While the Road to Rio is a long journey counting down to Summer 2016, Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky has had tons of success in her (so far) short career. At the age of 15, she was the youngest swimmer on Team USA at the London 2012 Olympics, where she took home the gold in 800m freestyle (for which she also holds the world record). Katie and her mom, Mary Gen, sat down with Parents at a Winter Olympics viewing party sponsored by Swim Today to get her take on swimming, her family’s incredible support, and all things Olympics.
KL: I think the competitive atmosphere and the people that are involved in the sport. It’s a great outlet to meet friends and engage with them. That’s what I have always enjoyed.
MGL: When the kids first joined the summer pool we really didn’t know anybody there and that’s, I think, one of the reasons she and her brother decided to join the team. Right away they had like a hundred friends. The thing I think is interesting about swimming is that it’s not just one age that goes and practices together. It crosses a couple of ages and it’s co-ed. She’s working out with girls and guys and they have such great camaraderie and ability to support each other. You don’t see that with a lot of other sports.
P: Did you gravitate to swimming on your own or did your parents guide you?
KL: I think my mom taught me how to swim when I was probably 3 or 4. But then I joined summer swim team with my brother when I was 6. Then we joined a club swim team that fall. So I’ve been swimming on teams since I was 6, but up until about age 10 I played basketball and soccer, a few other sports. Once I got to about 9 or 10 I started to go to swim practice over basketball practice. I Gradually I just started to lean towards swimming.
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P: What’s it like to raise an Olympian?
MGL: Well, it’s been great. We always say that she makes us look good—our kids make us look good. My husband and I feel that we’ve gotten a lot of support from our community, our club, our summer team. I’m very very proud of her. I’m proud of how she’s handled it.
P: Does it sometimes feel like a full time job to be the parent of an athlete at this level?
MGL: You know, I think no matter what she would have decided to do, it’s great to see one of your children finding and developing the passion. My feeling is is that it’s not really hard to support your child in whatever direction they want to go—whether it’s sports or music or academics. It’s been pretty easy to support her.
P: What does it mean to you to have your Mom and your family cheering you on? How does it help with some of the pressure of these moments?
KL: It’s the best. They’re at every meet. They take me to every practice. That support means a lot to me. At the Olympics I saw them in the stands and knew they were there. It was kind of a relaxing thing to know that. I was 15 years old and traveling with the team on my first international trip. My parents had prepared me well for it and I knew how to handle it all.
P: What is your message to young aspiring athletes?
KL: If you find a sport that you’re passionate about stick with it and be dedicated and mainly just have fun with it. That’s what success will come from. If you’re happy doing something and you have friends doing it that’s gonna be your best path to success.
P: What’s your message to the moms of aspiring athletes?
MGL: Mine would be the same. To really make sure your children are having fun. If they’re not having fun with it, find something else or support them looking for other outlets and make it fun. [Swimming] is great for building confidence in both my kids, making great friends, learning how to support goals, setting goals and reaching those goals and setting new goals, helping them to be organized. As long as they’re learning from it it’s good for them.
P: Looking ahead to Rio, what are you most excited about?
KL: There’s a lot in between, but yes it is coming up quickly. I just want to make the Olympic team again. That’s going to be the biggest challenge. I’m excited most about training over the next two years. I have my goals set and I’m excited to see what my limit is over the next two years.
Our journey to Brazil continues! This week: Olympic bronze medalist Caitlin Leverenz and her mom Jeannine. The mother-daughter pair sat down with Parents at a Winter Olympic viewing party sponsored by Swim Today to talk about the personal rewards of swimming (it’s not all about medals), the importance of family, and why she’s focusing on the now.
P: What makes swimming such a great sport for kids and adults?
CL: I just learned so many things from it. I’ve had so much fun. I had to learn from a young age time management, how to get my homework done. I laugh because it was a threat if my mom wouldn’t let me go to practice. I had to get my homework done and learn how to manage other things in my life so I could still make it to practice because that was really what I wanted to do at night. It’s just been such a great platform for allowing me to talk about who I am and what I want to do in life and really learn about myself. In so many ways the personal growth is the bigger success than any medal I’ve won.
JL: I remember when she was in third grade she said she wanted to quit school and just swim and I told her she couldn’t be a dumb swimmer she had to be a smart swimmer. But, through most of grade school she was a very quiet little girl. I remember taking her to her first day at kindergarten and she was hiding in my skirts. The confidence as a person that she has built through her gifts of swimming has just been incredible. This little shy girl who hid behind me is now up on the world stage.
P: Tell me, Mom, what does it take to raise an Olympian?
JL: Oh gosh. Well you have to know that when she was 8 and doing really well just in her local level, my dad looked at me and said “Maybe she’ll go to the Olympics someday.” And I looked at him and I said, “I hope not.” And he said “Why?!” And I said, “Because you have to give up your entire life for it.” Little did I know what our road was going to be at that point. I think she’s given up a lot of her life but I think the gifts she has received through swimming and that our family has received has been immeasurable. It’s been worth every bit of it.
P: What does it mean to you to have such support from your mom and your family?
CL: It’s been tremendous. You know,during the Winter Olympics, when Noelle Pikus-Pace won her medal in skeleton she said: “We won a medal.” I just love that. When I won a bronze medal, it was a “We won the bronze medal.” I got to see [my family] right after I finished my race and have this we did this, we finished and we just did something amazing moment. There were so many things that parents and a family have to sacrifice. I don’t think any Olympian would be where they are without that good foundation of a family and support behind them.
P: What is your advice to moms of aspiring athletes at any level, but especially at this high level?
JL: Make sure they’re having fun and let it be their sport. It’s not your sport. So, if they’re not having fun figure out why and move them to a different sport if that’s what it takes. Just love them no matter how they do. Any time Caitlin got out of the water I’d say “Great swim!” and I’d give her a hug and she’d go “Not really, Mom.” And I’d go, “It was to me.”
CL: Which was huge, being an athlete. There are points where I didn’t want to keep swimming and my parents would say “We’re going to love you whether you swim or not.” My motivation to swim and do well was never because of pressure from my parents, it was always their support that allowed me to do well.
P: Gearing up for Rio, what are you most excited for?
CL: Well, the Winter Olympics got me excited just to race again. I love watching Team USA. Being a part of that is just so special. There’s just so much that builds up and leads up to the Olympics, that’s just the culminating point. The time in between from now until Rio is such an important time in terms of enjoyment and growth and learning that you know I try not to look too much ahead to Rio and just enjoy what I’m doing right now.
Will your kid be the next member of Team USA? Take our child career quiz and find out what she could grow up to be!
Get your little athlete to eat healthy with our advice in the video player below:
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Photographs (from top down): Caitlin Leverenz/Arena; Caitlin and her mom, Jeannine
As our countdown to Summer Olympics 2016 continues (only 884 days to go!) we have two-time Olympic medalist Nick Thoman. Currently holding the world record in 100-meter backstroke, this 27-year-old swimmer got his start at a young age. Parents caught up with the champion and his mom, Kathy Brewer, at a Winter Olympics viewing party sponsored by Swim Today to discuss why swimming is a great sport for kids, his family’s role in his success, and his plans for Brazil.
P: What makes swimming such a great sport for kids?
NT: A lot of my best friends were swimmers with me. The friendships that you build along the way are definitely one of the things that brought me into it initially. [My sister] Vic was swimming and she was having a lot of fun and I was bored, bouncing off the walls so Mom found a speedo small enough and tossed me out in the water.
KB: Swimming was also the best way to find babysitters because you had all-age swimmers. You have kindergarden through high school. You really get to see the high school swim-team kids interact with the younger kids. You really see their character.
NT: It’s true. You did always use swimmers. I never knew why.
KB: Because they were really responsible!
P: What does it take to raise an Olympian such as your son?
KB: I think Nick’s determination. He and Victoria were both determined kids. The focus in swimming is all about lifetime bests. It’s inevitable that you’ll compare yourself somewhat to other people, but the coaches and the parents get you to focus on bettering your own time. But, we don’t coach our kids. Just let the coaches do the coaching and you’re there for the moral support. Good or bad, I love you. I’m proud of you.
P: How important was it to have the support of your parents to alleviate that pressure?
NT: It was awesome. One of the things that I actually remember most from the Olympic trials was my father sent me an email the day of my event and I didn’t actually see it until I had made the Olympic team, but it basically said “No matter what happens, we’ll all still love you.” That was a fantastic thing. He was always, both he and my mother, very very supportive. They did a great job of not coaching me and I know that was hard, [especially] for my father because he was also a swimmer. I really do appreciate all the support I’ve had. Driving me to practice at 4:45 in the morning. Hell, even when I got my driver’s license my mom would wake up and make me breakfast before I went.
P: What a good mom!
NT: She is a good mom!
KB: It makes a big difference if you get involved, too. That shows your kids you’re really supportive of all their efforts. Swim meets from the outside might seem boring, but if you get involved it’s not boring at all.
P: What does it feel like at the Olympics right before your event? What goes through your mind? What are you feeling?
NT: It’s kind of a surreal experience. I’ve only been once and I swam a total of four times. Ending up with two medals at the end was just amazing. There’s a feeling that you get—or that I got—that I knew I was going to go out and have a good race. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be; I didn’t know how I was going to place, didn’t know that I was going to win a silver medal, but I knew that I was going to race my best for myself, for everyone that supported me, and for my country and that was just a great feeling.
P: What is your message to young aspiring athletes?
NT: Have fun! Just go out and have fun and what you’re passionate about will call you back. Swimming always called me back. I even took nine months off last year, didn’t know if I was going to retire or not but swimming, again, it called me back. Have fun doing whatever you want to do—be it sports, be it musicals, whatever you get into.
P: Mom, what’s your advice for the moms of aspiring athletes?
KB: Oh boy. Be supportive. Allow the children to show their commitment to a sport and whatever they choose to commit to, be there for them. Back them up. One of the things that helped me was finding someone professional to talk to. Because I didn’t want to make my stress his stress. That was really important.
NT: I took almost all of last year off and it really got me re-focused and hungry again. I was at a point where I didn’t know if I wanted to swim or not after the last Olympics. Taking that time off really helped. Coming up this year I’m really hoping to make the Pan Pacific Championships and the World Championships next year and we’ll see how we do.
Another Olympic fortnight has come and gone and the torch has been snuffed in the Sochi snow. You know what that means? Countdown to the Summer Olympics 2016! Last week, Parents attended a Winter Olympics viewing party hosted by Swim Today to cheer on Team USA and ease on down the Road to Rio with some of Team USA’s most prized Olympic swimming medalists.
First up: Dara Torres, twelve-time Olympic medalist and mom to Tessa, 7, and stepmom to Krista and Lucas, 14. We sat down with the woman who appeared in five Olympic games—and was the oldest member of her Olympic team in both 2000 and 2008—to chat about life as mom-athlete, getting in shape after baby, the recent Sports Illustrated controversy, and all things swimming.
P: What you do you hope your kids learn from your many accomplishments?
DT: I think the biggest thing is: Don’t put an age limit on your dreams. I had such a long career. As I got older I learned not to listen to the negativity, or to use it as a positive. There are so many people who said, “Oh she can’t do this. She’s too old.” Whenever they said that it just fueled me even more. So: Turn negatives into positives and don’t put an age limit on your dreams.
P: You started off so young, then became the oldest woman on your team—not just in your last Olympics but in the one before that. What kept you going?
DT: You know, it goes by so fast. You talk about your kids growing up and it goes by so fast, but I look back on when I went to my first big international meet and it seems so long ago. The biggest thing [that kept me going] is I was able to go away from the sport a little bit to re-fall in love with it. To miss it again. When you’re in something for so long, you kind of loose the oomph, you know? I think that’s what separated me from some athletes who did the sport for so long [without a break]. I was able to fall in love with it again.
DT: I think the biggest thing for everyone combined is the health and fitness aspect. It’s easy on the joints. It’s great cardiovascular exercise. It’s a great team sport and an individual sport. You have relays. You have individual events. Its’ a nice combo. For kids, especially, the great thing about it is that they’re not sitting on the bench. You’re always participating, you’re always part of the team, you’re always in the swim meets. So, I think that makes it a little bit special. I see my daughter and she’s not particularly super athletic, but she loves it.
P: Is swimming her “thing”?
DT: We haven’t really figured out what her thing is. She’s only 7. She seems to like lacrosse and tennis, but swimming is something she’s been doing all year. I don’t push it, but she seems to really like it a lot.
P: It was just a little over a year after you gave birth to Tessa that you won at Nationals. How were you able to get back into that kind of shape? And, what is your message to moms trying to get back into shape after Baby?
DT: Make sure you do stuff while you’re pregnant. I’ve always loved exercise. I’ve always loved the way it’s made me feel—releases stress. I love the way it makes me look. [Pregnancy] was really hard for me at first because I wasn’t swimming, I was just going to a gym and I kept getting sick. Until I thought I can swim!I get sick in the gutter and I can just keep going. I gained 35 pounds, but it was all here [in the belly] and within two or three weeks it was all gone. I got back in the pool about a week and a half after giving birth and then swam at the meet three weeks after giving birth. Again, it’s a little out of the ordinary. I’m not telling parents to go do that. But I think if you get into fitness and exercise and you do that while you’re pregnant, and not using it as an excuse to eat everything you want and gain weight because you’re pregnant, I think that it’s easier to lose the weight.
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P: What was or what is the most challenging thing about being a mom and an athlete?
I think the most challenging thing is finding a balance. You look at working parents and they’re working kind of like I’m training. I really look to working parents out there as my inspiration.
P: What is your favorite part about being a mom?
DT: That it’s not about you. You know? That you’re taking care of this little thing that has unconditional love for you and you have unconditional love for them. And it’s just a great feeling.
P: What is your favorite thing to do with Tessa?
DT: We have a lot of little things we do, but she has two step-siblings now and so I try a date night with her or something special. Up in Massachusetts where we live the schools have half days once every few weeks and I’ll take her out and we’ll go to lunch or the mall or something.
P: And I have to ask the question. There’s a lot of controversy going around about the SI cover with Barbie and whatnot. I know that you modeled for them in the past. Tell me about your choice to do that and your philosophy on this.
DT: I was thrilled when I got asked to [model] because I grew up as a tomboy. I was like in love with all my brother’s friends. They had wanted nothing to do with me because I was such a tomboy. I thought I’m gonna show all my brother’s friends, look who’s in Sports Illustrated now! (And all the girls who thought I was such a tomboy growing up in school.) So to me it was great. I wasn’t into dolls or makeup growing up and so it was new to me being taken care of and dressing up. It was almost like doing something that you missed out on as a kid. The funny thing was that I wanted to wear the hot sexy suits and they kept putting me in speedos and I was like, “I don’t want this! I want two pieces! I want to look hot!” There’s stuff out there that some people like and some people don’t like and this is their tradition and they’ve done it every year and it’s gotten a little more raunchy and risqué, but it’s once a year. If the girls don’t think it’s right or their parents don’t think it’s right then they won’t do it. I’m more for freedom of expression and speech.
P: We’re at the tail end of the Winter Olympics. The next thing is Rio. Is there any sort of camaraderie between Winter Olympians and Summer Olympians?
DT: I went and gave a talk to the women’s hockey team before they left for Sochi. The sports are so different; the trials are so different, but I think you find the athletes in the Summer Olympics really cheering on the Winter Olympians because you know what they’ve been through, you know how hard they’ve worked and the competition and the nerve before you compete.
DT: Hopefully sitting on my couch watching and cheering everyone on. I’m done competing. I think when I went to my last trials and missed the team by 9/100 of a second, that was kind of it. My time was still good; it’s just that the girls are getting that much faster. I just thought it was time for me to sort of move on and be there a little more for my daughter and for my stepkids. I’m very happy.
Kick off your countdown by browsing the latest swimming gear at Shop Parents.
Let me say this right up front – not every child masters the monkey bars. Unlike sitting, standing, walking, potty training, or riding a tricycle, the monkey bars are not considered a developmental milestone. At well-child visits, doctors don’t ask, “Has your child mastered the monkey bars yet?” the same way they ask, “How many words are in your child’s vocabulary?” Trust me, I’m a pediatrician. There are even successful adults working alongside you who have never been able to master the monkey bars. Trust me, I’m one of them. I was never able to climb a rope or do a pull-up either. I always blamed my inabilities on a poorly-centered center of gravity. But enough about me. This is about our daughter who, happily, did learn to master the monkey bars. She absolutely had to.
Emily’s best friends in grade school were tiny wisps of girls who didn’t touch the ground when they walked because they were too light for gravity. For them, the monkey bars were as natural as breathing – they didn’t have to think twice before sailing from one end to the other, with each girl outdoing the other in speed and panache. When the monkey bars became the “must” place to be during recess, Emily was in a tough spot. Her feet did touch the ground while walking and the monkey bars were not automatic like breathing – they were more like hyperventilating. Not being a wisp came in very handy for Emily when she played sports later in life, but this was first grade and nothing mattered except the monkey bars.
Knowing no one would be at the school playground on Saturday, we packed everyone in the van and headed there for a monkey bars crash course. First, our oldest child (who was in third grade) tried to inspire Em by hopping onto the launch step and zipping all the way across, gracefully swinging from each arm to get to the next bar. He dismounted and encouragingly said, “See, Em, it’s easy!” Emily didn’t find this inspiring. In fact, she started crying. Next, the youngest child (who was in preschool) needed a turn. We held him up and walked beneath the monkey bars as he touched each one with his hands. Then he was off to the sandbox.
Finally, Emily stood on the launch step, grabbed the first bar with her left hand, stepped, and…just dangled there. Her right arm waved toward the next bar, but her body did not obey. She dropped to the ground and sobbed, “See?! I told you I can’t do it!” Of course, we asked ourselves how much of the obstacle was physical or mental. We pretended to be sports psychologists for a little while, probing her deepest monkey bar phobias. Yes, she was afraid of failure. Yes, she was afraid of embarrassment. Yes, she was sure everyone else was better at monkey bars. Yes, she would never, ever, ever have friends, in her whole life, if she couldn’t conquer the monkey bars. Ok, enough psychology – there were fewer than 48 hours before Monday’s recess. A miraculous cure was in order, and it had to be immediate.
While I was in London for the Olympics, I had the privilege to speak with several current Olympians, moms of Olympians, and former Olympic competitors. I asked them all for the best advice they would give to young children–and their parents–who are starting to get interested in sports and might be dreaming of competing in the Olympics someday.
Here is the advice they gave:
Margie Walsh, mother of beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings:
I would tell them to dream big. Even if they aren’t going to be Olympic athletes, it’s okay to dream big. Support them and encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want to do. They’ll know when they don’t love it anymore, and they’ll know when it’s time to give it up. But it’s got to be their choice to play, and it’s got to be their choice to give it up. And if they’re just tired, you don’t let them give it up yet. And if they’re not good enough to get to the next level, just remind them of what they have achieved. Support them, encourage them, love them, and listen to them. And make sure it’s their dream, and they want it.
Christian Laettner, former Olympic basketball player:
Have your kid play as many sports as he can. Nowadays, the parents and coaches want to have them focus in on just basketball at age 12 or 13. You don’t have to focus in on your one sport until maybe 16 years old.
Diana Lopez, taekwondo star:
Stick to something you believe in and don’t ever quit. Here I am, a two-time Olympian. In 2004 I barely made the Olympic team, and I was crushed after that, but my parents always taught us to persevere, to keep going and to do your best, no matter what obstacles may come. And here I am.
Diana Lopez won the bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2008 Games and is currently competing in London.
Gary Hall Jr., former Olympic swimmer:
You have to start somewhere, and it’s never the top. If you stick to something long enough and you love it, eventually you will be successful.
There are life skills that are instilled, qualities that are taken away from a playing field or swimming pool, and you may not be able to appreciate that when you’re a 12-year-old youth soccer player. But later on in life, you start applying those things you learn to other things that aren’t necessarily sports related.
Gary Hall Jr. won 10 medals over three Olympics, 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Maya Moore is playing in her first Olympics as the youngest member of the U.S. women’s basketball team. But Moore, 23, is already a professional player, a forward for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA. If she’s nervous about being on the Olympic stage, Moore doesn’t show it, displaying the poise and confidence of a veteran who’s done her share of media appearances.
Moore spoke briefly today at a barbecue at the P&G Family Home, a space here in London for Olympic athletes and their families. The topic was American patriotism, and Moore had the day’s winning quote: “When I think about the heart of this country, I think of my mom.” Later, I sat down for a short interview with Moore, as her mom sat nearby.
How long have you been preparing to be in the Olympics?
My whole life. As a kid, you don’t necessarily know if you’re going to get the opportunity, but as I got a little bit older and I was able to see the Olympics as a potential opportunity, I just worked for it. I’ve been soaking up every moment and making sure that I’m doing whatever I need to be doing to help this team win.
At what point did you realize that basketball was more than a hobby, that it could be a career?
Right around middle school. You start thinking about what you want to be, what your skills are. At least I did. And I saw that going to college, playing basketball, that’s a possibility, so let’s go for it. Every level that I go up, I look up to the next level. After high school, I looked to college, and going to college, the pros was always something I wanted to do, knowing we had a professional league to go to.
In just a few days, Michelle Obama will be traveling to London with the Presidential Delegation to attend the Opening Ceremony of this year’s Olympics. As the leader of the delegation, which includes former Olympians (such as gymnast Dominque Dawes and soccer player Brandi Chastain), the First Lady will visit the U.S. Olympic Training Facility this Friday. In addition, SpongeBob and other celebrities will help host a Let’s Move! event for 1,000 children of U.S. ambassadors. Healthy foods such as nuts, granola bars, and water will be served.
Back in the U.S., the White House (with the help of MeetUp.com) will be hosting a Let’s Move! Olympics Fun Day on Saturday. The goal of Fun Day is to cheer on Team USA and also “turn the Olympic spirit into action” by having different events across the nation. As part of the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) initiative, the White House is committed to get 1.7 million kids moving and to ”inspire a new generation to strive for excellence,” said Michelle Obama. Growing up with fond memories of watching the Olympics, the First Lady believes that “winning isn’t the goal” of the games; instead, it’s being able to “push and believe in yourself” and to refuse to give up despite obstacles.