In 2014 Charlie White and figure skating partner Meryl Davis became the first American ice dancers to win Olympic gold. Davis and White also racked up two world titles, three Four Continents titles, five Grand Prix Final titles and six U.S. titles throughout their historic career together. One of White’s biggest moments off the ice came in 2017 when he and wife/fellow Olympic medalist Tanith White welcomed their first child, Charlie.
This year, for the first time in my life, I get to celebrate Father’s Day with my dad and as a father myself. My son is now 7 months old and I’m pretty sure he’s actually just the greatest thing ever. I look at him and see the world in a completely different way. I see a bundle of potential and can imagine so many of the wonderful things he will experience. Yet on the horizon there are new challenges and new opportunities, many of which will change the world my son will grow up in in ways I’ll never be able to understand.
This along with the many other challenges of being a new father can be existentially terrifying. But out of everything that I’ve been fortunate to take away from my Olympic career, I feel like the valuable life lessons and philosophies are helping me cope with the fear and pressure. So while I doubt simply telling my son that I’m an Olympic champion will help me much, there really are quite a few things that I’ve learned which have helped prepare me for the shiny new title of Dad.
[Before I go on about how I learned many important parenting lessons from being an Olympic athlete, I should first mention that one of the main reasons I was able to become a successful Olympic athlete, and many of the lessons I’ll focus on teaching my son, come directly from work my parents put into raising me. They have earned more praise than I can reasonably put in this space, but hey, thanks Mom and Dad, I love you guys (also Happy Father’s Day Dad, in case I lose all other means of communication).]
So, what are the top 3 things from my athletic career I’m focusing on now as a dad?
Effort is way more important than trying to be perfect. When you’re trying to win the Olympics, trying to be perfect is an easy trap to fall in for obvious reasons. However, you’ll usually undermine your own goals trying to find ways to be better when sometimes good has to be enough. I think the issue with perfection is that it’s such a distraction from joy. You will never be perfect, I certainly wasn’t as a figure skater, and if it’s what you’re focusing on, it’s really hard to appreciate the positives. Joy, on the other hand, is an important part of effort. If you approach something without a sense of joy, it’s going to be near impossible to consistently give everything you have.
From everything I’ve experienced and read it’s the same with being a dad. I’m not going to be perfect, but my son doesn’t need me to be. What he needs is for me to be present, caring and thoughtful as often as humanly possible. It’s also my experience that the more you work at something the better you get, and the better you get the more fun and confidence you’ll have in your approach. I look forward to years of max effort!
Hanging with baby Charlie at the pool
2. Patience and Perseverance
I can’t help but feel the idea of perseverance really needs a helping hand from patience. The only way my skating partner, Meryl Davis, and I could be ok with the idea that making mistakes from time to time was a necessary evil was by being patient with ourselves, each other and the process; and of course to feel like every time we got back on the horse, we did so equipped with the knowledge that we had taken something away from that “failure.” Learning from a mistake is often the best, if not the only, way to find real improvement in anything. I even think that when you look back at it honestly, calling it a mistake can feel like a misnomer. Kids make “mistakes.” My son will make “mistakes,” and probably all the time if he’s anything like me. That’s just how kids spend a lot of their time. But if I can’t have the patience to help contextualize those mistakes for my son and turn them into learning experiences, then I’ll have betrayed a huge part of the wisdom I gained while being an athlete.
I’m lucky to have had to persevere through incredible setbacks and devastating losses. But when I was young, my parents understood that they couldn’t protect me from those disappointments, and that the truly important aspect of the whole experience was learning that I had the ability to overcome and improve, and that success came not despite the failure, but with it as a guide. I know my son will have heartbreaking setbacks as well, but better than trying to prevent it from happening at all, I know that giving him the tools of patience and perseverance will allow him to grow. And one day he won’t have to rely on me and his mom to help him get up to brush off the tears and encourage him to keep trying, he’ll be able to do it himself.
Signing the marriage papers with my dad as a witness
3. Maintaining Physical and Mental Health
It should come as no surprise that a key to being a successful Olympic athlete is being healthy, but I think the mental health aspect is often overlooked. If you can’t handle the stress and pressure inherent to high-level athletics, it really doesn’t matter how physically fit or gifted you are. Maintaining focus and a healthy attitude in the face of non-stop training and competitions where you’re being judged on everything is a huge challenge. It’s certainly not one I would have been equipped to handle if my parents hadn’t been engaged and capable at thoughtfully helping me recognize the signs of being overworked, overtired and burnt-out.
When I’m thinking back on the challenges of the first seven months my son has been around, and imagining what lies ahead, I think it’s just as important for my ability to enjoy being a dad as it is for my ability to be a great dad that I maintain an awareness of how I’m coping with immense pressure of being a dad at all. Like I said earlier, “it’s existentially terrifying.” I know I’m not doing anyone any favors by ignoring physical or mental health issues, and I certainly wouldn’t be setting a good example for my son. At the same time, I know there’s a huge push for toughness and resiliency in children. But because of what I experienced, and in how my parents helped me, I’ll always have the awareness that conversation and empathy are the best outlets for the pressure that young people can face.
Of course there are so many more lessons, but I feel these are the most pertinent ones. What I really like about the subjects I chose to focus on, is that they are all two-way streets. Although I’m very fortunate to have had the experiences of Olympic figure skating to help teach me a lot about the world and myself, if I don’t focus on maintaining these qualities in myself at the same time I’m trying to pass the lessons on to my son, I’ll be doing both of us a huge disservice. To all the dads out there: Happy Father’s Day. And to every parent reading this: I hope you know we’re all in this together. Our children are the greatest part of our legacy and we owe it to them to help show the best way forward.