World Olympics

America’s Olympic team: faster, higher, stronger for longer – with kids

new thinking

Traditionally, many Olympians hang up their skates, skis, and sleds in order to have a family. Today, more teams are helping athletes balance parenthood and full-time training to extend their careers.

Lowell Bailey of the USA with his wife and daughter after finishing the men's individual race, which he won, at the IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Alexey Filippov/Sputnik/AP
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There’s something new under the sun in Pyeongchang: the first two American women to become five-time Winter Olympians.

Snowboarder Kelly Clark and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall both began their Olympic careers on home turf in Salt Lake City, and have not only reached the top of their sport but also brought along a new generation of world-class competitors.

They are among a growing number of competitors coming back for successive Olympic Games in record numbers: this year there are 12 four-time Olympians on Team USA – triple the number there were in 2002. So it’s not surprising that today’s 100th US Winter Olympic gold medal came from among that crew of veterans. After all, it’s a lot easier for governing bodies like US Ski & Snowboard to help a champion win again than create one from scratch.

One of the most rewarding ways that teams and athletes alike are fostering those extended careers is by embracing a once-rare idea: bringing babies on the road, rather than quitting to start a family.

At these Games, there are 21 parents competing for Team USA in nine different disciplines, and more than half of them will be joined by their kids here in Pyeongchang. The parent-athletes include 20 fathers and Randall, America’s most decorated female cross-country skier and one of four mothers currently competing on the World Cup circuit. Another is Norwegian Marit Bjoergen, who earned the 11th Olympic medal of her career this week –  a new record for women in the Winter Games.

After Randall gave birth to her baby boy, Breck, in the spring of 2016, US Ski & Snowboard saw it as in their interest to help her return to competition. 

Cross-country skier Kikkan Randall competes in the Women’s 7.5km + 7.5km Skiathlon during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters
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“When Kikkan wanted to tour with a baby, we said, ‘OK, how do we get this done?,’ ” says Tom Kelly, vice president of communications for US Ski & Snowboard. “I think our organization has been really dynamic in adjusting to the diverse needs of athletes.”

Three men’s alpine skiers who made this year’s team also bring their spouses and babies on the Europe-based World Cup circuit, which stretches from November to March: Two-time gold medalist Ted Ligety, who got fifth in Tuesday’s combined event; Andrew Weibrecht, who won bronze in the super-G in Vancouver and silver in Sochi; and four-time Olympian Steve Nyman, who will not be competing due to an injury but is already planning his return to competition.

Having a baby on the World Cup circuit presents unusual logistical challenges – not only for the parents, but teammates and coaches. But it also can break tensions and enable athletes to step back and put their competition goals in perspective.

“I found actually that having Breck around was great for my nerves. At the [2017] World Championships, the day of the sprint, I was changing diapers, washing out bottles, just doing my mom thing, and then we went to the race,” says Randall, who won bronze – only to come back and find Breck up in the air with no diaper, and his pants set out to dry, because his grandpa had forgotten to change him during the race. “So then it was like, right back to being mom.

“It was great, because you could be like great, I won a medal today ... I’m really happy that happened, but most of all I’m psyched to just go back to being mom.”

Being a parent and racer at the same time often requires strong support – and not just from grandma and grandpa, but also a team “family.”

“There’s times when it’s kind of like, OK, I’m going to be 100 percent honest, this is now a challenge for me,” says Jessie Diggins, Randall’s teammate, recalling being woken up by Breck’s crying through the thin walls of a hotel – a problem Randall has since tried to address by staying in apartments when possible. “And that is something where I’m like, I’m going to support you. Whatever you want, I want to make that happen, because women shouldn’t have to choose.”

A home away from home

It’s not as hard for Europeans, who can go home in between the weekend World Cup races and see their families, says Ligety.

“So they’re home on Sunday night,” he says. “But for us, if I didn’t have my family traveling with me, it’d be months before I saw them again. That’s not really a feasible option for me.”

Nyman’s solution is to rent an apartment in Innsbruck, Austria, and his wife and baby daughter move in for several months. One month’s rent costs less than a roundtrip ticket, and helps give him a sense of home on the road – and “consistency.”

“I always started the year off hot, and then kind of died, and the past few years it’s been better throughout the end of the year,” he says. “And I think a lot of that is moving the family to Europe and really creating a nice comfortable situation there for me to perform at my height ... and also having my family there to inspire me.”

Biathlete Lowell Bailey has also found unprecedented success since deciding to bring his wife and daughter on the road. The four-time Olympian in biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and marksmanship, had fully planned on retiring just before his wife, Erika, gave birth to their daughter Ophelia. But at the last minute he decided to keep competing – on one condition: That Erika and Ophelia go on the road with him.

“It’s an amazing sport.... But it’s a sport, and life is bigger than just biathlon,” he says. “It’s easy to forget that when you’re on a World Cup tour and the only thing you’re surrounded with is biathlon, from when you wake up at night to when you go to sleep at night.”

Having Erika and Ophelia along “allowed me to focus on the things that matter in a race … and not, boy, I hope I get this result that I really want badly and if I don’t get the result, man, I’m just really upset about that.… And because of that, the results actually get better.”

So much better, in fact, that last season he became the first American to win a biathlon world championship. Now he’s at the Olympics gunning for America’s first Olympic medal in the sport. He enters the individual 20 km race on Thursday night.

Unfortunately, Erika and Ophelia won’t be here to see him in person, nor will Randall have Breck watching her in Thursday’s 10 km cross-country race. The logistics of bringing a family to the Olympics, with its hierarchy of security that creates barriers between athletes and everyone else, are extremely complicated.

But Ligety, bobsledder Nathan Weber, curler John Shuster, freestyle skier David Wise, and half a dozen men’s ice hockey players will have their children here to see them compete and create some Olympic memories.

That’s something Nyman looks forward to creating for his daughter in the next season or two, when she’s a little older.

“And she can remember, whoa, I was in Europe, I was there, and I was in those mountains, I was at the bottom of the race cheering on my dad,” he says. “That will be cool.”

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