As many athletes will tell you, balancing everyday life with a full-time career in sport is not easy. And when you add kids into the mix, there is more juggling involved than most circus acts. But these parents wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, they even learned a thing or two along the way thanks to their little ones.
We asked Team USA Olympians and Paralympians who all share one thing in common — kids — how they balance sport and family, and what having kids has taught them over the years.
1. Having A Support System Is Key
When it comes to balancing family with sport, the athletes all agreed on one thing: it’s an impossible task without a support system.
Three-time Olympic curler John Shuster — who has two boys — wasn’t afraid to admit, “Honestly, I could never do this without the support of our family,” he said. His mom — whom he calls “super Nanna” — “literally comes to our house and replaces me in our household when I leave for an event.”
In addition to grandmothers, moms seem to be the biggest balancer in the home. Speedskater KC Boutiette — who has a son and a daughter — gave all the credit to his spouse, Kristi.
“She does everything,” the four-time Olympian aiming for a fifth team at age 47 said, despite Kristi having a full-time job in advertising, which sometimes requires her to travel for work as well. “Without the wife, that’s the main piece of the puzzle that we need to have around,” he said. “So when she’s not, the bottom is falling out quick.”
Wheelchair curler Kirk Black credits his wife and 15-year-old daughter who “every six months pack up everything and move with me to Madison, Wisconsin, so that I can be on dedicated ice.”
As a result of the two zip codes (the other being in Texas), it was making it hard for his youngest daughter to stay in a regular school. “When I did archery for three years,” he said, “you can do it anywhere. So my daughter was in regular public school. But once I got into this sport, we asked her if she would be willing to be homeschooled and she was very gracious to say yes.”
For Paralympic alpine skier Danelle Umstead and her husband and skiing guide Rob, they are able to travel thanks to another couple that have become like family. While they like to take their 10-year-old son Brocton with them as much as possible, when they can’t, “we have two close friends who come into our home and stay with Brocton so he can stay on his routine,” said Rob.
Danelle explained, “They have been a part of Brocton’s life since he was a baby. They are actually such close friends that when he has a play or a baseball game, they’re there. So it’s not just when we’re gone that they are a part of his life.”
2. Technology Also Helps Tremendously
While having a support system was the number one thing that helped every athlete the most, they all agreed that technology makes being away a little easier.
“FaceTime is a beautiful thing for me,” said Shuster, who admitted that this past month he was home for less than a week total. So he said when that happens, “One of my goals every day is to make sure I get 5-10 minutes of seeing my children online and them seeing me, and having that daily conversation.”
Now that Para snowboarder Brenna Huckaby’s daughter is about to turn 2, she said technology has become more fun. When they do video calls she can interact more. As a result, Huckaby feels more of a connection with Lilah.
“So when I leave it feels OK,” she said.
3. Having Kids Puts Things Into Perspective
While Olympic and Paralympic medals are great and the dream of every athlete, these parents admitted that they’re not everything in life.
Halfpipe skiing gold medalist David Wise was OK with the fact that his two young kids “don’t care about Olympic medals” In fact, he’s really excited about that.
“The last thing I want my kids to do is to go to school and brag about how cool their dad is,” Wise said. “I think in society we exemplify people for what they do, instead of who they are. I think who you are is way more important than what you do.”
When you’ve been doing a sport as long as most of these athletes have, you can understand why cross-country skier and first time mom Kikkan Randall admitted that, “as an athlete you’re totally focused on yourself.”
But now that she has a 2-year-old son, she said, “you realize the focus is on them and their schedule.” Now, she said, “things have become just a little bit more clear to me on what I need to focus on. Any time I’m not out training, I’m spending it with my family. It’s great to have life become so simple.”
Life might have been simpler before having a daughter for alpine ski racer Steve Nyman — who admitted when it comes to this new journey called parenthood that he’s still “trying to figure it out.” But he noted that since “boredom that can occur with skiing [due to the] super highs and super lows” of his sport, it’s because of his 6-month-old daughter that he can now manage that easier.
“My daughter keeps life a little bit more even-keeled, or rather a more constant high,” he said of Nell.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety is another ski racer trying to get used to his new role as dad. Thanks to his 5-month-old son Jax he’s found he’s become more focused.
“My whole life since I was a little kid has always been about ski racing and going faster,” Ligety said. “And it’s not that I don’t think about ski racing and training and going faster, but I have something else that’s more important in the broad scheme of things.”
Huckaby confessed that when it comes to her job she only has her daughter in mind.
“I get to do this for her. I get to show her what’s possible,” she said. “Yes, I’m leaving, but this is why I’m leaving. As hard as it is, it’s also exciting and motivating.”
4. Your Kid’s Perspective Will Change, Too
While most people think it’s exciting to see all the places professional athletes get to travel to, Wise said that isn’t exactly the case with his two kids.
“They don’t really understand how big it is to the rest of the world what I do,” Wise explained. “To them it’s just what daddy does. They almost get bummed out when I do things like press or things that spectators of the sport would be like, ‘Wow, you get to go to Switzerland to compete?’ My kids are like, ‘Aww, you have to go to Switzerland?’”
He realizes that won’t always be the case. “Later on I think they’ll look back and think it was super unique, and be like, whoa, there was a time when Daddy was on TV all the time.”
Shuster has heard firsthand from teammates how kids’ perspective of their parents’ jobs can change.
“There are guys on tour who retired because they were spending time away from their family, and after being retired for a year they come back,” he said. “When we ask them what happened they say, I didn’t realize it but my kids just really like being, for example, John Shuster’s kid.”
For that reason he said, “we’ll just take it year by year after this Olympic year is over, for sure.”
5. Life Is Easier When Kids Are Younger
If you thought life was hard with a baby, Randall said think again.
“The first year of his life my son was so portable,” she said. “I could go out training and after we’d take nice naps on the couch together. But now he’s almost 2 and running everywhere. Chasing after him is a good workout, though.”
The other reason it gets more difficult to travel with the kids the older they get is because school enters the picture. Umstead remembered that “in the beginning our son would go with us, or go with family, when we had to go to Europe. But now that he has school — and he’s in a French program that he’s really excelling in — taking him out is hard.”
6. At Some Point Your Priorities Shift
Shuster — who has already qualified for PyeongChang, becoming the fourth U.S. men’s curler to make a fourth Olympics — said people are constantly asking him how many Games are in his future.
“I could probably keep trying to go for the Olympics until I’m 50,” said the 35-year-old. “But, I’m so much a parent. And just like how my mom was when your kids’ dreams become your dreams, whenever we get to a point where I think curling is maybe not helping them, or hampering them go after their dreams, that is when it will be time to retire.”
Three-time Olympic snowboarder Nate Holland knows that kids will eventually cause him to grow up but for now he said, “snowboarding is a pretty youthful sport, so I can relate to my 2-year-old pretty well. We both like to have a lot of fun. We just bought a trampoline for my training — and for her. It’s great, it’s a gift for my daughter but I get to write it off and use it as a tax write-off.”
Even though he may joke about it, he admitted that being a parent “has definitely matured me a bit. And given me responsibility. Now I’d rather FaceTime than go out with the boys. I was on tour all through my 20s and my early 30s, and I’ve done that. But now it’s just a little bit different, it’s a lot more calculated.”
When asked if being a parent has made him a better athlete, he replied, “I’d like to think so. I’m just going to roll with that, because that’s my only option.”