My Kid Won’t Swim the Olympics

Camille Adams, who will swim in the Olympics in London.

Caroline competes each summer with our pool’s swim team, and last week their coaches had given them an assignment to watch some of the Olympic time trials held in Omaha. It was fun to watch elite athletes swimming at the top of their game and to listen to Caroline’s observations about the different strokes.

I took particular note of Davis Tarwater, who was once described as one of the best swimmers never to make an Olympic squad. The announcers last week noted that he has a 30 hour a week job designing banking software for third-world countries. I wondered how having a job like that impacted his ability to train at the highest level. As it happened, he failed to make the team in all three events he attempted, only getting a slot in 200 m freestyle after Michael Phelps opted not to swim that event in London.

Don’t get me wrong–Tarwater is an elite athlete, holding a national record. And it sounds like he feels a sense of mission around his “day job”–I don’t think he’s doing it for the money. But it was a reminder for me of the roles that circumstance and privilege play in achievement.

The other day our swim coaches posted the ladder with the kids’ times thus far. In the 9-10 age group, Caroline is currently 6th in freestyle and backstroke and 4th in breaststroke and butterfly. Caroline is a good swimmer technically, and she loves the sport. She’s had some fun victories and finishes this season, but she is not in the top tier of her teammates. Then again, she’s competing against kids who play various sports year-round, including kids who swim competitively for a program that is supposed to be amazing but costs almost $2,000 a year.

The pressure to achieve, to give one’s kids the best of everything, is huge around here. As a mother, I am in it, even as I disdain it. I felt a little torn when I read the ladder this weekend. If we had the time, energy and money to invest in her swimming, maybe she would move up from the middle of the pack. But we just don’t have the extra bandwidth to make that happen. I already push my job to the limits of its flexibility; I wrote last week’s sermon on deck at the pool, for heaven’s sake. One of those elite swim programs meets at 4:30 in the morning. Yes, you read that right.

Caroline doesn’t seem all that interested in upping the intensity of her swimming, so I’m certainly not going to push it. This post isn’t really about swimming. Rather I’m struggling with how we talk to our kids about privilege. How do we understand our own privilege? How do we frame competitive events like a swim team in a way that encourages kids to do their best, while acknowledging that some kids have an advantage by virtue of circumstance?

And can we explain all of this to our kids in a way that doesn’t foster bitterness, but rather a hunger for justice? I don’t want my kids to resent the only child with the mom who can devote time and energy to driving them to extra practices. But I do want them to wonder about kids who don’t even have the advantages we do. Our upper middle class swim problems are small potatoes; read this article that profiles six people who live at the different levels of income disparity in the U.S. and extrapolate it out. You think competitive swim team is expensive? Have you checked out four year colleges lately? What does all of this look like for the Pallwitz kids (page 3 in the article), whose parents are barely making ends meet? What will achievement look like for them?

When the playing field is uneven at many levels, what does it mean to “do well”?


12 thoughts on “My Kid Won’t Swim the Olympics

  1. It was my fifth-grade teacher who returned to visit at the Fall Festival my sixth-grade year who said to me “You WILL go to college.” Even though my father had also told me the same, I believed her, not him. Thank you Irene Knight!

  2. susan says:

    first of all, you always link to the best stuff.

    This is something that I ponder, too. Selam has, apparently, some talent in dance. But she’s quite happy in the little JCC program. Do I keep her there, or invest money in another program–one that is 3 times the cost but quite good. Would this be a massive sacrifice for me? Yes. Am I awfully freaking privileged that I COULD make that sacrifice if I choose to? Yes. She’s 5. She won’t see this as a sacrifice or a privilege.

    Selam has lived a crazy life of extreme privilege and extreme deprivation with lots of time in the middle. I don’t know that she understands one bit of it. But I want her to—I just don’t know how to do that without “othering” those that have less and more.

  3. Stephen Smith-Cobbs says:

    This one hits close to home. Paula and I dealt with this with our son and his dance/ballet training. We did the best we could for him given the circumstances we had financially, with my being the only driver, and with (as you have) my maxing out the flexibility of my job. And even then, we pushed ourselves with the debt of something on the par of a public college degree. And even as our son dances as a trainee with a professional company, he is still playing catch-up to other dancers whose privilege allowed them a level of training (most of which requires leaving home and going away to a pre-pro school and campus). So it is what it is and we did the best we could – which in the end, is all we can do.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Thanks for commenting on this, Stephen. I would love to talk to you further about how you decided how “far to go” in supporting your son. The swim thing is a no-brainer for us because that’s not a deep passion of hers. But Caroline is gifted musically. How gifted? I don’t know. Is our job simply to nurture a lifelong lover of music, or could she potentially have a vocation in music with the proper encouragement and training? How would I even know how to answer that question? And maybe we wouldn’t do anything differently in either case so the question is moot.

      It’s about stewardship of gifts and resources, isn’t it.

      • Stephen says:

        MaryAnn (and Susan),
        Yes, for us it was in part about the stewardship of gifts and resources. But having only have one child did make our situation different than what it would have been had we had even just one more child. But the much bigger part for us was all about watching and listening (which is kind of a joke in itself given that my wife is legally blind – hence I am the only driver – and I have a hearing loss for which I wear hearing aids). Yet watching and listening to our son as he danced and experienced dance was key to discerning how much dance was not just something that was fun, something that he liked to do. Dance was and is something he has to do. When he was seven or so, we had a dear family friend, someone who had babysat our son, who died of cancer. Her death was the first time we really talked about heaven. And the only question he had about heaven was this: Do they dance there? We had to listen carefully to that. He went through a lot of time where he was the only boy at his studio and there was a bit of solitary-ness about his pursuit of dance there. But there he would be at the barre, losing himself in the dance. We had to watch that carefully, too. He lived for the summers when he got accepted into programs like the School of American Ballet in NYC and Miami City Ballet where there would be fifty or so guys who all loved dance the way he did. We listened and watched and it became clear dancing was his passion. So we did, and we still do, the best we can to support him. Whatever happens, though I don’t think he’d ever articulate it this way, at his best, I do believe he feels God’s pleasure when he dances.

  4. susan says:

    I’m just now seeing this conversation (thanks to the cool little star on the corner of my word press telling me about it.) Robert–where in East Africa? My daughter is from there.

    And Stephen, I, too, would like to know more about the “how far” question.

    (This is what I like about blogs versus facebook–conversations with people I would never meet otherwise).

    I guess so much of this is resting on the fact that we will never know, will we, what is possible and what is desired with our kids? My parents are in the category of “did the best they could” with regards to me and music. I made it into a top 10 music program despite only a year of piano lessons and really nothing more than private voice (no summer camps or competition or other enrichment beyond that.) There was massive catch-up to play in college–MASSIVE. And I never caught up. Could I have been great with better preparation? Maybe. Was music the road to the place where I ended up? Maybe. I don’t know that I have regrets in this regard. So why do I worry so much about missing a chance for Selam?

    Ah, motherhood.

  5. […] linked to this article already this week, but here it is again—a fascinating profile of six people at varying income levels. […]

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