When Olympism runs in the family

From the bobsledding niece of an MLB player to the daughter of Olympic rowers, a number of this year's Winter Olympians have been propelled by athletically accomplished relatives. But 'propelled' doesn't always mean 'pressured.'

Giovanni Auletta/AP
US alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin shares a smile with her mother, Eileen, at the end of a women's World Cup slalom competition in Lienz, Austria, in December. (Shiffrin won first place, and has won a medal at the Winter Games in South Korea.)

When defending Olympic champion David Wise captured another gold in the skiing halfpipe Thursday, his dad was there to see it. Not to prod or hover, but just to cheer. Just to be his dad.

And that represented a different kind of victory.

Tom Wise, a former college ski racer, had been very motivated to help his son succeed on snow. The motive was right, but his approach was sometimes a little too intense, said the younger Wise before the Olympics.

“At one point ... I had to be like, ‘Dad, I’d rather you be my dad than my coach – I have a coach, whose job is coaching me. I have you, whose job is dadding me. I don’t need you to be coaching me and dadding me,” said Wise. “Once we found that balance, it improved drastically. And my dad is still, to this day, and always will be, my biggest fan, my biggest supporter.”

Wise is one of many athletes at the Games who come from families of accomplished athletes, some of them Olympians in their own right. Those relatives are often a huge asset, knowing what it takes to be successful and helping to foster that in their up-and-coming athletes at home. While their example or expectations can sometimes add extra pressure, more often than not they urge patience and a healthy perspective that enables athletes to not only excel at their sport but enjoy it, too.

There’s Friday’s gold medalist Alina Zagitova of Russia, whose hockey-player father waited a year to name her, before he was inspired by Alina Kabaeva, a two-time Olympic medalist in rhythmic gymnastics. Finnish figure skater Emmi Peltonen was also born to a hockey-playing dad – hers is a four-time Olympian, who always reminds her that no matter how discouraging things may be, just keep at it day by day and you will see the light. 

Lee Jin-man/AP
Tom Wise, father of gold medal winner David Wise of the United States, watches during the men's halfpipe final at Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 22, 2018.

Then there’s American biathlete Emily Dreissigacker, whose parents were Olympic rowers and only let their kids watch TV when the Olympics were on. Their advice for her in Pyeongchang? “Take lasting pictures, not just Snapchats,” said Dreissigacker. And her teammate Susan Dunklee, whose dad was a two-time Olympian in cross-country skiing.

“One of the best pieces of advice he’s always given me was – keep it fun. He held me back a little bit. And I didn’t like being held back at the time.... But he knew what he was doing,” says Dunklee, who last year at age 31 became the first American woman to medal at biathlon World Championships. “I think I would have burnt out and not made it this far in my career if I hadn’t stayed fresh and excited about the sport.”

Instilling a competitive drive

US bobsledder Aja Evans has not only been dreaming of the Olympics since she was a little kid; she’s been surrounded by people who push her to be faster, higher, stronger at everything.

“We used to compete at eating, anything,” says Evans, describing her childhood household. Her dad was the first African-American to win a collegiate national championship in swimming, her uncle and cousin both played Major League Baseball, and her older brother went on to become a defensive tackle in the National Football League. “My brother raced me down the street once – whoever got to the car first got to sit in the front seat – and of course I beat him. But he split his pants on the way down, too, so since then he hasn’t raced me.”

“I think just having that competitiveness and that drive from my family all helped me a lot,” says Evans, a standout track and field athlete in college. “And they’re all so supportive – it was never pressure or anything.”

Evans’s dad never got his kids into swimming. But other athletic parents have become very involved in teaching their progeny to excel in the sport they themselves enjoyed.

If that were an Olympic sport, alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin’s parents probably would take the gold.

Eileen and Jeff Shiffrin, who had raced on the Master’s circuit, started Mikaela’s prodigious career when she was a toddler – pulling her around the living room on skis, according to a recent New Yorker profile. Eileen has been by her side ever since, homeschooling her, accompanying her to races, and analyzing endless videos of the world’s best ski racers, which now – in large part thanks to her parents – include Shiffrin.

“I think [Mikaela] is maybe the best ski racer I’ve ever seen, male or female,” said Bode Miller, the most decorated male alpine skier in America, in the run-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Sharing dreams

Miller predicted two golds for her; others had been talking about four or even five. But between a series of weather delays that crunched the racing schedule, and the emotion and pressure unique to the Olympics, in the end Shiffrin came out with gold, silver, and a fourth in her signature event – the slalom.

But even at the end of an Olympics that didn’t fulfill all the expectations placed on Mikaela by media hype and ski-racing observers, Eileen looked thrilled and Shiffrin praised her parents’ unconditional love.

“I feel like it doesn’t matter what I do on the course, if I just try my best then they’re going to be happy with me,” says Shiffrin, after taking silver in the alpine combined on Thursday. “That’s the most important thing.”

Some are critical of parents who become heavily invested in their children’s athletic careers, saying it can become unclear whose dream is being pursued. But it’s not a bad thing for parent and child to share Olympic dreams, says curler John Shuster, whose team is in the hunt for a gold medal on Saturday – an accomplishment made possible by his mom’s willingness to help babysit his kids so he could train for the Olympics.

“This is as much her dream as it is my dream and she’s Super Nanna,” says Shuster. “My mom always says, at some point your kids’ dreams become your dreams.”

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