Faster, higher, stronger, earlier mornings: An ode to Olympian parents

Gregorio Borgia/AP Images

Michael Phelps is greeted by his mother, Debbie, as they celebrate his gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly at the FINA world championships in 2009.

There is one specific part of the Olympics that always gets me: the proud parents in the stands.

If I'm really making a confession, what really gets me is the quadrennial tradition of schmaltzy TV ads about the parents of the Olympic athletes.

Sign me up for tug-at-the-heartstrings visuals of all of the classics: Early morning wake-ups! Lugging gym bags! Unconditional support!

And then, the payoff image: Athlete looks lovingly at parent, whose zero-sum investment of time and energy, space and support was so critical to the dream coming true. The parent beams. Watching the scene from the couch, we project (and, yes, maybe wipe a tear).

You, like me, probably aren't going to be that parent. But you did manage to get your kid to soccer games on time every Saturday morning for umpteen seasons, which ain't nothin'.

I reserve a deep, abiding respect for the select few who ascend, with Olympian effort, to be that parent.

I cannot calculate the hours -- let alone the effort, let alone the opportunity cost, let alone the self-discipline to stand aside and let the kid put in the work, let alone the anxiety -- that goes along with parenting a would-be Olympic athlete.

I also cannot calculate the pride they must feel that their child has -- at least in one huge, universally recognized way -- completed an effort to reach their human potential.

Let me put it this way: Yesterday morning, I dropped my 7-year-old off at "ninja" camp. Let's be real: It's gymnastics camp. It was my first time seeing him there. Before I walk out of the gym to get in the car, he sprints over to a runway of a mat and does this:

My first reaction: "Wait, what is he doing?"

My next reaction: "He's going to hurt himself!"

My final reaction: "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!"

There are plenty of moments in your life as a parent when your kid does something delightful and unexpected, and then there are those rare times when your kid does something you didn't realize they had the ability to do, but they pull off a front flip. Literally or metaphorically, it doesn't happen a ton and when it does, it's staggering.

OK: That's my kid doing a flip in a random local gym. Relatively neat, given the known limitations of his dad's athletic genes but extremely modest in the "Simone Biles-Katie Ledecky-Allyson Felix Grand Scheme of Things." But having that acute, emotional reaction gave me a smidgen of a sense of what it might be like for the parent of an actual Olympian.

Then layer in the baggage of the Olympic parent. I drove my kid 15 minutes to day camp and he proudly grinned at me after he did his trick, and I'm bursting. Now project the accumulated sensation of investing hours (every day) over a decade (or two) and traveling (hundreds of thousands of miles) and weekends (all of them) and waiting (so much waiting) and nerves (GAH!).

Then their kid smiles at them on the walk to the block or to the mat or to the track in Rio or London or Beijing or Athens or Sydney or Atlanta. Or their kid spots them immediately after finishing the race -- win or lose, medalist or "mere" Olympian. They're not actors playing athletes and parents in a TV ad -- the real deal. And those family members have won in a way few of us mortal parents can ever really know.

And that parent has earned (and deserves) every bit of the unique intensity of that Olympic moment.

Dan Shanoff writes about parenting for espnW. You can connect with him on Twitter or Instagram at @danshanoff.

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