Introduction: Champions Are Raised, Not Born
What's the measure of your success as a parent? A kid who beats all the pros before he's a teenager? Who grows up to command an audience of millions? Who's worth a billion dollars before he's thirty?
I'm writing this book to suggest a different standard, a better measure of successful parenting: a child who consistently gives all she's got with what she's been given. A child who feels capable and enthusiastic, no matter what the challenge. A child who arrives at adulthood with a skill or sport or talent that will give her satisfaction the rest of her life. A child who does what she sets out to do, but doesn't quit there. A child for whom satisfaction is in the doing, not the getting.
The Olympics, thanks to my parents, never were my destination. They never were the end that would justify any means or any sacrifice. They were almost an accident, a by-product, a career perk. I'd started swimming because my family had a pool; I'd started competing because I wanted to be with my brother, Trevor, and his friends; I'd kept going to practice because my friends were there, and because we went on fun trips; and suddenly, when I was fifteen, I stumbled on the proof that I was really good at this--good enough to make an Olympic team, good enough to be someday the very best, if only for a brief period.
My parents never saw my talent or my competitive drive as an invitation to impose any ambitions on me. They were never in it for the medals on the wall. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy--secure, well-liked, well-rounded. They did not put a pool in our backyard to make me into a champion; whatever I wanted to do, they were behind me, matching their level of commitment to mine. They did not handpick the activities of my childhood and adolescence with an eye to grooming me for greatness; a sense of security and strong family ties were what they aimed to give me. They did not ship me off to swimming camp, or to another family, or to a celebrity coach so that I might have a better shot at world records; they didn't take me out of school or any of the social activities that revolved around school.
Just the opposite, in fact. My dad was on a constant campaign to keep my sport in the background. He loved to quote Mae West, whose motto was "Life's a party, only most damn fools don't know they're invited." He made sure I had fun--with him and my brother, with my friends, with school, with vacations, with prom dates and part-time jobs, with movies and pizza parties. My mom, too, recognized that there was more to life than a fifty-meter pool lane: her job, as she saw it, was to give me the grounding to weather any ups and downs, in any arena, mostly by ensuring I had a consistent home life. My parents never lost sight of their job as parents, which was to make sure I grew up carefree but responsible, educated and athletic, confident and capable of going after whatever it was that I dreamed about. Swimming was a means to all those things, not an end in itself.
And they did their job really, really well, because I love what I am doing today, getting better at it all the time--and because from the age of four, I did something I loved until I did it better than anybody else.
What might make their accomplishment even more amazing to some is the fact that my parents were divorced for most of my childhood. In fact, I can't remember them ever being married: they split for good when I was seven and my brother, Trevor, was nine. For the next ten years, Trevor and I split the year between them. Every October, we'd move into Mom's house and every April, we'd go back to the house and swimming pool and sport court that my parents had built together and where my dad continued to live. It helped that both my parents chose to stay in the same school district, so that we didn't have to switch schools and friends, and so that we could celebrate birthdays together. But my parents were never my parents at the same time, not as a unit.
People who don't know me are often shocked at this piece of news. Divorce and dysfunction, they go together. But divorce and achievement? Divorce and self-esteem? Success out of failure? There's something so all-American, so wholesome, about the Olympics that to some it doesn't seem possible anyone who participates in them, let alone wins a couple of gold medals, could come from a broken home. A lot of people expect kids whose parents split up to have had a crummy childhood. Too many people assume that parents who fail at marriage must also fail at parenting.
I can understand that. I'd never want to gloss over the horrors of divorce, I'd never want to imply that it was the right thing to do, or the best thing for us, because it wasn't: it was the worst thing, it totally sucked. Those two days of every year that we made the switch, from one parent's house to the other, were the most painful of my existence--like having my heart torn out and put in a blender. But by and large, Trevor and I had a happy childhood, one we wouldn't go back and change even if we could. Many positive things grew out of my parents' divorce. I think my mom and dad, because they failed each other, were all the more committed to not failing us. Despite or because of their single-parent situation, they gave my brother and me the kind of grounding, the kind of support, the kind of unconditional love many other parents, even those married, somehow fail to provide.
Of course, neither my mom nor my dad would presume to tell anybody how to parent. They wouldn't dare write this book. (Who would ever want to hear child-rearing advice from a divorced parent?) I think they're not entirely sure what affected us so profoundly, other than the divorce. I think they look at Trevor and me and say, "We're so blessed to have such terrific kids"--as though it were a surprise.
But I see their role very clearly now, and it was anything but passive. And because they can't or won't or shouldn't be the ones to describe it, I must. That's why this is not just another Olympic athlete memoir. It's intended to be an account of successful parenting from the product's viewpoint, which parents almost never get to read these days, since it's the fashion to blame parents for every disappointment and failure experienced so far. My mom and dad deserve to be recognized for the job they did, not because I won gold medals and set records, but because the person I aspired to become, growing up, is the person I've grown up to be. They gave me what so many men and women miss out on: the infinite satisfaction and self-confidence that comes from getting to do what you do best and knowing you're tapping your potential to the fullest.
I want to share just how they did it, because ever since I've gone on the road, speaking to kids and their parents about the importance of sports, that's what people want to know. Over and over, I get the same questions: When did they recognize your talent? What did they do then? How did they motivate you? How did they get you to stick with it?
So many of these parents have the wrong idea. So many of them are caught up in this obsession with Singular Talent. They've read Earl Woods's account of taming the Tiger with a golf club from the age of two. They've heard how Andre Agassi's father put a racket in his son's hand when he was barely three years old. They've seen all those NBC segments on gymnasts who grow up in another state with coaches for parents. They've got this idea that child rearing is a science, not an art, a serious mission with nothing left to chance or a child's inclination.
They're missing the whole point of parenthood.
I'm not trying to discredit what the parents of prodigies have accomplished--not at all. But when a mother comes up to me at a mall and says, pointing to her kid, "She's
going to the 2004 Olympics," I want to sit that mother down and set her straight.
I want her to understand that the only thing that'll take her daughter to the furthest edge of her potential is the sheer pleasure she takes in exercising her God-given ability. I want to talk to her about the true nature of motivation--how it's sparked by doing something fun, how it builds from doing something well, but how it can be snuffed out by parents who are too pushy, who are focused on the product rather than the process. I want to show her how to be there for her child, not just by driving her to practice, but by understanding her sport and her goals and what makes her try harder. I want this mom to understand what makes a coach great--and how his job differs from hers. I want her to understand self-esteem: how confidence and mental toughness come not from being handed rewards and compliments, but from being encouraged to set goals and to go after them until they're achieved. I want her to never underestimate the importance of her role as a grounding wire, as the person who loves unconditionally and never confuses what her child does with who her child is. More than anything, I want her to see the importance of putting her child in the driver's seat--because the sooner she does, the sooner her child will understand that the trip ahead is all up to her, and that she can handle whatever's down the road herself.
I'm glad to say I'm not the only one who can share this information. Many of the Olympic athletes I know similarly credit their parents, so I've included their stories along with mine. What they tell about their growing-up years--about finding their sport, competing in it, finding satisfaction in it, winning and losing in it, and ultimately, giving it up for a new competitive outlet--both confirms and elaborates on my own experience. Our childhoods were incredibly average; our adolescent years weren't all that different from anybody else's. But we all felt our sport and our families gave us something special, something that would help us rise head and shoulders above the pack. Taken together, I think our experiences offer a pattern for parents to follow no matter where their child's talents may lie--whether in sports or academics, music or drama, chess or auto mechanics. I think the factors that encourage somebody to push themselves to achieve their personal best are the same no matter what the arena, no matter what the ability.Getting the Big Picture
While I was competing, I couldn't have told you what those factors were, exactly. I couldn't see for myself what accounted for my own success, certainly not in terms of the big picture, because I was too busy striving to stay on top. I was, however, an expert at analyzing my success or failure in any given race; if I blew an event, I could tell you, as I told my coach, just what went wrong, just where I failed to pace correctly, just how much more efficient I could have made my turns, just when I should have put my head down instead of taking that last breath into the wall. But I was so focused on the very short term--my next meet, my next goal time--I couldn't have possibly told you how it was that I pulled ahead of the competition, consistently, predictably, from one championship to the next until I stood on that topmost Olympic medals platform.
I'd been up against some serious talent, kids who were natural athletes, kids who were born competitors. How was it, then, that so many of them faded away, never enjoying the opportunities or rewards that came my way? What accounted for their not going the final mile? How come they bowed to the intense pressure and stomach-churning nerves, whereas I fed off it? They worked hard, they had great coaches, they had natural ability, and they wanted to win. So why didn't their dreams materialize, and mine did?
I couldn't figure it out--but then, I didn't give it all that much thought, either. Not until 1996, when I went to qualify for the 1996 Olympic team that would go to the Atlanta Games. Not until I swam my best event, the 200 'fly, the event that won me my one individual gold medal in Barcelona . . . and came in eighth.
I've come to be so grateful for that failure, because it provided just the sort of understanding I needed. It forced me to review all that had brought me to that point in time, all my upbringing and training, all my meets and championships, all the faces and places I'd known through my sport, all the lessons I'd learned from my parents and from competing. And in examining and reexamining all those memories, I came away with answers to this question of how some of us get to attain our personal best, while others live out their entire lives never knowing the satisfaction of using their gifts to their utmost.
Champions are raised, not born. I absolutely believe that. Because what gave me the edge, what helped me rise above my peers, even above my own expectations--the discipline, the mental toughness, the emotional stability, and the infinite belief in my own capacity for improvement--inevitably can be traced back to my parents, to my nurture rather than my nature. Their unqualified acceptance of me and their joyful support freed me up emotionally to take risks, to not fear failure. Their insistence on personal accountability made me see myself, and myself alone, responsible for the course my swimming took--how high I reached or how hard I fell. The grounding they gave me helped me remember that no matter how much other people were counting on me to win, the only expectations I had to meet were my own, and the only people who mattered were those who loved me regardless of where I placed in a race.
The values and standards I hold, the vision I have for myself, my outlook on the world, my sense of self-worth, and my belief that I can do whatever I put my mind to--all of which my parents instilled in me while I was swimming--are what will continue to make me strive, to achieve, and to be happy and fulfilled in whatever the next set of trials may be--a career in television, marriage, children, and meaningful contribution to my community. These are the gifts of my childhood that will last the rest of my life, long after everyone's forgotten my butterfly technique, long after people remember me as a gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992.
I'm not a parent, so I'm not writing this to tell
anybody how to be one. I am, however, hoping to show
what my parents did right by sharing all the stories of my seventeen-year swimming career, because I put their child-rearing philosophies to the test, over and over, and didn't find any of them lacking. For me, writing this book amounts to a sort of thank-you letter--the kind I'm always tempted to write to teachers and coaches who made a big difference in my life, but somehow never do. This is a start. For parents reading this--well, I hope it will be an inspiration.
Excerpted from Champions Are Raised, Not Born by Summer Sanders with Melinda Marshall. Copyright © 2000 by Summer Sanders with Melinda Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.