Meet Beacon, the Therapy Dog Who Helped Gymnasts De-Stress at the Olympic Trials · The Wildest

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Meet Beacon, the Therapy Dog Who Helped Gymnasts De-Stress at the Olympic Trials

The pup is a credentialed staff member of USA Gymnastics.

by Sio Hornbuckle
July 1, 2024
Suni Lee with Beacon, the USA Gymnastics' therapy dog
Courtesy of @sunisalee

The United States Olympic gymnastics team trials were held last week in Minnesota  — and for the athletes who have been training years for this moment, emotions were running high. Enter: Beacon, the four-year-old Golden Retriever who’s the first ever official USA Gymnastics therapy dog. If you saw a tail wagging in-between the unbelievable physical feats taking place at Minneapolis’ Target Center, that was Beacon bringing comfort to some of the world’s best athletes.

Olympic gymnasts need Beacon

The mental health of competitive athletes became a hot topic in 2021, when Simone Biles dropped out of the Tokyo Olympics to address her emotional needs. She told The Today Show that she experienced the “twisties,” a mental block that causes a gymnast to lose their awareness of where they are in the air. “I felt like it would be a little better to take a back seat, and work on my mindfulness,” she explained in a press conference. 

A dog’s presence can do wonders for humans experiencing anxiety and depression. Pups have been proven to reduce blood pressure, limit the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and increase the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Bonding with a dog also decreases feelings of loneliness.

“It’s a signal of support and comfort and something that’s really valuable in these environments when you are away from home,” Dr. Maggie O’Haire, associate dean for research at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, told The New York Times

Beacon’s presence is one of several measures — including sessions with sports psychologists and pep talks by motivational speakers — that the USA Gymnastics organization has implemented to make competitive gymnastics a healthier environment. Li Li Leung, chief executive of USA Gymnastics, used to bring her own dog into the office after the start of the pandemic, and she noticed how much comfort it brought her staff to have a pup around. She and Tracey Callahan Molnar, Beacon’s handler, decided that an official therapy dog might be just what gymnasts need during stressful times. 

Beacon’s story 

Callahan Molnar realized the potential of therapy dogs when her own husband was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, reported The Times. Her husband received help from a dog at a hospital and suggested that their dog, Tulsa, should become a therapy dog. Tulsa did eventually work as a therapy dog, and when Callahan Molnar got Beacon as a puppy after Tulsa’s passing, she enrolled him in training. 

Beacon’s not the only dog helping soothe competing gymnasts, though. When Callahan Molnar learned how large one qualifier in Indianapolis would be — about 300 athletes competed — she asked for help from three local therapy dog organizations. In the end, eleven additional dogs joined. At nationals, Callahan Molnar was joined by 19 therapy dogs and their handlers. But Beacon’s the most constant presence for the gymnasts and their only official therapy dog; everyone knows him by name, and he’s become a bit of a celebrity at events.

During the trials, Beacon plays an important role. Throughout long days, he approaches gymnasts who are in need of some comfort and relaxation. Many athletes call Beacon over when they see him — and sometimes, Callahan Molnar told ESPN, he just senses when he’s needed. He’s brought to athletes during hard moments, including after they suffer injuries or learn they didn’t make the final Olympic team.

“Not every dog is cut out for this, but it turns out that he’s good at it and he really loves it, which was a very important part of it for me,” Callahan Molnar told the The Times. “Even if he’s tired, even if he has been working for 12 hours, the second he hears his name, he’s like, ‘I’m up and ready and I want to say hi. Who wants to be close to me?’”

His presence has been valued by the team. “I feel like he kind of blocks out reality and sometimes that’s good for us so we don’t overthink things,” Shilese Jones, who has suffered several recent injuries, including one during last week’s trials, told The Times. “He distracts me from the reality of the pain.”

Sunisa “Suni” Lee is one of Beacon’s biggest fans. Lee was crying when she took her place for her first vault at day one of last week’s trials, after her friend Kayla DiCello withdrew from the competition due to an Achilles injury. After the meet, Lee spent extra time giving Beacon some love — and on day two, she made it through the trials, earning a spot at the 2024 Paris Olympics. On Instagram, Lee posted a photo of herself with the therapy pup, adding the caption: “thank god for beacon.”

Sio Hornbuckle

Sio Hornbuckle is a writer living in New York City with their cat, Toni Collette.

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