If you're thinking of taking your little one on the Olympic track, you may want to count the costs first.
Ronda Kaysen: Finishing in the quarterfinals at the Olympics might not look like glory from the outside, but it was pure joy for 17-year-old snowboarding upstart Faye Gulini. When she finished, she scanned the crowd for her family and then climbed into the masses to hug them. Her dad, grandmother and three of her four siblings were there to cheer her on. After all, making it to the Olympics takes a special breed of athlete -- with a very special kind of family.
Faye's dad, Dave, watched his daughter's every move, wincing and waving a sign with her name on it. Faye's siblings watched with equally rapt attention. The family experience was "tearjerking," he said.
"No one could do what my dad does," Faye told the Salt Lake Tribune. "That's all I can say." After all, Dave raised Faye and her siblings by himself after their mother was killed in a car accident when Faye was five. When Faye was in high school, he sent her to live with friends in Vail, Colo., so that the budding snowboarding champ could better train.
The sacrifices the Gulinis made for Faye are not unusual for Olympics-bound families. Parents spend years shuttling their prodigies to meets, practices and championships. They often spend huge sums on special training and sometimes uproot the entire family to live closer to an Olympic training site.
And the work doesn't always pay off. For every athlete who steps inside the Olympic Village, there are thousands who never get close. The pressure that those families put themselves under can be immense.
"It's a minimal number of athletes who get that far," says Susan Newman, a family therapist and author of "The Book of No." "[If you] as a parent [are] putting all your hopes and dreams into your child being a star athlete, you need to approach that with great caution, because the likelihood that he or she will be a star is very small. Weigh that [against] what you're sacrificing."
It's not hard to lose sight of what you're sacrificing when the possible payoffs are dangled in front of you. Snowboarding favorite Shaun White made $8 million in endorsements last year, according Forbes magazine. The 23-year-old redhead lives in Hollywood, hobnobs with celebrities and drives a Lamborghini.
"In our society today, in the way the media is in our face, everybody wants to raise a star child," says Newman. "You see the endorsements and the money, and this is very enticing."
White's family played a major role in his success. He began snowboarding when he was 6 years old; as he tried to keep up with his older brother, he mastered increasingly complicated techniques. When he was 7, his mom entered him into a contest -- which he won -- and sent a video of him to snowboard-manufacturing giant Burton. The company sponsored him. By the time White was a teenager, he had an agent.
Many families arrived in Vancouver last week with their families very much intact.
After Faye Gulini failed to make it past the snowboardcross quarterfinals, her sister, Erin, boasted to reporters, "She's only going to get better."
The drive to success brings many families closer together. "I always felt like it was one of the greatest bonuses in my life to have a father who was an Olympian," says Tammy Richard-LeSure, whose father, Robert Richards, was a three-time Olympian pole vaulter and the first Olympic champion to appear on a box of Wheaties. "We grew up believing that all things were possible with 10,000 hours of work."
Richard-LeSure trained to be an ice skater when she was young; her five brothers exceeded in track and field. Two of them went on to be serious athletes. Her twin brother, Tommy, won a gold medal in the decathlon in the Junior Olympics. Rather than be competitive with him, Richard-LeSure was his statistician, enthusiastically recording all his times and points. When he had an event, the entire family came along.
"Dad's legacy is that he has inspired every one of his children and given them that love of sport and pursuit of the Olympic ideal," Richard-LeSure says. "If you're going to infect your kids with something, this is a really great ideal to infect them with."
Twin sisters Lanny and Tracy Barnes are not only best friends, they're also both on the U.S. Olympic biathalon team this year. They each listed the other as their personal coach on the Federation website.
"I can honestly say that I'm the luckiest person in the world because I get to train with my hero and biggest competition every day," Lanny says on the twins' joint website. "It is such a big advantage for us to be able to train and push each other to be better day in and day out."
From the outside, the sacrifices Olympic families make for their kids (moving cross-country so their child can train; giving up a job so they can be their child's trainer) seem extraordinary. But people close to Olympic athletes insist that it isn't all work and no play. In fact, the families that fail to balance work and fun are the ones who don't make it to the Olympics at all.
"The best athletes will tell you stories of how they played other sports in the off-season, how they had relationships," says personal coach and sports-behavior expert Garret Kramer (who coached Zach Parise, a member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team). "They lived life. It's the world out there that's telling you that in order to achieve, you have to be singularly focused and work, work, work. The families who live by that credo usually crash and burn, because you cannot endure that way."
For every family that strikes the right balance, there are many that don't. Some athletes have broken with their families as they achieved more success. Steidinger notes that Olympic cyclist Christine Thorburn's parents, for example, were very active in her early career -- but as Thorburn achieved greater success, they withdrew and didn't attend her last two Olympic games. One triathlete Steidinger interviewed for her book was estranged from her sister -- also an athlete -- in large part because of the competition their parents fostered between them.
"When parents try to push their children too much, at some point, the child will say enough is enough and disengage from the parent," says Steidinger.
Athletes' siblings often feel ignored, abandoned and jealous of their successful sibling -- who not only enjoys tremendous glory, but intense attention from parents who are focused on their every move. And parents, snowed by prospects of product-endorsements and fame, can lose sight of the big picture.
"Parents need a touch of realism here," says Newman. "If you have an exceptional, extremely talented child, there may be merit in choosing this path. But you're going to have to realize the mountains you're going to have to climb and the perspective you'll need to keep."
The families that do make it, says Kramer, are able to see the big picture in ways other families may not. They often make major decisions about their child's athletic career from a place of clarity and calm. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics is not their goal; rather, their goal is following life where it leads them. And the process of getting there can be a great experience for parents and kids alike. After all, moving to a ski-resort town like Vail isn't necessarily such a bad deal for parents or kids.
"If you're doing all this so your daughter can win a gold medal in the Olympics, you can pretty much write it off as a disaster," says Kramer. "But if you're doing this because you're open to the journeys of life -- gold medal or not -- you'll have the opportunity to create the proper path for your family."
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, The New York Observer, Babble.com and AM New York. She lives in New Jersey with her family. Follow her on Twitter.|