Vancouver Olympics: When sports success is family affair

Parents of athletes at the Vancouver Olympics spoke to the Monitor about treading that fine line between encouraging performance and demanding it of their exceptionally talented offspring.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
Hannah Kearney of the USA during the final run in women's moguls at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. Kearney has seen plenty of parents work overtime for their kids sport, and even take personal interest that surpasses that of their child athlete.

Before she even got to middle school, bobsledder Elana Meyers – who will hit the track tonight at the Vancouver Olympics with her teammate – knew she wanted to be an elite athlete.

Her dad knew far better than she what that would mean. A former NFL player, Edward Meyers was intimate with sweat. With perseverance. And with the pure enjoyment of being at the top of your game. If his daughter wasn't prepared to work hard, he wasn't prepared to let her play hard.

But after two years of Elena's entreaties, he let her join a softball team at age 10. She wasn't very good and was often in tears after games. So at the dawn of what would become a world-class career, she and her dad had the first of many father-daughter talks about her future in sports.

" 'If you're going to be good, you're going to have to work at it. Are you willing to work at it?' " Elana remembers Mr. Meyers telling her firmly. "I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'OK, let's go.' "

Right there, they started practicing fielding. He built a batting cage in their yard in Atlanta. He took her out to the track and taught her how to sprint. He and his wife taught her how to slide headfirst, so she wouldn't be afraid of doing it. And they watched her become a softball standout at George Washington University – and later, the 2009 silver medalist in the bobsledding world championships.

The real value of parents' investment

Meyers is one of millions of parents who spent years on the sidelines of his child's athletic career.

As a former professional athlete, he had rare perspective. But the challenge is commonplace: how to navigate that fine line between encouraging performance and demanding it. The key, say Meyers and other Olympian parents, is to preserve kids' love for the sport while steadying their resolve as their work ethic matures. That makes all the hours as chauffeur, coach, comforter, and cheering squad worth it, whether the child reaches the Olympics or not.

"My perspective is … the value of discipline, perseverance, having a work ethic – it's not just for sports, it's for everything, and it's for life," says Meyers, now an executive vice president for PNC Bank. "A lot of times, as parents, you don't know what [your children] want to do or are going to do eventually, but you can instill a work ethic and discipline that will carry them through whatever they'll do the rest of their life."

It's easy for some parents. US freestyle skier Hannah Kearney, the reigning world champion in moguls, has been pretty self-sufficient from Day 1, lining up her toys as a toddler, her piles of clothes as a young traveling competitor – and then, without any parental input, a retirement account as first-time World Cup winner at age 17.

"Hannah pretty much makes up her mind on things herself, and has since she could talk," says Mrs. Kearney, who has nevertheless been grateful for the decisions her daughter has made – including staying in public school, where she got straight A's, instead of going to a ski academy.

But Kearney has seen her share of parents in tougher situations – and not just because they had to get up at 0-dark-30 to drive their sleeping kid to the rink or the gym.

"I've watched a lot of kids fall by the wayside whose parents were – well, I felt it was more for them," says Kearney, who fought hard to play women's sports growing up. "If the passion is there, [kids] will want to do it themselves. It's their own drive that has to be the power behind it. It can't be the parents' vision."

(Women's participation is way up in Olympic sports – as we noted here yesterday.)

Passion is one thing figure skater Joannie Rochette has – along with Canada's first world championship medal for women, her silver last season.

The Olympic medal contender has long been a favorite in Canada. She is finding particular national support tonight as she takes to the ice despite the sudden passing Sunday of her mother, Thérèse Rochette, shortly after she arrived in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete.

Earlier this year, the Monitor talked to Mrs. Rochette about the challenges of raising an exceptionally talented athlete.

"Joannie's success belongs to her," said Rochette, who – together with her husband – let their daughter leave home at age 13 to pursue her sport. "As parents, we accompany Joannie in her dreams; we don't precede her."

Still, Rochette played an important supporting role – not least of all in reminding Joannie why she's in the sport at all.

"In periods of great stress, I … have the necessary distance to remind her of a rule she knows well: above all, skate for herself, for her pleasure," said Rochette, adding that it had always been their agreement that Joannie will stop when she no longer enjoys the sport. "This helps her to set aside the performances of other skaters … and others' expectations of her. It's also then a little easier to concentrate on her routine, to perform her best and with pleasure."

For some, a way to a better life

One pressure-adding factor that can be harder to avoid is economics. Olympics historian David Wallechinsky recalls watching his son's soccer games in southern France years ago. One mother who was urging on her son came from a housing project. "When she was yelling, it wasn't just for him to do his best," says Mr. Wallechinsky, who was raising his boys in Provence at the time. "It was for him to get out of the housing project."

He highlights two Olympians who represent the wide spectrum of parental roles: Eric Heiden, supported as he shied away from fame, and figure skater Tonya Harding, "whose mother beat it into her" that figure skating success was her ticket – not to mention her mother's ticket – to a better life.

Rochette couldn't have presented a more opposite example of a figure-skater's mother – one who saw value not so much in her daughter's accomplishments as in her character.

"To stand on a podium is a nice reward … but it isn't the only one, and it doesn't define the worth of a person!" she said. "After all the years of persevering, Joannie has succeeded in reaching a high level of performance and that's something that no one can ever take away from her. And if she doesn't achieve the expected results in an important competition, she will be no less the talented, funny, intelligent woman that we know."

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