Winter is my season, and skiing is my sport. Give me a tilted field of white fluff over a stretch of white sand any day. When I was growing up in Squaw Valley, CA, the apres ski spot was a place called the Five Circle Club. That’s where the adults hung out while the kids slid on cafeteria trays outside, raided the vending machines and “hooky-bobbed” off cars leaving the parking lot. It was a win/win scenario, one of many that went along with laissez-faire Seventies parenting. The kids roamed somewhat free while the adults cavorted in their stretchy, colorful outfits, their skin glowing from outdoor living, their laughter filling the lodge. It was good living and a great way to grow up.
The Five Circle Club wasn’t really a club, but a lounge, named to honor Squaw’s Olympic past, as host to the 1960 Games. The resort had (and still has) a rich Olympic heritage, which rubbed off on the kids who slid around on trays and hooky-bobbed. I ended up competing in two Olympics as an Alpine skier. In many places, that would be a big deal, but it doesn’t distinguish you much at Squaw. The local cookie shop, Wildflour, awards lifetime cookie passes to all local Olympic gold medalists, a 100-punch pass to local silver medalists and a “better luck next time” to bronze medalists. If the policy were any more lenient, it could seriously affect their bottom line.
As we head in to a Winter Olympic year I get a lot of Olympic-related questions.* Now that my kids are avid ski racers, people wonder if I hope they, too, will be in the Olympics someday. It’s a complicated question.
Being an Olympian is a badge of honor, a fantasy fulfilled. It continues to fill me with gratitude and arm me with cred. But to be clear, it did nothing to shape who I am. That, I owe to the pursuit of a greatness I never fully achieved—to the habits I learned, the injuries I overcame, the limits I pushed through and most of all the friendships I made while schlepping bags around the world and sleeping on each other in vans. Becoming a World Class athlete is a mostly unglamorous process, which is the stuff you don’t see on TV. You also don’t see the aftermath of elite sports, the athletes who: peaked out as child stars; sacrificed their long term physical and mental health; compromised their education; resent their parents; and live haunted by what might have been.
Life is hard. To think that a medal, a title or any singular achievement can significantly alter that reality is naïve. Athletics are a means to a fulfilling life. And yet, the crazy escalation of youth sports has lost sight of that, turning healthy competition through activities that kids do for fun and joy, into jobs with performance markers at every level.
My kids love the sport of ski racing, even more than I did. Of course they dream of someday being in the Olympics and I support that dream, but only to a point. That point is when the process of developing as athletes is no longer aiding their development as healthy, happy, capable people.
What I want for my kids is more of what they’ve already achieved through this sport. They love the mountains, and the people like the Five Circle Club regulars—who happily endure frigid weather, interminable drives and crappy condos to feel that rush of wrangling, gravity, momentum, centrifugal force and friction. I want them to go into adulthood armed with friends who will celebrate with them, comfort them, and tease them mercilessly when needed. Someday, I want them to know the quiet satisfaction of being the middle of a three-generation sandwich, chatting on the chairlift ride up together, then feeling the wind in their face while arcing sweet turns on the way down.
It’s not that I don’t want my kids to be Olympians or to go for the gold. I wish everyone, especially my own kids, could have the experience of marching into the Opening Ceremonies to the wild applause and adulation of the world. It was cool. But it was just a moment. I don’t want their quest for greatness to take precedence over having a great life. Athletic careers are short-lived, but the friendships, the love of their sport and the way we learn to live will last a lifetime.
*No, I did not win a medal. Hear more on that in my “not even a bronze” TEDx talk.
P.S. If you ever want cred with a card-carrying Olympian (yes, they issue us cards), never, ever refer to one as a “former Olympian.” Read the fine print: Once an Olympian, Always an Olympian. Never Former Never Past.