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An Olympic-Size Marriage

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Playing spouse to an Olympic athlete isn't an easy job, but it does have its perks. Among them? Job security.

lindsey vonn and tom vonn and hongbo zhao and xue shen

Ronda Kaysen: Mr. Lindsey Vonn is also Ms. Vonn's coach, and her spokesperson, and her number-one cheerleader. "There are things I can say to her that other coaches can't, so I think we have an advantage," Thomas Vonn told the "Today" show. "I'm not going to get fired. I'll get yelled at."

Marrying an Olympic athlete means marrying Olympic-size dreams. The husbands and wives of elite athletes make enormous financial and emotional sacrifices. They often put their own dreams aside for their spouses, spend months apart, live in super-sized shadows, survive on frugal incomes and spend their life savings on another person's dream.

Thomas Vonn, who was an Olympic skier in his own right, knew what he was signing up for when he married Lindsey at a ski resort in 2007. As her husband, he's also her coach, chief spokesperson and main confidante. Before Lindsey skied to her first Olympic medal, she had Thomas on tap in case she needed him for a last-minute pep talk. It was Thomas who pumped her up to ski her best and win a gold medal despite a painful shin injury.

Thomas has played a major role in his wife's phenomenal speed. He encouraged Lindsey to switch to men's skis -- which are faster, but require more strength. "It definitely has to do with Thomas ... why I'm faster now as Vonn," said Lindsey (whose maiden name was Kildow).

"She's definitely done a lot better with the Vonn name," agreed Thomas, who finished in ninth place at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

It's no easy feat for a man to let his wife be the star in the family, says Joan Steidinger, a sports psychologist and author of the upcoming book, "Blood, Sweat and Cheers: The New Female Athlete." "It takes a solid emotional guy to have a wife who shines like these Olympians do," she tells momlogic.

The $2.5 million in sponsorships that Lindsey raked in last year certainly must've helped ease the pain. But for the couples whose athletic success doesn't necessarily spell financial windfall (and that's most of them), the path to Olympic glory is a much bumpier one.

During skeleton racer Jeff Pain's fifteen-year Olympic career, he and his wife, Aly, lived below the poverty line, pawned their possessions and spent six months of every year apart. Aly raised their two young sons on her own in Calgary while Jeff spent six months a year training and competing in Europe. "It was extremely challenging," she says now. "It didn't improve the love quotient, to put it that way." The couple has published a book about the trials and tribulations of weathering an Olympic marriage, "The Business of Marriage and Medals" (available next month). 

For Aly, Jeff's Olympic dream meant grueling work. "The last fifteen years, he has been pursuing his life's passion," she says. "I have been pursuing a purpose, not my passion. My purpose has been to love and support him. But it is not my passion."

Jeff had only just discovered skeleton racing when the couple married, so Aly had been unaware of what she'd just signed up for. "I really played the ostrich with my head in the sand," she says.

Jeff won a silver medal in the Torino games and finished ninth in Vancouver. When he comes home next week, he'll retire from the sport. "He's ready to be home and be with his boys and have family be more of a presence in his life," Aly says.

One option is to marry your Olympic teammate -- as did Olympic figure skaters Zhao Hongbo and Shen Xue of China. They've had a fairy-tale Olympic romance. Forced to keep their love secret for years -- the Chinese government forbade fraternization -- they've been skating together since 1992.

Despite the strict rules, Xue didn't want to train for an Olympic medal without another piece of gold -- namely, a band on her finger. "I [said to Hongbo that] we had to get married first, and then he [could] persuade me to come back for the Olympics," she told reporters.

In 2007, Hongbo pledged his devotion in the most public of settings: on the ice at the World Championships. After the pair clinched the gold, Hongbo got down on one knee and proposed in front of millions of onlookers. At first, Xue didn't realize what he was doing, and kneeled down with him. When she eventually figured it out -- and squeaked out a "yes" -- the crowd erupted in applause. The couple married three months later.

After they won a gold in Vancouver last week, Xue said, laughing, "I think it is hard to continue skating. Maybe it is time to have a baby."


next: Grandparents Are Good for Kids
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