Your child is talented – talented enough to make it to the highest levels of competition, like the Olympics. You’ve driven her countless hours to and from practice, begged time off from work yet again to be with her at a meet, cried out when she fell, massaged her creaky calves to make the pain go away, wept as she was carted off for surgery, and went bananas upon the moment of her triumph.

RaismanParents

The video at the top of the page is of the parents of Aly Raisman, who won gold medals in the team and floor women’s gymnastics competitions at the 2012 London Olympics. The expressions, the body language, the sounds of the parents are so explicit that we cannot help but feel their anxiety. We understand that these parents have had their fair share of sacrifice, pain and joy. As the writer of the book, The Secret Olympian wrote, that is the price of athletic success for many.

To make it in sport you need others to sacrifice their goals. To make it in sport you need others to sacrifice their time, and often money, for you to make it. I didn’t speak to a single Olympian who didn’t recognize the huge burden they were to their parents when growing up. My parents spent thousands of hours at weekends and week-nights, driving me to and from training and to races across the country, and spent thousands of pounds on coaching, training camps and kit (and sating my excessive appetite!)

Aly Raisman's Parents 2.jpg

The parents of Aly Raisman will be featured in an upcoming television series in America called “Gold Medal Families”. In it, Raisman’s mother is quoted as saying:

“Time is such a precious commodity, and the impact on family time was tough,” says Lynn, whose daughter is looking to make the team for a second time in July after winning gold in the floor exercise event in London in 2012. “Around the time Aly was 10, she reached a level where her coach did not want her out of the gym during school vacations. There were a number of times where my husband took her siblings away … and I stayed home with Aly. There were birthdays, holidays and family gatherings she missed because she had [to go to the] gym. Even just regularly missing daily family dinners was hard.”

Aly Raisman was in St Louis for the US Olympic Team Trials in gymnastics. On June 26th, Raisman, at the rather elderly age of 22, won a spot on the American team headed to Rio in August. Can her parents stand the pressure?

Aly Raisman's Parents 3

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Cathy Ferguson_Life_30October1964
From Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

Watching the build up to the 100-meter backstroke finals at the 1964 Olympic Games must have been like being in a pressure cooker. In the first preliminary heat, American Ginny Duenkel set the world record. In the next heat, American Cathy Ferguson broke Duenkel’s record. And finally, in the third heat, French women, Kiki Caron, set the world record yet again.

On October 14, 1964, three women who set three world records the previous day, were about to face off. As Ferguson wrote in the book, “Tales of Gold“, each of us had set a new world record, but only a fraction of a second separated us. In the finals, that would make the difference between gold and bronze.”

And so, in the pressure cooker of the National Gymnasium, the three record holders held even at the 50-meter mark when Ferguson began to pull ever so slightly ahead. In the end, Ferguson won the race at 1 minute 7.7 seconds, setting yet again, a world record.

You can see her crying on the podium as she hears the national anthem play, not only happy to win, but relieved it was all over.

I quit competitive swimming right before the ’68 Games. People ask me why I didn’t go on. But I knew I couldn’t win anymore, and when you know you can’t win, you can’t go on. I was only 19, but I just couldn’t get up for the races.

Most people do not understand just how much training takes out of you. It’s lonely in the pool. Just think of the countless hours in the water when you scarcely talk to another human being. All you have is that black line. It becomes your best friend. How many people can take that for more than six or seven years? I can remember being so tired at the end of the day that there was no way I had any energy left over to talk to the other kids.

Ferguson understood that her training and eventual triumph was worth it as her competitions and achievements took her to amazing places to meet incredible people. But her life, the life of a high-performance athlete can take its toll. In fact, when she was interviewed in the mid-1980s for the book “Tales of Gold“, she commented that athletes also need a program to help them transition out of life as an athlete.

I feel very strongly that we need some kind of detraining program for our former athletes. The East Germans have a program that helps their athletes get ready to move back into a normal life. It was very hard for me to be totally in the world of swimming and then, all of a sudden, to be completely out of it, then try to put that piece back in, only to find it doesn’t fit.

I felt quite empty when I left swimming. The thing I substituted for that programmed life was my first marriage. I was 19, and my husband was 26. in some ways I was probably 26 as well, but I had missed many of the experiences of being a teenager. Traveling all over the world and meeting important people was a fantastic experience, but I also needed those experiences that help one grow emotionally. When I was swimming, I was pretty much in control, but when I stepped out of that warm, secure cocoon, I didn’t control everything in my environment. I couldn’t control my husband, and I couldn’t control what was happening to me. At the time, I loved him dearly, but there was a needed growth period. Unfortunately, we both used marriage as a kind of sublimation for something else. I didn’t quite understand it then, but all I really needed was just to become “normal” again.

Cathy Ferguson_ESPN
Cathy Ferguson (center); Art Rickerby/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Apparently, that is something psychologists and the International Olympic Committee are coming to grips with. That the more you commit to the goal of achieving at the highest levels, the more people surrender their own personal identity to what is now being called the “Athletic Identity”. Psychologist, Chris Shambrook, explains this phenomenon in the book, The Secret Olympian.

There is a whole area of research around a concept called Athletic Identity. Athletic Identity is all about how closely my identity is allied to my performances as an athlete. If I am my results. If I am my performance. If I’ve handed ‘me’ over to that – that puts me in a very, very challenging place when the results and the performances aren’t there anymore. And it’s doubly challenging because you have to get pretty close to handling your personality over to that (mentality) in order to give yourself the best chance of winning. But it leaves you very vulnerable afterwards.

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Bob Schul winning the gold medal in the 5000 meters in Tokyo_Life Magazine, October 30, 1964

 

Bob Schul was in a room under the National Olympic Stadium, mentally preparing himself for the race of his life, the 5,000 meter competition at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. Schul was already filling a little uneasy. It was rainy and cold, so he spent most of his time in his dorm. Then he walked 200 meters in the rain, got on the bus and made it to the stadium, where his coaches ran up to him saying, “Where have you been?” Schul told me that his adrenalin shot up, and he thought he had gotten the time wrong. But they told Schul there was still over an hour before the race, which is exactly how much time he had intended to have. So calming himself down, Schul headed to a small room to prepare himself for his race. A member of the US track team and gold medal hope, Willie Davenport walked into the room.

“Willie Davenport, one of the world’s best hurdlers, was standing in the middle of the room dripping wet,” said Schul. “I knew he had just finished one of his trials. The first race for the US hurdlers should have been a cake walk for them. As I walked by and patted him on the back, I asked him how it went. His response was not what I had expected. He turned towards me and looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘Bob, I didn’t make it.’ Now, when somebody says that sort of thing, you don’t want to be there. I had a race to win and I didn’t want anybody saying to me ‘I didn’t make it’. But I couldn’t get away because he kept talking. I thought, ‘come on, I got to get out of here.’ Tears were coming down and he turned away. What do you say? I stood there and reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. I put my bag against the wall, and went to warm up. I tried to forget that.”

Fortunately, Schul was unaffected, winning the first ever gold for the US in the 5,000 meters. Davenport would recover after being eliminated in the 110m hurdle semis in Tokyo, going on to win gold in Mexico City, and bronze eight years later in Montreal.

The acclaimed author, Frank Herbert, once wrote, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.” Herbert’s mantra is particularly true for high performance athletes. The anonymous author who wrote the book, The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, also spoke of fear, its particular odor and its negative impact.

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Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides in the 1984 miniseries, Dune.

“The physiologists can’t measure our sanity. Some of us are going well in training, quick and confident. Probably an equal number are struggling, working harder than they should to make the pace, and it’s those guys (some are friends, some rivals) who are starting to crack up. I can sort of smell this creeping fear of failure, an aura or a vibe around them. It’s like an elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it. Some have gone very quiet; others are sort of manic. I can tell my best mate has been crying in the loos after training and back in the hotel sometimes. Not good for a grown man.”

The author, Anon, writes that everybody feels the fear. But you need to