When I read about Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old California girl who attempted to become the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe alone in a sailboat, my first thoughts were of Jessica Dubroff.
She was the 7-year-old pilot trainee who was killed, along with her father and an actual pilot, while attempting to set a record for the youngest person to fly a plane across the US. For a brief time she was the media's darling, an adorable little first grader in a bomber jacket and riding pants, looking for all the world like a miniature Amelia Earhart.
Her father took on the role of press agent, handing out hats printed with "Jessica Whitney Dubroff Sea to Shining Sea April 1996" She had plenty of parental encouragement. What she didn't have was a medical certificate, a pilot certificate or a student pilot certificate since the minimum age to acquire those is 16. She may have been sitting at the controls with extenders on the pedals that her feet couldn't reach, but the actual pilot was Joe Reid, a flight instructor.
It wasn't until her plane crashed during takeoff in a thunderstorm and all aboard were killed that it became apparent how bogus the entire venture was. The Guinness Book of World Records does not recognize a category for "youngest pilot" — they, if no one else, realized the danger inherent in attempts to break these sorts of records.
During the flurry of news reports prior to the crash, this was conveniently glossed over or simply ignored. The kid was just too cute and the story of a feisty, freckled 55-pound aviatrix was just too compelling. The facts would have been too much of a downer.
Then came Abby Sunderland. The world held its breath for two days after reports that she had met with high seas on the Indian ocean, her distress beacons had been activated and then ... silence. It seemed almost miraculous when she was discovered safe in her disabled boat and rescued by a French fishing vessel.
The relief at her rescue soon turned to cynicism when it became apparent this record-setting attempt wasn't just a dream of an adventuresome young girl but a family business. Her older brother, Zac, had successfully completed the same voyage in 2009 and briefly held the record as the youngest person under 18 to have made a solo circumnavigation. His website includes a store hawking T-shirts, DVDs and posters. They're currently half price. I guess that's what happens when you're old news.
Abby has a clothing line called "Abby 16" featuring apparel and footwear. Her duds are still premium priced.
Her father shopped a reality show around, although, after a public outcry, those plans were placed on the back burner. But stay tuned; I expect we'll hear more from the Sunderlands. After all, Abby has five younger siblings and one on the way. There are lots more kids to encourage to break lots more records.
I understand about parental hubris. There's a fine line between enthusiastically supporting a child's dream and foisting your own ambitions on them.
When one of our daughters was in the seventh grade, she scored extraordinarily well on a standardized test. So well, in fact, that she was offered the opportunity to begin college in what would have been her eighth-grade year.
For a millisecond, I allowed myself to imagine what this would be like. She could graduate from college in 2011. She'd be finished with graduate school before she could legally party in downtown Athens. The inherent parental bragging rights would be off the scale.
Then I looked at my daughter. She just shrugged and said, "What's the hurry?"
So that was that.
I suppose we could have insisted she accept the invitation. She might have flourished. Then again, it could have been disastrous. All I know is that she would have been forced to live someone else's dream, not her own.
All too often, a kid attempting to set some "youngest" record is accompanied by a camera-hogging parent, one whose narcissism blinds them to the risks they foist upon their children. All for what?
Zac Sunderland spent over a year at sea alone, broke a world record 11 months ago and now his T-shirts are in the bargain bin. It hardly seems fair.
On second thought, though, he did live to sail another day, as did his sister. I guess, for now at least, they're ahead of the game.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and on gainesvilletimes.com.