AM in Anaheim, Calif., and mother of a 5-year-old. “The more we professionalize sports younger and younger, the more we contribute to the youth drop-out rate for sports. My reaction: Save your money because to (genetically) type your child like this is only going to land them in my office later. And I charge $150 [per session].”

At the same time, some coaches say locker-room chemistry could be shattered if roster cuts or playing time are influenced by the knowledge that one player is genetically gifted — or not.

“Wow, I just think you’re opening a Pandora’s Box with team dynamics,” said Chad Onken, an assistant coach of the swim team at the YMCA of the Triangle in Raleigh, N.C. The youthful squad has won six national titles. “You’re talking about a small problem that could blow up to something pretty huge. “

Image: Aaron, Ava, and Hilary Anderson
Courtesy of the Anderson family
Aaron and Hilary Anderson had their daughter, Ava, tested for variants of ACTN3.
Still, the Andersons know all about the possible parental pitfalls. They have seen overbearing, overexpectant moms and dads up close. (The couple ran strength and conditioning camps for kids a few years back.) Consequently, they are sensitive to those emotional snares, they say.

“So many parents thought their kid was going to be the next Bo Jackson (a former pro football and baseball star). There are going to be those parents, unfortunately, who push their kids, who live through their kids,” said Hilary, a personal trainer who played college volleyball. “For us, this was just a little side thing to help make it be fun. If Ava would rather do music or dance, that’s fine.”

Atlas president and co-owner Kevin Reilly acknowledges being uneasy about clients who receive DNA results that dampen the sports dreams they hold for their kids — for example, if they learn their little boy is not genetically apt to excel at a power sport such as football.

“I think this may be a gut check for parents to look at their motives as well: What’s in the best interest for my child, (to ask themselves) what do I want them to be and what do they want to be,” Reilly said.

What’s more, the test can’t predict a future NFL star, Reilly said. It merely reveals if a child has the genetic markers common to people who succeed in either power or endurance events. In short, Reilly is selling the product as a parental “tool,” a DNA roadmap, a device to eventually expose children to the sports they were born to play.

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The sports-DNA test has one gaping blind spot as well, YMCA coach Onken said. It can’t measure an athlete’s desire, while natural talent doesn’t always translate into a winner. The YMCA of the Triangle, which includes 350 kids from ages 7 to 18, has produced Olympic hopefuls and college-scholarship swimmers. Some of those, Onken said, excelled purely on heart and hard work. He compared them to the tiny-but-driven Notre Dame football player profiled in the 1993 movie “Rudy.”

“I can think of too many ‘Rudy’ types who overachieved here,” Onken said. “And I can think of too many playground basketball legends who could jump over a backboard but never made it off the playground.”

Science in question
The science, however, has doubters.

This much is known: We all have the ACTN3 gene; we get one copy from each parent. As with many genes, though, ACTN3 can take different twists. One version of the gene — the R variant — steers the body to produce a protein that builds more fast-twitch muscles, used for potent surges of energy. The X variant, meanwhile, blocks that protein. People who inherit two sets of the R variant may be naturally engineered for power sports. Those who carry two X variant copies may have better stamina.

The “mixed pattern” people — like Ava Anderson — “may be equally suited for both endurance and sprint/power events,” says the Atlas Web site.

But Carl Foster, who co-authored an ACTN3 study and who heads the human performance lab at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, points out that multiple genes fuel athleticism, and scientists are just beginning to learn which are most vital.

“So why do you want to spend money looking for one gene?” Foster asked. “You want parents to be supportive of their kids’ endeavors. You don’t want them to try and program their kid. And the kinds of people with disposable income are probably the kinds of people where that’s always a trap for them. They’re accomplishment-oriented.

“They say, ‘Well, I want my kid to be the best he can be.’ Of course. It’s God, mother and apple pie. You can’t vote against it. But at some point you’d like to say: Maybe just go to the Y and put your kid in a sports class and just see if they like it.”

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