My Olympic advice? Go for the gold…or not.
As we hurtle into the two-week TV watching frenzy that is the Winter Olympics, I get a lot of questions related to being an Olympian. While on the US Ski Team, I was fortunate enough to compete in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. When people learn this, their first question is, of course, “Did you win a medal?” When we get past the initial disappointment of “not even a bronze” people often ask if I hope my kids will also be in the Olympics someday. My answer to that has always been a little complicated.
I will preface my explanation with this. Being an Olympian is a badge of honor, a fantasy fulfilled. It continues to fill me with gratitude, arm me with cred and inspire people to expect Olympian performance from my every athletic endeavor. But to be clear, going to the Olympics did nothing to shape who I am. That, I owe to the pursuit of a greatness I never fully achieved—to the habits I learned, the injuries I overcame, the limits I pushed through and most of all the friendships I made while schlepping bags across the country and then around the world with a scrappy band of teammates. Becoming a World Class athlete is a mostly unglamorous process, which is the stuff you don’t see on TV. You also don’t see the flipside of the single-minded focus it takes to succeed. That is, until recently.
The revelations about Russian blood doping and the horrific abuse in US gymnastics are extreme examples of the dark and not-so-healthy places that can lurk on the road to gold. Long term physical and mental health are too often blithely sacrificed in the almighty pursuit of medals. Aside from a scandal of this magnitude, however, you rarely see the aftermath of elite sports gone wrong. The shrapnel lies within athletes who: peaked out as child stars and lost their identity; compromised their education; mortgaged their futures to fund the dream; resent their parents (props to “I Tonya”); live haunted by what might have been or suffer all manner of long term pain from their quest for glory.
Life is hard. To think that a medal, a title or any singular achievement can significantly alter that reality is naïve. And yet, the crazy escalation of youth sports loses sight of that. It turns healthy competition through activities that kids do for fun and joy, into jobs with performance markers at every level. It justifies bad behavior as the price of greatness. If we learn nothing else from the testimony of 150 plus gymnasts, let it be that athletics are a means to a fulfilling life. “Winning,” at every stage of life, encompasses much more than standing on a podium.
My kids love the sport of ski racing, even more than I did. Of course they dream of someday being in the Olympics and I support that dream, but only to a point. That point is when the process of developing as athletes is no longer aiding their development as healthy, happy, capable people.
What I want for my kids is more of what they’ve already achieved through this sport. They love the mountains, and the adventurous people who happily endure frigid weather, interminable drives, mini-mart dining and crappy condos to feel that rush of wrangling, gravity, momentum, centrifugal force and friction. I want my kids to launch into adulthood armed with friends who will celebrate with them, comfort them, and tease them mercilessly when needed. Someday, I want them to know the quiet satisfaction of being the middle of a three-generation sandwich, chatting on the chairlift ride up together, then feeling the wind in their face while arcing sweet turns on the way down.
Getting an early start on the dream
It’s not that I don’t want my kids to be Olympians or to go for the gold. I wish everyone, especially my own kids, could have the experience of marching into the Opening Ceremonies to the wild applause and adulation of the world. It was cool. But it was just a moment. I don’t want their quest for greatness to take precedence over having a great life. Athletic careers are short-lived, but the friendships, the love of their sport and the way we learn to live will last a lifetime.
A version of this appeared on NoPo.com, your go-to rollup of all the non political news you need to know.