Does your kid have the DNA of a sports superstar? - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Does your kid have the DNA of a sports superstar?

TUCSON, AZ  -Seth Redondo's only nine months old. At this point, his life revolves around mostly eating and sleeping. Yet in just a few short years, like many other little boys and girls, chances are sports will enter the picture – at least if Seth's mother Ciera Walls has anything to say about it.

"I think it's important for kids to get involved in sports," Walls said. "You build teamwork and responsibility. I had a lot of cool experiences with soccer. That's something I'd like him to do as well."

When it comes to Seth and sports, Walls is keeping her fingers crossed for just one thing.

"I hope that he has some sense of athleticism but I'm not going to be disappointed if he doesn't."

The good news is, Walls wouldn't have to wait long to find out.

The company is called Atlas Sports Genetics and is based out of Boulder, Colorado. Its President, Kevin Reilly, says its business is evaluating the athletic performance of high school and college athletes. Yet the company also offers another service directed at the parents of young children. It's a service, Reilly says, that will help them determine which kind of sport their child may be best suited for genetically.

"If kids aren't given the opportunity to see where their genetic potential may have them best suited for, I think they're doing them a disservice," said Reilly.

For less than two-hundred dollars, parents may send away for a kit that includes two cotton swabs. The instructions are simple. Swab the inside of the child's cheek and send the kit back to Atlas Sports Genetics. The company then mails the swabs to an Australian lab to find out whether or not the child has a variation of a DNA strand called ACTN3. 

Studies have shown that everyone has two copies of the ACTN3 gene, given to them by each parent. The lab specifically looks for a variant within the gene called R577X. Should the child have the variant in both copies of ACTN3, he or she would excel more in endurance sports like swimming. A child that does not possess the variant in either gene would excel more in power sports that require the use of fast twitch muscles like football or soccer. Finally, if a child had just one copy of the variant, he or she could excel in both types of sports.

Reilly admits this particular science is still very young and it is precisely that reason why some genetic experts doubt the validity of this testing. One such expert includes Dr. Giovanni Bosco, chair of the genetics graduate interdisciplinary program at the University of Arizona.

"The science behind these studies may show correlations," said Bosco, "but they are far from conclusive and certainly do not show that particular gene variants predict any physical or athletic abilities."

Bosco warned about the bigger picture.

"All human genetic tests come with some risk," Bosco said. "We really don't know what future research will reveal about these particular gene tests this company is providing. For example, what if we learn in five years that this specific gene test is predicative for heart disease, cancer or one or more potentially devastating conditions? What will those parents and children do with that information when it becomes available?"

Still, according to Reilly, learning this information now could provide a child a much better athletic experience in the future. Others, like Arizona head swim coach Frank Busch, beg to differ.

"If we line everything up so that it's pre-determined, where's the fun?" said Busch. "Our job is to expose people to opportunities. I think that's part of human growth and maturity. When you start limiting people's opportunities I think we're going the wrong way."

Charlie Kendrick, head coach of the reigning 4A Division 1 girl's soccer champion Catalina Foothills Falcons, agreed.

"There are so many other reasons kids get involved in sports," Kendrick said. "I just wonder if it would discourage kids from playing sports. I think that's a bad move across the board."

Reilly said he's heard that argument before.

"I've been criticized a lot in terms of saying ‘What you're doing is limiting the possibilities or potential of a young child participating in a certain sport'," Reilly said. "It's actually the opposite. What we want to do is give kids more exposure to more sports."

Reilly believes that parents of young children tend to place them in the traditional four sports – baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. If a mother and father knew ahead of time that their child would be more likely to succeed in an endurance sport, it would open up new doors to other athletic activities they perhaps never thought about.

Yet another significant part of the debate is the potential conflict having this information could cause.

"It's an intriguing thought, without a doubt," said Andy Lopez, head coach of the Arizona Wildcat baseball team. "If a mom knows a kid's going to be a distance runner, what if by the age of 15 the kid says ‘I don't want to be a runner anymore.' Now mom and dad say ‘No, you're going to run distance because this is what you're best at.' It's a sad thing. You have two parties pulling in opposite directions even though DNA wise, it says this is the best thing for the child. That would be a volatile environment."

Niya Butts, head coach of the Arizona women's basketball team, went one step further.

"You have parents who have a flawed sense of reality about where their own kids are, what level of an athlete they are," said Butts. "Now when you throw in this DNA, this genetic makeup I've been given that says my kid is this, it becomes dangerous on so many levels because now as a coach the kid may not show this potential yet the parents say they're built for this. Their makeup suggests that they have this. You make these people become more of an issue."

University of Arizona clinical and sports psychologist Dr. Scott Goldman believes that, while there may be positive and negatives to this kind of genetic testing, it is up to the parents to use the information in a responsible manner.

"I think it would exacerbate the parent-child interaction for better or for worse," said Goldman. "If you've got an overzealous parent, it's just going to amp that up even more."

Reilly says this is exactly why Atlas Sports Genetics takes such care in screening potential applicants.

"The question is why are you doing it and what benefit is it going to be on a certain age group," said Reilly. "I'm not sure there's a danger but there is a waste of money. We're very clear when we talk to people…we really try not to support people who are not going to listen to what the science is indicating."

That brings us back to Walls and baby Seth. Walls volunteered to have Seth tested and in a matter of weeks the results came back. According to Atlas Sports Genetics, Seth has one variant of the ACTN3 gene in his DNA which means he could excel at both power and endurance sports.

Upon finding out the results, Walls reacted in kind. "That's really exciting," she said.

In the end though, Walls was realistic about what this information really meant.

"It's kind of fun but it's not something I would base my child's life on," said Walls. "I wouldn't force him to do something he doesn't want to do just because some test told me that's what he should do. Part of growing up is adjusting. That's another part of learning you can't just take away from them."

Walls, who admitted she would not have paid for the test had it not been voluntary, gave a word of caution to any parent interested in screening their child.

"I hope parents don't take advantage of it and don't push their kids," Walls said. "That leads to a lot of resentment and rebellion. It's important to let them be their own person. I don't think you would take this too seriously."

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