Simone Biles poses for a photo with her mother Nellie Biles.
Having been one of the favorites going into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships – the final U.S. Olympic qualifying event – in 2014, Adam Rippon, then 24, left TD Garden in Boston by foot the night of the men’s free skate, walking alongside his mom, Kelly.
He had finished eighth, his worst-ever nationals performance. “Mom,” he said, turning to Kelly. “I’m not going to the Olympics.”
“I said to him, ‘I don’t want to believe it,’” Kelly recalled. “’This has happened for a reason. There is something bigger and more meaningful waiting for you in this life. You have to find purpose in this loss and transform it for yourself.’”
She then told Adam: “The Olympics are your dream, not mine. It’s up to you.”
Fast-forward four years later and we all know what happened next, Rippon rededicated himself to the sport, winning a national title in 2016 and then qualifying for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team, earning a bronze medal in the figure skating team event in PyeongChang and becoming a household name along the way.
Kelly, a mother of six, was by Adam’s side through his decade-long career in elite figure skating, just like any dedicated, passionate parent. She, along with Nellie Biles, mother of gymnastics superstar Simone Biles, and Teresa Coan, mom to Paralympic gold medal swimmer McKenzie Coan, offered their insights, advice, anecdotes and pitfalls for how to raise a champion child inside or out of the sporting realm.
Or – in their case – an Olympian or Paralympian.
‘No Secret:’ Hard Work And Morals
Adam Rippon poses for a photo with his mother Kelly Rippon in Los Angeles, Calif.
“I don’t even know what the secret is!” laughed Nellie Biles in a phone interview with TeamUSA.org. “It’s just honesty; we need to to be honest with each other. You need to have standards and morals to uphold. I think all of that collectively makes up the expectations… not just for Simone, but for every member of our family.”
It’s hard to think there is no secret to being Simone Biles, but Nellie’s perspective is similar to that of moms Rippon and Coan, who said there is no substitute for hard work and dedication, as well as not being afraid to forge a path that is unknown – and facing the challenges that come along with it.
“McKenzie is kind of a perfectionist,” said Teresa Coan, at home in Georgia. “She wants to do everything to the best of her ability. She’s hard on herself. [In London in 2012], she finished sixth. She told me, ‘I will be on that podium in four years.’ So, we sat down and got a new game plan.”
Goals, the moms say, have to be set by the athletes themselves, hence Kelly telling Adam that the Olympic Games were his dream and Teresa sitting down with McKenzie to let her make plans post-London.
For the Biles family, with Simone’s outsized success leading into the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Nellie led with a be-your-best-self attitude, while staying honest, up-front and encouraging of her daughter, who had won three world titles before ever stepping into Olympic competition.
“I’ve always told her to be ‘the best Simone,’” said Nellie. “That means that whatever she does, she needs to put forth her best effort. When you do that, you are satisfied… whatever the outcome may be.”
It was the key, Kelly details, of Adam post-2014: He rediscovered his love for the sport, started choreographing, getting in the best shape of his life and – after a broken foot in January of 2017 – called his mom on the way to the hospital and said, “’Mom, relax. I’m not going to nationals this year, but I’m going to the Olympics. This whole thing is going to be my comeback story.’”
Kelly said Adam then recalled their 2014 Boston convo, reiterating the points mom had made to son, only this time it was the other way around. “As a parent, I felt like he had just won the Olympics. I saw him acting like a champion. I stopped worrying.”
Be Parent, Not Coach
McKenzie Coan poses for a photo with her mother Teresa Coan after a competition.
While the “be-your-best-self” conversation can apply to any athlete or young person, so too can the “stay in your lane” approach, which Kelly Rippon said was paramount in letting Adam’s coaches coach him, while she kept her role as parent – which included stepping aside when necessary.
“It’s easier for coaches and kids when we (parents) stay in our lane,” Kelly said. “Stay in your lane! I can’t teach him to do a triple Axel, but I can get into his head if I say, ‘I heard coach say to do it this way.’ That is poison.”
The Biles family trusted Simone’s childhood coach, Aimee Boorman, to help guide their teenager into the Rio Games, even though Boorman had not coached at that high of a level prior. But Nellie said it was because of the athlete-coach relationship that Simone and Boorman had forged, as well as Boorman’s promise that she would tap into other resources to help Simone excel.
“We went shopping for a coach, but Simone had been with Aimee all these years and trusted Aimee,” Nellie said. “Aimee knew everything that was going on with Simone. Simone had struggled with her self-confidence. We knew the little things that we’re getting in her way. I thought that if Simone had that trust… to move her somewhere outside of Texas, that would not have been fair to (Simone).”
She continued: “Talking to Aimee, I said, ‘Can you take Simone to the next level?’ She was a rookie just like Simone. She told me, ‘I don’t know all of these things, but if I don’t know something, I will seek advice. I will get the help.’ That’s all I needed to know.”
For McKenzie Coan, who has the connective tissue disorder Osteogenesis imperfecta, making her bones brittle and easy to break, swimming was first introduced as a therapy to get her exercise away from land where she had a higher risk of injury. Teresa, a swim coach herself, said McKenzie started swimming at age 5 or 6, but it was two years later – at age 8 – that renowned coach Fred Lamback, who has worked with swimmers with disabilities for over 30 years, pointed out McKenzie’s potential.
“The first day he saw her swim he said, ‘She’s going to be phenomenal,’” Coan remembered. “’She’s going to go to the Paralympics.’”
At age 10, McKenzie swam at Georgia Tech in one of her first Paralympic meets. It’s there that the family met Curtis Lovejoy, now a five-time Paralympian and multi-medalist.
“That was the driving force,” Coan said. “She was awestruck. He talked about what he did and how he got there. … She turned to me and said, ‘I’m doing to do that. I’m going to be a Paralympian.’ From that point on, it was like, ‘OK, how do we get there?’”
McKenzie Coan poses for a photo with her mother Teresa Coan.
Listen, Love, Learn
(Left) Adam Rippon poses for a photo with his mother Kelly Rippon and his medal at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018; (Right) Adam Rippon poses for a photo with his mother Kelly Rippon after winning Dancing With Stars.
Perhaps most striking about the Coan family is how they chose not to treat McKenzie any differently from her two brothers, Grant and Eli, both of whom are swimmers as well. Eli, now at UNC Chapel Hill, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, as well.
“When McKenzie asked to do something new, there was never, ‘No, you can’t do this,’” said Teresa. “But, if you wanted something, you had to earn it. And … if you start something, you finish it. If you didn’t like it, don’t do it again. That was the rule for the house, physical disability or not. You’re a member of this family.”
For the Rippons, Adam is the oldest of six, yet didn’t get much time – or space – to be a kid. By age 18 he was world junior champion, a feat he would complete the following season, as well. In 2010, still just 20, he was factored into the Olympic conversation with Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir, though he’d miss out on the team, finishing fifth at nationals.
“Elite athletes don’t get a lot of chances to practice being adults,” said Kelly. “People think they sacrifice prom or going on spring break, but the sacrifice is in their trajectory, the narrowness of success. They move so far forward (as an athlete) that they aren’t allowed to make kid mistakes.”
Learning on the job can be twice as hard for a teenager, but what Kelly said she’s most proud of her son for is his learning – from the start of competitive skating all the way to that foot break in 2017 – to be and no to do.
“Raising your kids to be and not do,” she explained. “Being a champion is about qualities, someone who has internal grit, resiliency and perseveres. Be that. Doing is collecting trophies. Being is showing up like a winner, every day.”
Kelly said she feels she’s learned so much that she’s put it all in a book, “Parent Up: Inspire Your Child to Be Their Best Self,” which comes out in December.
The moms all agreed on empathy, respect for competitors and calling out their own child as special – with a reminder that their fellow athletes are just as special, too.
Nellie Biles said as she watched Simone transform from a girl into a woman after the Rio Games, suddenly a household name and global megastar, she stepped to the side for Simone, knowing that her role had shifted.
Seeing your own role and how to best execute it is what the moms all agreed on, as well. Another key: Listening. To the frustrations, fear, excitement, joy or disappointment. For the parents are not the ones out there, on the beam, in the pool, or taking to center ice.
“Simone then and Simone now are two different people,” Nellie said, comparing 2016 to today. “With young adults, you have to allow them to make their own decisions. You want them to come ask you for advice, but I still have to allow her to make mistakes. I think the protection that I had prior to Rio is different now. She’s more independent, mature. She’s taking her life in her hands.”
It’s a Mother’s Day gift like no other, letting a child – an athlete, a Paralympian, an Olympian, a person – find their own way. And knowing just when to check in and help steer them in the right direction.
Thank you, moms. And: Happy Mother’s Day.
Nick McCarvel is a sports reporter and commentator. He has written for Team USA.org since 2014.