Sean Townsend walked into the Team Texaco Houston Gymnastics Academy on Sept. 27 feeling like a new man. He'd earned his share of titles over the last year—2000 Olympian and 2001 U.S. all-around champion, to name two—but this was the first day he could go to work as Homeowner Sean Townsend. "Closed, done," Townsend, 22, said proudly of the place he had just purchased outside Galveston, 30 minutes south of the gym in which he trains. "Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, 1,600 square feet, backyard, two-car garage. I'm very happy."
Three states away Sean's father, Frost, was at a rest stop in Franklin, Ky., and you could almost see him beaming as he talked by phone about his son. "He's a landowner when most kids his age are hanging out at the dorm," Frost, a long-haul truck driver, said. "I'm so proud of him."
In January 1979, Sean was born two months premature, weighing only three pounds, seven ounces. Frost, who divorced Sean's mother, Patti, in '83, raised the boy and his sister, Tiffany, who's 10 months older, at a house he was renting in Rockwall, Texas. As a child Sean was undersized and introverted, and he had a knack for walking up and down stairs on his hands. When Sean was 10, Frost took him to a gymnastics class and watched him outperform the other boys. "You could see the look on his face right away," Frost said. "Sean was shy, but he had a confidence in that gym that he didn't have anywhere else. His progress was unreal."
Within a month Sean had picked up rudimentary skills on each of the six apparatuses, and six months later he was second in the state 10-and-under championships. Frost didn't make enough money from his job then, loading milk trucks, to pay for lessons and insurance, so he cleaned the gym, carried out the trash and became president of the parents' booster club to raise money for the gymnasts. In each of the next five years Sean won state age-group titles. When he was 15 his coach, Ron Harper, accepted a job in Houston, leaving Frost, who by then was driving trucks locally for North American Van Lines, in a difficult spot. What can I do to help Sean reach his dreams? Frost thought How do I do it so that I don't cheat Tiffany, who has all her friends here?
Frost eventually decided to give up his home, live out of a rig (he loaded it with a bed, a small refrigerator, a microwave and a TV) and zigzag the country as a long-haul trucker to make more money and better support his kids. Sean moved to Houston to live and train with Harper, while Tiffany stayed with Frost's sister, Marsha Horn, in Rockwall. Frost requested routes that enabled him to watch Sean compete from New York to California. When Harper left the Houston gym in 1996, Sean moved in with the family of teammate Todd Thornton in nearby Clear Lake. "Without my dad and the Thorntons, there's no chance I'd be here," Sean says. "Everybody made it work."
Townsend progressed well on every apparatus except pommel horse, an event for which his lack of size (5'3", 130 pounds) makes him ill-suited. He won the junior national all-around title in 1997, was second all-around at senior nationals last year and was third at the U.S. Olympic trials all-around in August 2000 while fighting strep throat and a 104� fever. He didn't win a medal in Sydney, but he helped the American men finish fifth and received the highest score on parallel bars, a 9.787, of any gymnast during the team finals. Frost watched from the top row of the arena.
In August, Sean won his first national all-around title, in Philadelphia, and will lead the U.S. to the world championships that begin later this month in Ghent, Belgium. On Oct. 1 he signed with Personalities and Promotions International, the sports marketing firm founded by Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach.
Having delayed plans to complete a business degree until after the 2004 Olympics, Sean has done something else that has Frost glowing: He has collected his first rent check, from Tiffany, who's a junior at the University of Houston, and a boarder in the house that Sean financed largely with money he earned from competitions and exhibitions. "First the Olympics, then the rent," says Frost. "Ain't that something!"