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Are You Raising an Olympian?

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Home silken2Vanessa Loewen’s day starts at 6 a.m. As she crawls out of bed to complete the homework she didn’t have time for the night before (she had been competing at BC’s provincial swimming championships). Today she will leave school and head straight to the pool where, with a group of 25 other swimmers, she will be in the pool for 90 minutes. Vanessa is only 14.

Gold-medal gymnast Kyle Shewfelt’s mom signed him up at the gymnastics club when he was six. This wasn’t his choice, but by 10 he was missing family vacations. He would stay with his aunt while his parents were on holidays because he insisted that he keep up his training schedule.

Gold-medallist, Simon Whitfield played every sport with vigour; kicking a soccer ball until the field lights turned off and his friends got sick of his, “Just one more goal.” His parents signed him up for whatever sport caught his imagination. At 15, Whitfield moved to the other side of the world to attend his dad’s alma mater and to have the opportunity to improve his swimming as part of his dream to dominate the world in the sport of triathlon.

These stories of aspiring and winning Olympic athletes are a glimpse into the kinds of choices athletes make while following their dreams of being the best in the world. And yet what strikes me in talking to these and other Olympians, is that the word sacrifice rarely comes up. Shewfelt says, “I don’t think sacrifice is the right word. They were choices that I made based on what was important to me.”

Vanessa, at 14, is aware that she is missing out on just being a kid, but knows that sport has taught her about priorities and friendships. “Some friendships were lost, for sure, some weren’t strong enough to keep. Some friendships were strengthened and have helped me stay committed to swimming.”

When I was racing in rowing internationally, reporters would ask about sacrifices and I would genuinely feel puzzled. I wasn’t giving up on stuff because I was rowing. I was privileged to be able to follow my dreams; rowing with the best athletes in the world and travelling to international regattas. Climbing into my racing shell and pulling on my oars for two hours with others who were equally tough, inspired and motivated was one of the best feelings in the world.

The downside

Aspiring Olympians don’t have much free time and are often absent from family activities. Some siblings of star athletes complain that they have to do more than their fair share of household chores. There can be resentment about the parental involvement in one child’s life, while the other children take a back seat. In our family, both my sister Daniele and I were Olympians. My younger brother Joerg couldn’t compete with us in sports so he dropped out of sports altogether. He says he didn’t resent the attention on his two sisters. I suspect time has healed some wounds. Parents do make sacrifices. The commitment is formidable. In figure skating, it is not unusual for parents to dedicate 20 hours a week to driving their child to the rink and watching them practise. They sit on boards, head fundraising committees and volunteer at weekend meets. This is a pace that is tough to keep up with one child and two parents, never mind single parents and multiple children.

The cost

Yes, sport at this level is expensive. Even a sport such as track, requires $140 running shoes, club fees that range at about $1,000 a year, entry fees and weekend meets requiring hotel stays. The cost of swimming at the highest level is relatively cheap at about $5,000 a year. For a 14-year-old bantam hockey player, expect to pay $15,000 a year. A replacement pair of skates will set them back $750. The higher the level of sport, the more travel, the more expensive the equipment, the more coaching time needed. This kind of commitment moves beyond a child’s dream of standing on an Olympic medal podium to a conscious investment of all family members: money, time and changes in family dynamics.

Figuring a way to make it happen is something that parents seem willing to do when their child is leading with commitment, passion and vision. Vanessa says that sometimes her parents want her to back off a little bit and have a more robust social life. I can certainly remember my mom looking at me with concern when, at age 12, I insisted in running a six-mile route regularly. “Don’t overdo it!” her worried shouts echoed as I left the house with my new powder blue Nike running shoes.

Not realizing parents’ dreams

What I know for sure is that there is no way of making your child become an Olympic athlete. The motivation always, always comes from within them. It is the child who swims twice a week and wants to swim five times, it is the child who asks to move to the next level, it is the child who starts talking about their dreams and aspirations with a persistence and intensity that stands out. You can recognize these kids from metres away. They aren’t necessarily leading the field, but their focus and drive is palpable.

Shewfelt looked right into the camera at nine years old and said, “I am going to be an Olympic Champion.”

This is not, nor should it be, the normal thought process of a nine-year-old child. In fact, 12 seems to be a common age when the idea of excelling, meeting a goal and experiencing success starts to click. So if you are hoping to push, inspire or facilitate a high-performance athlete it is simply not going to happen. By pushing, by talking them through swim practices that they don’t like, we could very well turn them completely off sports.

A small percentage of children are willing to give up many aspects of normal childhoods to pursue their dream. Their Olympic dream consumes their thoughts, behaviours, bodies and imaginations. Competing against the best in the world is what they dream of doing. It is an integral part of what makes them tick.

The parents of the Olympic athletes I know share a supportive, balanced approach to their child’s pursuits. When Shewfelt got fed up with gymnastics, he told his parents he was going to quit. After the money and time his parents had already invested in the sport they would have been justified in saying, “No way!” Instead, his mother said, “Ok, if that’s what you want to do, but I think we should talk with your coach.” Shewfelt quit for only a week.

When gold-medallist Simon Whitfield lost the joy of the sport after 2002, his parents served as a sounding board. “They didn’t give me too much advice, they knew eventually I would figure it out for myself.”

No regrets

Regret doesn’t seem to be in the vocabulary of Olympians. Whitfield says he missed out on university but says, “Looking back I realize I just went to a different type of ‘university’; visiting Japan 10 times and living in Europe for multiple summers. I absolutely love what I’m doing and looking back the only regret I have is not taking more pictures.” When Shewfelt reflects about being the first ever Canadian gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal he says, “When I look back at the moment of actually winning, that was just one moment. I’ve gained character from overcoming obstacles, from the relationships that I’ve gained and the experience that I had. It’s not about that final moment. It really isn’t. If people think winning a gold medal is going to change them, it doesn’t. What changes you is the journey.”

Without sport my life would have been profoundly different. I was fortunate to channel all my intensity, my passion and even my anger by pulling on an oar. Rowing was truly a training ground for life, and the lessons of focus, vision and perseverance are woven into everything from how I approach parenting to the purpose with which every pursuit must be imbued. Knowing what I know about the journey of a high-performance athlete, I will discourage early specialization, heavily focused sports schedules and the demands on family time unless I clearly and loudly hear from my child that the Olympics is their dream. So far my son is just as happy to skip on the soccer field and joke with his buddies than score a goal. And that is fine with me. Silken Laumann is a four-time Olympian and a multiple Olympic medallist in the sport of rowing. She is founder of Silken’s ActiveKids Movement, a national organization focused on unstructured play for children.

Originally published in May 2008.

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