Grandmother Cathy Rigby Is Flying High

Published in Issue 22 May/June 2008

Grandmother Cathy Rigby knows a lot about the highs and lows of all-out dedication to the regimented life of an Olympic athlete. She burst on the scene as a blond, pigtailed 15-year-old at the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968. But the thrill of victory was paved with dangerous bouts of bulimia and anorexia as she navigated her way through the sometimes-dysfunctional, pressure-packed world of gymnastic competition. Years later, Cathy took the positive life lessons she learned about discipline and hard work and applied them to the pursuit of a career in the theater. She trained for the stage like an athlete, with years of voice and acting lessons and ballet.

Ironically, it was as Peter Pan, a role requiring athletic prowess as well as singing and acting chops, that she solidified her theater credentials and career. Completing this picture is a loving husband of 25 years who is her partner in life and business, plus sons and daughters and grandchildren who are part of the family business.

The very thing that makes you good at something is a sort of obsessive-compulsive need. It’s not good or bad; it’s just what’s instilled in you. On the other hand, you learn how to train, and you realize you’re capable of a lot more than you think. People say, “If I’m not born with a voice, how can I do this?” You can. Everybody has potential. There’s no reason you can’t learn something. You can get better at anything you do if you work at it hard enough.

But at what cost? Does Cathy think she was robbed of a “normal” childhood because of her Olympic training?

I don’t think I lost anything in my childhood because of my training. There was dysfunction in my life for other reasons. My dad was an alcoholic; that was not a great thing for our family. My coach was wonderful in many ways but also controlling. You take the good with the bad. Gymnastics was the most solid thing in my life. I loved it. Yes, I trained six to eight hours a day, but that’s what I wanted to do. So that wasn’t a problem. Sometimes, there’s a problem in being judged constantly, but the actual training was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was like going out on the playground and getting to do everything you wanted to do. When you love what you do and it’s an art, it’s wonderful. When the judging is added, it becomes more about success and failure than the learning and loving.

When children focus obsessively on athletics or academics, warning signs aren’t so easy to read. Parents applaud dedication to learning and sports, but how does a grandparent know when such dedication is crossing a dangerous line?

It’s when they train hard and have trouble with the concept of losing, that’s when athletics get dysfunctional. With gymnastics there can be the need to be perfect-not just the perfect body but in every move that you make. And on top of that, when you’re a good girl and you try not to make waves, you don’t really have a voice because you’re trying to please. You don’t ever disagree and never rant and rave. You just follow the rules, and that can lead to burnout. There are warning signs of this kind of burnout. See if the grandchild appears to be tired and unenthusiastic. Sometimes they don’t wake up in the morning ready to jump out of bed and go play. Sometimes, the effect is gradual and takes years to manifest itself. If at the age of 18 or 19, they don’t care to get involved in anything, it’s been too much. If they don’t have the satisfaction of having a passion, they start losing their joy for life-everything seems boring.

Saying she’s been there and done that, Cathy remembers firsthand what happened to her fellow athletes who became obsessed with winning.

I saw a lot of kids who had this kind of dead look from being burned out. They were not quite sure if they wanted to compete at that intensity anymore or do anything that put them on the spot like that for the rest of their lives. Winning was everything. But someone who was at a lower level [with lower expectations of winning], and who loved what they did, carried that spirit over to everything else they did. Let’s face it. There are only six young athletes every four years that make an Olympic team in gymnastics. Instead of fixating on that, wouldn’t it be better if at age 18 and 19 these young athletes learned all these disciplines and said, “I’m ready; I can’t wait to attack life”;-regardless of whether or not they are one of those six athletes-”I can’t wait to learn all there is to learn.”

Burnout is not the only problem facing young athletes. Eating disorders pose a great danger, particularly in gymnastics, where weight is a constant issue for young competitors. As someone who struggled with an eating disorder, Cathy, who admits she worked a little harder at starving herself or becoming bulimic as she matured and gained weight, knows the pattern all too well.

There’s pressure on young gymnasts to be thin-not so much when they’re younger, but when they hit puberty, because it’s right at their peak time for them to make the Olympic team. When they’re 15 or 16, they have that subsequent weight gain that goes along with maturing. Then they’re panicked because it’s not so easy to move around the apparatus. It gets in the way of the competition and training, so they try to fight it. Depending on the body type, genetics and all the rest, they can’t lose weight. They get desperate. They try many different diets; and when they don’t work and all else fails, they go to the extreme. And it’s not just gymnasts. You see that with a lot of young women and men who go to Ivy League schools. Instead of Olympic athletes, they’re valedictorians.

Unlike burnout, eating disorders are harder to spot, says Cathy. And when Cathy was dealing with her problems, it was hardly on the radar screens of most health professionals. Now, help is available.

For the most part, eating disorders are very well hidden. If you even think there’s a problem, there probably is. If you suspect [an eating disorder] is happening, immediately contact a professional, someone who really deals in eating disorders, and discuss it. But first, surf the Internet and go to bookstores to read about the signs.

As a grandmother, Cathy can relate to grandparents who are concerned that their grandchildren are overbooked and have no free time to visit or even hang out with friends. Too much structure is as bad as no structure at all.

In general, kids need a break to rejuvenate, to make sure that they still have passion. It’s okay to be training, but if a child doesn’t have the time to rest, to be with family and have something separate from playing soccer, for instance, then the child becomes machinelike. They’re only as good as their next competition and don’t really learn about having meaningful relationships. It’s all about them. It’s very narcissistic.

Cathy admits to having a tough time finding her “meaningful relationship” until actor/ producer Tom McCoy came into her life.

I met Tom in 1981, and it was love at first sight. I was basically ending my first marriage at that point. I had gotten married at 20 because it was more like “Okay, this is what I’m supposed to do.” [The circumstances aren't] something I’m proud of, but I’m grateful that I met Tom when I did. We’ve been married 25 years. Tom was a performer at the time that we met. And he ended up going into producing because that’s more his temperament and he’s very good at it. It’s worked out because we’re both sides of the brain. He handles the finances and puts the teams together, and I do the artistic stuff.

Tom and Cathy now preside over McCoy Rigby Entertainment (http://www.mccoyrigby.com/), a thriving theater company in its 14th year that has expanded to include the McCoy Rigby Dance Academy (MRDA), a dance studio with classes offered for tiny tots, beginners, intermediate and advanced levels as well as adults. McCoy Rigby Entertainment calls the La Mirada Theatre in La Mirada, California, its home base. “Home” is the operative word for the company, since it’s become a family affair with family members as part of the theater troupe-even grandchildren.

Two years ago my daughter married someone she met doing Jesus Christ Superstar. He was our lighting operator on that show. My youngest grandchild, Jude Ryan Mason, we call Jude “the Dude.” He’s the child of my son’s second marriage. “Tiger Lily” married my son while they were on tour. My son played “Nana” and the crocodile and a pirate, so technically Peter Pan is Tiger Lily’s mother-in-law. We joke and call Jude our little Lost Boy. Jude’s 3, and he’s not quite sure who I am. We’ll get on the phone sometimes and he’ll say, “Can I speak to Mammy Yokum? Can I speak to Peter Pan?” And I have to play all these parts. He’s all boy. He never sleeps. He’s up all day and never takes naps. My oldest grandchild is Hailey, and she is one of the sweetest young ladies in the whole world.

She’s an amazing athlete and an amazing singer. Her daddy was married before, and she’s got her mother’s voice. Her stepmommy Dana was our Tiger Lily, so Hailey is in this wonderful world of art and athletics. She’s the first grandchild, so she’s had the most attention. She traveled with me when I did Peter Pan. She’s probably the youngest person to fly on Broadway. She was only 2 years old at the time; and I picked her up in my arms and made sure there was a safety on her, and we flew for the curtain call for the very last show. It’s a little bit magical when your Nana is on stage.

Cathy’s childhood may have been filled with hard work and little time for play, but Jude and Hailey’s time at Nana’s and Poppy’s (as Cathy and Tom are known) is also a bit magical and would delight every Lost Boy.

Usually when the grandkids are here, we go over and feed horses that are stabled down the way. We have three acres, so we explore the outdoors. We have a lot of family dinners. Since I have a cockatoo and dogs, we spend time with them. Hailey loves animals. We make things. We draw. We play make-believe. Just the normal family things.

Life for Cathy Rigby isn’t about “perfection” these days; but it’s “normal,” and, for her, that’s perfection

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