Olympians offer advice on overcoming obstacles, parenting young athletes
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sure, Steamboat Springs has produced more Olympians than any town in the U.S., but it’s not often that citizens can sit down and pick these elite athlete’s brains.
On Monday, March 2, about 50 people gathered at Olympian Hall at Howelsen Hill as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club hosted seven former Olympians for a discussion on overcoming injuries, self-doubt, staying focused and parenting.
On overcoming injury
Olympian and moguls athlete Ann Battelle had her fair share of injuries in her career. On Sept. 10, 2001, she tore both her hamstrings in Chile. Considering she was vying for the 2002 Winter Olympics, just months away, it was devastating. Through that injury and all the others, she learned she had to give her body time to heal.
“Be patient. There’s nothing you can do. It’s out of your control,” she said. “It’s so easy to get down, depressed and mad, but you have to focus on what you can control.”
Battelle said it might feel like your teammates are getting farther and farther ahead as you sit and wait. It might seem like it’s impossible to make up all that ground and catch up, but you will. You just have to be patient.
Battelle went on to compete in the 2002 Olympics, taking second in the qualifying round and seventh in the final in her final Olympic appearance.
Olympic Alpine skier Chris Puckett said it wasn’t the big injuries that bothered him as much as the little nagging ones that set him back a few weeks.
“I always believed I could get better,” he said.
On self doubt and failure
Todd Wilson, a Nordic combined Olympian and current director of the Nordic combined and ski jumping programs, reflected on some of the best advice he received as an athlete.
Erin Nemec: Snowboardcross, 2006 (Canada); nine-time X Games athlete (three-time silver medalist)
Todd Wilson: Nordic combined, 1988, 1992
Chad Fleischer: Super-G/downhill combined, 1994, 1998
Johnny Spillane: Nordic combined, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 (three silvers)
Ann Battelle: Freestyle skiing, 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002
Bobby Aldighieri: Moguls, 1992; Canadian Freestyle Ski Team head coach, 2006 to 2014
Chris Puckett: Giant slalom, 1992 (and four-time National Champion)
“One of the greatest things a coach ever taught me was how to get back up, how to face defeat, how to come back stronger … and to never take a failure too seriously,” Wilson said.
Chad Fleischer, who was an Alpine skier in the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, thanked moderator Luke Brosterhous, the mental strength coach at SSWSC. Fleischer said the panel allowed former athletes to discuss things they don’t typically talk about. He also added that it was nice to hear other people admit to feeling the same way he did, and that it’s “OK to have self doubt.”
That part of the conversation really resonated with 13-year-old Alpine skier Lachlan Brady.
“I think one of the most important things is always to get back up,” Lachlan said. “You have to accept the mistakes that you make. The other thing is to count on your team, and it’s OK to have self doubt. It’s how you rise from that.”
Lachlan came with his father Adam, who suggested they attend the event.
“I think it’s the overcoming self-doubt,” said Adam of his biggest takeaway. “That all the athletes have had to go through trying times and figure out how to pick themselves up by their boot straps. It was really helpful.”
On what it takes to be elite
Through their own experiences and competing against the best athletes in the world, the panel of Olympians agreed on a few traits that make elite athletes stand out.
Johnny Spillane, a Nordic combined athlete with multiple Olympic silver medals, said it all comes down to work ethic, while Fleischer said the best athletes all have a deep-rooted passion for their respective sports.
“I think they were a little bit more ahead of their time, maturity-wise,” said moguls skier Bobby Aldighieri.
Erin Nemec, Olympic snowboarder and X-Games medalist, wanted to make sure people aren’t under the illusion they have to start young. She didn’t start snowboarding until 12, and she didn’t start competing in snowboardcross, a sport that brought her to the 2006 Olympics, until years later.
“In Steamboat Springs, we’re so competitive. We think if we didn’t start at 3 or 4, we’re not going to make it to the Olympics,” she said. “You can catch up. You can do it.”
Having a routine came up often as well. Nemec said her routine was crying at the top of the run to release her anxiety before competing.
Wilson said scrutiny and publicity make a simple task you’ve done a thousand times seem more difficult, but if you have a routine to fall back on, you can just find your happy place and pretend you’re back on your home course. Wilson said he always told himself he was back at Howelsen Hill in Colorado.
Battelle said she took routine a little too far, always wearing the same ski socks, tights and athletic bra.
“I wore them for eight years straight,” she said. “That’s disgusting.”
On coaching and parenting
Every single one of the people on the panel have experience coaching, parenting or both. They offered advice on where to draw the line between the two.
Spillane said parents should leave the pushing and training to the coaches, since that’s what parents are paying them to do. Instead, parents should just encourage and be supportive. If a young athlete is pushed too hard, they’ll lose whatever passion they had for their sport.
Spillane said his dad was an excellent coach, but not in a technical way, rather, due to the advice he gave a young Johnny, like, “If you’re not having fun, what is the point?”
Everyone echoed that fun was an important aspect of any sport, and that it’s up to the coach to create a challenging but enjoyable process and atmosphere for young athletes.
“Do a gut check and make sure you don’t want something more than they do,” Wilson said. “Teach them the achievement process, and let them decided where they’ll apply it.”
Nemec said she tries to mimic her parents, who supported her endlessly. Through her long and ever-changing winter sports career, Nemec said she never felt pressured by her parents in any way.
“I knew I would never let them down,” she said.
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