Parents

Golden dreams: What's it like to raise a child with Olympic potential?

“My daughter takes a gymnastics class, but your daughter DOES gymnastics.”

It wasn’t the first time one of the other moms made a comment about Katie. “Little Mary Lou Retton” they would mutter, gesturing towards my preschooler. I tried to figure out if there was sincerity or jealousy behind their words.

The coach was challenging the girls to climb a rope to the ceiling. Katie was halfway to the top with her eyes on the prize — the bell! It wasn’t long before Katie wasn't allowed to use her feet to propel herself upwards because the climb was too easy for her.

Jennifer Swartvagher
Katie's parents knew they had to get her into gymnastics when, at 18 months, she climbed to the top of their fridge.

We approached gymnastics like we did any activity, we continued lessons as long as the kids were enjoying themselves. My older girls flip-flopped between sports as they tried to find what made them happy. Katie focused on her goal, competitive gymnastics.

How many 6-year-olds close their eyes and wish for Olympic gold as they blow out their birthday candles? Katie has been talking about standing at the top of the podium with a medal around her neck ever since I can remember.

While my husband and I knew she was special, we figured we were seeing her through the biased eyes of a parent. But in the back of my mind, I always held on hope that she would be “the one.” Believe me, I sob when those commercials come out at Mother’s Day. I picture myself and my husband in the role of the parents watching their little one train and fail until they finally achieve that Olympic medal.

Jennifer Swartvagher
Katie decided to trade gymnastics for aerial skiing, which still allows her to fly through the air.

For the longest time all Katie could think about was gymnastics. Standing on the podium as one of the Fierce Five consumed her. But as she entered her teen years, that dream started to evolve, taking her from the gym floor and onto the ski slopes. The skills learned while flipping over the vault table quickly translated to flying through the air as an aerial skier.

Now at 15 years old, she recently retired from competitive gymnastics and will be moving into the Olympic Training Center to train with the Elite Aerial Development Program, which was founded by the US Ski Team. Last week, I dropped Katie off in Lake Placid, N.Y. to see where her dreams take her.

If there's a child in your life with Olympic potential, there's no doubt that the road is long and arduous. And a parent's part is very small in comparison to your child’s. You need to learn to tread the fine line between supporting your athlete and driving the process. You cannot deny talent, but do you have what it takes to parent an elite or even Olympic athlete?

1) There needs to be a certain level of commitment

While I respect that Katie is in charge of her destiny, she never has the option to miss a competition or let her teammates down for any reason. Not only does your child need to be committed, but you do as well. As the parent of an athlete, you will need to drive to and from practices and competitions, sometimes at 6 am and always with a smile. As Katie progressed, I have been asked to send her cross-country for training or a competition. She has missed Thanksgiving dinner with the family, but instead of being sad, I was thrilled knowing she was one step closer to her dream.

Jennifer Swartvagher
Whether or not the Olympics are in her future, Katie loves what she does.

2) Practice, practice, practice!

If you have to stand over your child and force them through basic conditioning, they are never going to be elite. Elite athletes figure out early on that the more they train, the higher or faster they will go. The promise of success drives them forward.

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3) There will be many sacrifices

With competitive sports come sacrifices from everyone involved — athlete, parents, and siblings. The long days and nights of driving to and from events can take a toll on everyone. For every dinner eaten in the car, try to eat two at home. Make sure you take care of yourself and that your other children’s accomplishments, big and small, are celebrated.

4) Elite sports will not make your child rich, but they will probably make you poor

The costs of a grueling training schedule may prevent you from taking vacations or splurging on extras. Specialized equipment, workout clothes, sneakers, fees for competitions, travel, accommodations, coaching, and tutoring — the list goes on and on. There is only one Olympic gold medalist every four years, and only a small fraction will earn any kind of notable sponsorship. Getting rich in your sport is even less likely than winning Olympic gold. However, there is a very good chance your child will end up making a living at something they love to do.

5) Be prepared to deal with injuries

When Katie was 10, she fell from the uneven bars and badly injured her knee, requiring surgery and months of physical therapy. Injuries are inevitable and could be career-ending. An X-ray of Katie’s feet tells a story of broken and dislocated toes. These are injuries she never told us about, and we were none the wiser. It was difficult to know there was a problem when she was always smiling, even as she ran on sore feet.

6) Be supportive without coaching

If you trust your child’s coach, stop questioning their decisions. If you don’t trust the coach, find a new one. If you’ve gone through a few coaches, chances are the problem is not them, it’s you. The officials, judges, directors, and coaches are there to make sure your child is safe and being treated fairly. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

7) Never claim your child’s victories as your own

If your dream was to play baseball, earn a perfect 10 on balance beam, or score the winning touchdown, put on a uniform and do it yourself. I have seen too many parents punish their child for achieving a low score. I’ve heard parents threatening to make their child walk home from a competition if she didn’t place. I have watched a child cry because their parent took privileges away when a skill wasn’t mastered by a certain date.

8) Learn to deal with lunatic sports parents

I have dealt with my share of lunatic parents over the years. They can often be found hovering three inches away from the coach offering unsolicited advice. Some of these pushy parents even go so far as to berate other parents and badmouth their child’s teammates and competitors. Keep in mind, the targets of their malicious words are children.

9) Highlight the journey without focusing on the victories

The best athlete is not always the one who scores the goal. The child who reads the field, splits the defenders, and passes the ball will go much farther in sports and in life than the kid who kicks the hardest.There will be many failures along the way. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

The opening ceremonies for the Rio Olympics took place the same weekend Katie moved away. The Olympics have always been a pretty big deal at our house. I make themed snacks and we watch as much as we can together as a family. Katie has 7 siblings, some as athletic as she is and others happy to be a spectator.

I love to see parents of the Olympians in the stands. I share in Michael Phelps' mom’s excitement when he wins another medal. I close my eyes and flinch a little just like Aly Raisman’s parents do when I watch the gymnasts on the bars. I know these parents started out just like I did. Their child showed potential and worked hard to reach their goals. They may have struggled financially and faced injuries, but their child’s dedication kept them moving forward. Even though I don’t know where Katie’s future leads her, I know I would not change a thing about this journey.

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