The teams behind every Olympic athlete: parents, friends, fans

Athletes at the Vancouver Olympics have usually gotten there with the backing of a small army of supporters who encourage, chastise, bolster, and fund. Just ask US skeleton's Noelle Pikus-Pace or US luger Mark Grimmette.

Michael Sohn/AP
Noelle Pikus-Pace of the United States competes during the women's skeleton competition at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Thursday.

When Elana Meyers – one of the fastest starters in the US – explodes off the starting line at next week’s Olympic bobsledding competition here in Whistler, she’ll be gunning for gold.

But thanks to a friend from grade school, she sees humility as even more important than winning.

“In school, we were always competing for the top grades,” says Meyers, recalling the time she waved her higher test score in Katrina Howell’s face. “She scolded me and I thought, oh, well, maybe I need to recheck my attitude.

“She helped me realize that even though I’m a competitive person, everything doesn’t need to be competitive and there are things more important than winning.”

Behind every Olympian is an army of people whose help – whether in encouragement, chastisement, parenting, coaching, funding, or friendship – has shaped their character and provided stepping-stones to Olympic success. When athletes reach that ultimate goal, they in turn profoundly influence the lives of those who have helped them – making the Olympics the celebration not of an elite few, but of a pyramid of support.

“There’s thousands of people behind every single athlete that’s made it to [the] Olympic Games, so it’s about so much more than those athletes,” says Noelle Pikus-Pace, a member of the US skeleton team in Vancouver whose $5,000 sled was replaced by a stranger when it was damaged in 2005.

Superstars and niche sportsmen

For superstars like Canadian hockey player Sidney Crosby, there may be a sea of adoring followers: 65,000 people flooded into his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, last summer to celebrate his part in a Stanley Cup win. For athletes in niche sports, such as cross-country skier Holly Brooks, it may be a closer-knit group of people.

Brooks was supposed to be a coach, not a racer. But last summer, she finally got up the courage to utter the “O” word and worked out a training plan with her boss. She pushed herself so hard in a mountain running race in July that she was diagnosed with a debilitating illness. Her doctor made her take two full months off training during a prime tune-up period.

“I was a little worried, but knowing Holly I still thought she could pull it off,” says Lisbeth Muffoletto, her doctor. “I’ve never seen somebody with more drive and determination and ability to push away the pain.”

By early September, Brooks was back on track. Squeezing into two workouts a day in addition to her three coaching sessions, she burst onto the US skiing scene this year and began winning nearly every race – much to the delight of husband Rob Whitney, a former racer and Olympic hopeful himself. Back home, her junior skiers made YouTube videos and promised to dye their hair red, white, and blue if she made the team.

Anchorage is home to another cross-country queen, Kikkan Randall, who finished a historic eighth in the sprint on Wednesday. But Brooks is not only fast, she’s integrated into the fabric of the lives of more than a hundred locals.

“Holly’s our girl,” says Joanna Menaker, a member of Brooks’s noon session for professionals who spontaneously decided to go to the Olympics after Brooks made the team.

“Kikkan – she doesn’t touch our lives every day like Holly does," she adds. "We haven’t lived through her engagement with Rob, her wedding, watching her almost beat [2006 Olympian] Rebecca Dussault at the [biggest skiing marathon in the US, the American Birkenbeiner]” –the first sign that the Olympics might be possible for a girl who had never before medaled in a national event.

Beyond parents

While the nearly two dozen athletes interviewed almost invariably cited their parents as the chief influence on their athletic career and their character, many noted that there was a whole team of people instrumental in getting them here.

Megan Sweeney of the US luge teams chalks it up to an exuberant aunt whom she would visit every summer in upstate New York. After seeing an ad in the paper about a “Slider Search” session that seeks out the next generation of luge athletes by putting kids on roller sleds, the aunt made that the afternoon activity. Little did Sweeney, a black-belt in karate, know that it would change her life.

Megan Tanby, the youngest member of Canada’s biathlon team, wouldn’t have taken up the sport if it hadn’t been for her babysitter, Ian Jackson – a biathlete whom she looked up to.

And she may not have stuck through it if it hadn’t been for her grandmother, who ran her first half-marathon at 65. That really inspired her, says Tanby, “not because she’s elite or an Olympian or something, but because she has an awesome attitude.”

For US luger Mark Grimmette, his high school football coaches helped solidify the work ethic he’d developed as a kid.

“My high school football coaches taught me how to work hard,” says Grimmette, one of a handful of five-time US Olympians. “At home, I was always bringing wood in – we heated our home with wood – so it was a lot of that work ethic that they built on.”

French biathlete Simon Fourcarde didn’t have the same sense of discipline when he arrived at a special sports school as a teenager. He’d been there one month when his coach Thierry Dusserre, an Olympic bronze medalist, told him he had to race in the roller ski national championships. And Dusserre gave him some strict instructions on how to prepare – which he did not follow, and had a really bad race. The coach was furious.

“He said, ‘I don’t know why I [accepted] you for this school,’” recalls Fourcard, now the No. 1-ranked biathlete in the world. “From this moment I knew that if I want to get something, I need to be disciplined with myself if I wanted to be really good.”

Christa’s watching Noelle Pikus-Pace's race today in Whistler. Follow her on Twitter or find more Olympic stories on her Facebook page.

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