When Mikaela Shiffrin was young, she followed her older brother, Taylor, everywhere. To the Back Bowls of Vail. Into the woods. Down the backyard on a snowboard. Everywhere.
“There was a period of time where I did everything that my brother did, literally everything,” said Mikaela recently. “Like I broke my left arm at the distal radius two years after he did. I was like, if you’re doing it, I’m doing it.’”
On the surface, it sounds like a classic case of sibling rivalry. But it was not. The two have mutual admiration for each other. Like many younger siblings, Mikaela idolized Taylor, said their mom Eileen, who also skied and hung out with her older brother when she was young. But rather than be annoyed by his younger sister tagging along, Taylor accepted her, even invited her along, said Eileen (in an interview last year).
Taylor is perhaps an unsung hero in Mikaela Shiffrin’s phenomenal ski racing career, where to date she has won three Olympic medals (two gold), five world championship titles, and 67 World Cup races. But Taylor is not alone. Looking at multiple Olympic medalists across the board—GOATs (greatest of all time) if you will—most have at least one older sibling, including Michael Phelps, Shaun White, Katie Ledecky, Jamie Anderson, to name a few. And outside the scope of U.S. Olympians, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, and Tom Brady also have older siblings.
By comparison, less than two thirds of U.S. Olympic medalists from the past two Games have older siblings.
So is having an older sibling key to athletic greatness?
Not so fast, say sports scientists. Countless variables go into the development of elite athletes—from supportive family structures to the right coaches to, of course, genetics (to name just a few). Family dynamics are complex, with parents, siblings, availability of good coaching, socioeconomic status—the list goes on—all factoring into the final equation.
“We can’t just say your older sibling was a role model for you, therefore, you’re more likely to be successful,” said Dr. Joe Baker, a sports scientist in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University in Toronto, who co-authored a paper titled Sibling dynamics and sport expertise. The study found that elite athletes were more likely to be later-born children.
“It could be that you have a genetic profile that predisposes you to success,” Baker continued. “It could be having multiple kids in the family, and they’re all doing sports, which suggests that maybe you’re coming from a higher level of socioeconomic status. And that might be why you’re successful. There are all kinds of explanations for this.”
But if the right variables are there—if, for starters, a budding athlete has the genetics and an opportunity to become involved in sport and parental support—then an older sibling could play a role, especially if they are involved the same sport. Or several roles.
I talked with three U.S. Olympic GOATs—Mikaela Shiffrin, Katie Ledecky, and Jamie Anderson—about how their older siblings impacted their developing athletic careers. Notably, sibling rivalry did not play a role. For these athletes, cooperation with their older siblings and mutual respect was crucial.
“It’s because of the dynamic within the family,” said Dr. Jean Côté, director of the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “There’s something that happened that creates a specific type of dynamic that helps the younger sibling.”
What follows are a few key ways that older siblings helped Mikaela, Katie, and Jamie grow to become the athletes that they are—ways that all older siblings could be role models and inspirations for their younger brothers and sisters.
Before any Olympic athlete achieves greatness, they must first be introduced to sport. And younger siblings often follow their older sibs into sports, then are encouraged by their presence.
If it weren’t for her older brother Michael, Katie Ledecky—who has won five Olympic golds and broken 14 world records—might never have joined a swim team.
While both kids already knew how to swim, it was Michael’s idea to join the Palisades Porpoises when he was 9 and Katie was 6. He wanted to make friends at the new swim club that the Ledeckys had joined near their home in Maryland. That summer, they played games in the pool, improved their strokes, and swam laps. It took Katie the whole summer to learn to swim a lap without resting on the lane rope, but she swam in the “B” exhibition meets on Wednesday evenings while Michael moved up to swim more competitive events, like the Saturday morning “A” meets. In one meet, he competed in an All-Star relay when one of the usual relay members was unavailable.
“We loved that first summer and had a lot of fun together,” said Katie by phone. “That fall, we started swimming year round.”
Jamie Anderson—who has won every Olympic slopestyle ever contested, plus seven X Games titles (she is also the youngest ever Winter X Games medalist)—was similarly introduced to snowboarding by her two older sisters, Stacie and Joanie (two and four years older than Jamie, respectively). At first, they just took her snowboarding in their backyard near South Lake Tahoe, California. When Jamie was 9, she joined them at nearby Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort.
Four years later, Jamie, then 13, joined 17-year-old Joanie competing at the Winter X Games.
“She was one of my biggest mentors of just getting into the sport,” said Jamie by phone from an unnamed filming location.
Watching And Learning
While Mikaela Shiffrin was introduced to alpine skiing by her parents, Eileen and her late father Jeff, she learned much from watching Taylor, who’s two-and-a-half years older.
“When Jeff and I started teaching Taylor and Mikaela how to ski, oftentimes Mikaela would just stand by and listen to what we would tell Taylor to do,” said Eileen. “I think she was filing it and processing it, and then she would try to do it herself.”
Then they started to train gates; Taylor continued to be a visual model for his younger sister. For instance, he showed Mikaela and her friends how to clear slalom gates (an advanced move in skiing slalom) while they were still very young. Taylor became an exceptional slalom skier and raced NCAA Division I for the University of Denver.
“He has super quick feet,” said Eileen. “Mikaela’s slalom skiing is largely due to following Taylor down the course when we lived in New Hampshire and Vail.”
Jamie Anderson also began to learn snowboarding tricks in the park by watching older sis Stacie, who was a slopestyle rider (Joanie’s expertise was boardercross). Only 12 at the time, Jamie remembered watching Stacie “doing huge backflips, winning nationals, this and that.”
“I really admired that in her and her quietness, but she was fierce too,” Jamie added.
By learning the motor skills that their older siblings modeled, these athletes had more years to hone key skills that their sports demand and then had more time to build upon them—during the key pre-pubescent years when children best absorb this kind of information.
“From a skill development standpoint, that makes sense,” said Dr. Baker. “The more that you can play with peers who challenge you, the better your skill is going to be. We don’t want people in an environment where they don’t have to strive, and they’re never challenged. The road to success is paved with challenge, it’s not paved with success.”
Stories of younger siblings trying to keep up with their older brothers and sisters are usually rife with tales of the youngers outperforming the olders—a Darwinian look at the sibling dynamic. But from the younger sibling’s perspective, this is not always the case. Some younger siblings want to keep up with their olders not to prove who’s best, but rather to be accepted by them as worthy peers.
Eileen Shiffrin never noticed “a rivalry component” between Taylor and Mikaela. Instead, Mikaela just wanted to hang out with Taylor and his friends, and that meant keeping up.
“I felt like I wanted his friends to be my friends,” Mikaela said. “I really just looked up to Taylor.”
For this to work, Taylor had to accept his younger sister, not slam the door on her.
Eileen remembers the day that Taylor, then 9, tried snowboarding. In their steep backyard in Vail, he strapped on a plastic snowboard, then made his way down the hill. Mikaela watched and cheered for him.
Then, of course, she wanted to try it, too. He made sure she strapped on the board correctly, then guided her down the hill, remembered Eileen.
Even when Taylor wanted to hang out with his friends, he invited Mikaela along.
“He was very accepting,” said Eileen. “She just wanted to keep up because she wanted him to be proud of her. She was so proud of Taylor.”
For Katie Ledecky, Michael was always one level ahead of her (given their three-year age difference), and she was inspired by their parallel progression. Michael reached certain age-group milestones, then Katie achieved the same milestone right behind him—such as qualifying for the eastern zone championship. One year in grade school, Michael left school early to swim prelims at a meet. He returned during their school’s choir practice.
“I remember looking up at him and asking him how he did,” Katie said.
“I made zones,” he whispered.
“I remember being so excited,” said Katie, “He made zones!”
Katie qualified for the zone championships in the next swim meet.
While jealousy is a common emotion that siblings feel—as they compete for the same resources in a family—it was not a word that Jamie Anderson felt toward her older sisters.
Riding deep powder at Sierra-at-Tahoe when she was 9, Jamie remembers her older sisters encouraging her.
“They were a lot more comfortable and could go through the steep mountains and powder, but I was really scared,” remembered Jamie. “They were always so supportive, making me believe in myself and saying sweet things that little 12 or 13 year olds would say, like, ‘You can do it, it’s only going to be scary for so long. You’re going to get better every day you do it.’ We had each other’s backs.”
Then when Jamie qualified for Winter X Games at age 13—the same year that Joanie qualified—she doesn’t remember Joanie being jealous. Or if she was, “she held it down.” Jamie was inspired by Joanie and wanted to qualify not to be better than her older sister but because the X Games are “like the Mecca of action sports.”
“She’s a frickin’ queen!” said Jamie.
It also helped that Joanie’s focus was boardercross and Jamie’s slopestyle, giving the two separate niches within the sport.
Jamie admitted that there were “catty times”—“we had four teenage girls at one point in the house.” But a strong sense of family always trumped any festering sibling rivalries.
“It really was our tribe, our crew,” she said. “We had such a strong family.”
In the Ledecky household, Michael never viewed his younger sister as a threat. In fact, he even wanted a baby sister.
From early on, the two were best friends, Katie an endearing little sister. Even when Katie began qualifying for All Star teams as a 7-year-old, Michael does not recall feeling jealous. The two had innate mutual respect. Or maybe it was that Michael, who’s currently getting his MBA at Harvard, was attuned to reality from a young age.
“There wasn’t too much for Katie to be jealous about,” he said matter-of-factly, with no hint of jealousy. “The only year in which I was swimming at a higher level than she was our first year when I was nine and she was six.”
“I had seen the times she was swimming, so I knew she was better than I was,” he added.
Nor was Katie jealous of Michael.
“If anything, I was inspired by him, even though he never got to the level that I got to in the sport,” she said.
Michael only remembered becoming upset once when Katie beat him—in a head-to-head race during practice (he threw his goggles in frustration) when he was 16.
For her part, Katie knew to tread lightly when it came to sibling competition. It helped that Michael migrated toward freestyle sprints while Katie focused on distance events.
In high school, when Katie was a freshman and Michael a senior (they attended separate single-gender schools that came together for co-ed swim meets with other schools), they joked that, “Michael doesn't care that I'm faster than he is because I was faster than all his high school friends too—the boys on his high school team,” said Katie. “So it wasn't like it was just him that I was beating in some of the events. It was his friends too.”
A year later, Katie competed in her first Olympic Games—the 2012 London Games, where at age 15 she won her first Olympic gold medal in the 800-meter freestyle.
“I was always very excited to see Katie succeed and do bigger and better things in the sport,” said Michael, who in London cheered Katie in the 800 from the nosebleed seats with Missy Franklin’s uncle and Anthony Ervin’s biographer. Four years later, Michael was in Rio too, where he proudly watched Katie win five more Olympic medals, including four gold.
“Nothing will equal the shock and surprise of that first gold medal,” he said. “But it was so special and inspiring in terms of the way she managed herself each day and executed on goals that she had set three years earlier. To see her set long-term, really challenging goals and then to achieve them was something pretty special.”
On The Journey Together
From these anecdotes, we cannot scientifically conclude that older siblings are must-haves for those striving for Olympic greatness. Families are complex, and as Dr. Baker said, “We’re never going to find that single variable that’s going to allow you to make a prediction [of the likeliness of success].”
But if you get enough of the other variables in the mix—supportive parents, the right genes, good coaching, the funds to support you—then perhaps older siblings can play a role.
Or maybe it’s just having a sibling, period, that helps athletes develop. Over 97 percent of U.S. Olympic medalists in the past two Games have at least one sibling—older or younger—compared to the rest of the U.S. population, where about 80 percent of us have a brother and/or sister.
But it makes sense that an older sibling, modeling good technique and positive behavior would have an impact, as would an older sibling who includes their younger brothers and sisters in the fun.
Then with siblings sharing a life together that involves sports, in many ways feeling like a team with the same last name, the youngers can ride the wave set by the olders, learning to stay on their feet just to keep up.
Katie Ledecky perhaps speaks for everyone who’s had a kind, supportive older sibling who’s showed the way: “I think Michael always took a lot of pride, and I think still does. I'm his little sister, and he's always been really supportive. We've been on the swimming journey together.
“I wouldn't be the swimmer I am without him and without him getting us into the sport, and then without his support over the years.”