Every day at noon, while the other kids fool around in the cafeteria, 13-year-old Ryan Oehrlein heads out the door. He does gymnastics by himself for four hours at a gym in Milton, Ont. There are no lineups at the apparatuses, no small talk, nothing to make him stop and catch his breath. It’s so quiet that he’s happy when the preschool program is going on. “That’s how lonely it gets. I look forward to little recreation kids coming,” says Ryan.
Ryan hopes to compete at the Olympics one day. This summer, as the London Summer Games take place, many kids will join Ryan in embracing that dream. Their parents might cheer them on, but do they know what it takes to raise an Olympian? It won’t be just the child who makes the sacrifice.
The glory at the end of the day may be worth it, but the life of a parent of an Olympic hopeful is a stretched thin one. It’s an existence defined by crammed in routines and hours driving or waiting on the bleachers. Vacations and friends outside the sport dwindle. Many parents can’t consider a job opportunity if it means moving away from the coach or messing up the training schedule. Some families with elite-level athletes pull up their roots entirely and move provinces to access better training for their kids.
“It’s a tough slog being a parent of an elite athlete,” says Nick Holt, professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation in Edmonton. “I try to encourage parents to go into it with their eyes wide open.”
Supporting an Olympic dream costs a bundle, says Holt. Depending on the sport, the tally is anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 a year. This would include club fees, private coaching, uniforms and equipment. There are regional or national tournaments to travel to, with accompanying flight and hotel costs. And of course, the whole family often wants to come along, because a trip to the nationals is the only vacation they take this year.
“If parents think it’s not going to cost, they’re wrong. It costs a lot,” says Holt. That’s why the stats show most athletes come from middle- to high-income families with two parents and just two kids. “The more kids you’ve got, the more you have to spread the money out. That’s not to say elite athletes can only come from two-parent families, but it’s important they have multiple sources of support.”
Many parents are naturally caught off guard by the costs. That’s the case with Ryan’s parents Bob and Ruth Oehrlein, who are beginning to realize their son has the potential to go far. They’ll soon have to figure out where the money will come from. Ruth might find work in real estate after she retires from her government job this year. They might also push back Bob’s retirement; his work as a heating and air conditioning technician is starting to wear on his back, but he’ll do whatever it takes.
“Basically, we don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” he says. “If we have to make sacrifices, that’s just the way it is.”
For many parents raising a future Olympian, there’s not much room for anything else. That’s another reason why athletes tend to come from two-parent families. “It’s so time-consuming that two parents have to share the workload,” says Holt.
The only way that Allison Paskulin, of Beaconsfield, Que., and her husband, Nick, can find balance is for her to be a stay-at-home mom. Their eldest daughter, 15-year-old Olivia, is a swim champ who hopes to make Team Canada for 2016; little sister Rebecca, 12, is almost as devoted to her ballet. That means a lot of driving, starting at 2 p.m., when Paskulin picks up the girls from their schools. Then it’s back and forth several times before swim practice and ballet end at 7 p.m. “I spend a lot of time in and out of the car,” she says. “I can only imagine if both parents are working, that it’s very difficult to do the things that I do.”
Balance is important to Paskulin. Other parents might give up activities unrelated to the sport, but she makes time to join groups, such as the grad committee at Rebecca’s school. She says she’s willing to do anything to support Olivia’s Olympic dreams. “But at the same time,” she adds, “I don’t want to go crazy!” Researchers in high-performance sport would support her wish for balance. But some families find that hard to attain, especially when their children are out there constantly testing limits, and pushing their bodies to extremes.
There’s another kind of investment parents make over time, often without realizing it—the emotional one. Peter Jensen, a consultant in sports psychology for the Canadian Olympic team, has seen this translate into pres- sure on the child. “When the child wants to quit, the parents say: ‘We’ve put in too much money for you to quit,’” says Jensen.
For Olivia’s father, Nick, frustration reached a high early this year, after he saw her struggle to maintain her rankings at the nationals and at the Olympic trials. “When Olivia chose not to give it a 100-percent effort, that let down the rest of the family,” he says. At one point he threatened to pull the plug. “‘I’m not paying the $10,000 to $15,000 that this costs a year so you can decide whether you want to swim,’” he told his daughter.
Many families go through these moments of doubt and waning commitment, says Jensen. “There are children who are only nibbling at it,” he says. And it’s reasonable for parents to make a pact once a year with their child: If we put in all this time and money, you have to try your best.
On the other hand, he says parents have to know beforehand they can’t expect certain results for all that they’ve put in. “The children can work very hard to the best of their abilities, and they just don’t have it. And you’ve got to be able to live with that.”
Despite the hardship, both the Paskulins and the Oehrleins readily agree that it’s worth it to see their kids strive at a sport they enjoy, and to know they’re learning at a young age the hard lessons about striving for a goal.
For Rodd McCormick, father of diver Riley McCormick, who’s competing at the London Games, there was nothing more inspir- ing than hearing his child say at the age of six that he wanted to go to the Olympics. “I would go to the end of the earth to make that happen.” To this day, he tears up remembering the moment his son, now 21, competed for a spot on Canada’s team at the Beijing Games. By coincidence, the Olympic trials were held at his home pool. “He was raised at that pool, and he was competing for a chance to represent his country at the Olympic Games. It was a pretty overwhelming sense of pride,” says McCormick.
There’s a photo of the crowd someone had taken seconds after Riley made his last dive. People were on their feet, including the judges. “These were the officials who had watched this kid grow up. The neighbours were there. Everybody was wearing a look of pride and satisfaction,” says McCormick. “It was a pretty special moment, that’s for sure.
A version of this article appeared in our August 2012 issue under the headline: “Golden child” (p. 59).