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Diving for Olympic Gold

Was I pushing my daughter into my dreams for her?

I picked up my favorite pink silk blouse, placing it in the overnight bag, wondering if the weather was as warm in the Bay Area as it was here in Santa Cruz.

"Do you think I should take along my black dress for the party afterwards?" I questioned, turning to my mom.

Mom, a former Olympic manager, had just arrived from Montreal to go with me to see my 20-year-old daughter, Ariel, in the diving competition at U.C. Berkeley. It had been six months since I'd watched Ariel compete.

"I can't wait! Ariel should easily capture first place. She's focused and a perfectionist—just like me when I medaled in swimming in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics," I enthused.

"Don't forget Uncle Mike and his dive in the '72 Munich Olympics," Mom added proudly. "She's a natural. It runs in the family."

Just then the phone rang. I was excited, knowing it must be her.

"Mom … I hope you haven't packed yet. I don't want to go to this meet. I don't think I can do this anymore …"

"What? Why not? What do you mean?" The crack in her voice made me anxious. "But you've been working so hard, honey."

Ariel sounded desperate as she begged me to let her quit. Not only quit diving, but drop out of school and give up her scholarship to University of Southern California.

Oh, God. Is this really happening? I gasped for breath. I felt like I was drowning.

Sharon at Florida State University with the ACC Silver Medal.

Sharon at Florida State University with the ACC Silver Medal.

"Are you sure you want to make this decision?" I said.

"Yes, I'm sure." Then Ariel hung up the phone before I could say more.

I burst into tears. My life had revolved around her. She was the youngest of our five kids—the one most like me.

I turned to Mom for comfort. "She'll have to give up her scholarship at USC, and we can't afford her tuition there without it. What's she gonna do now? Quit diving? Come home, and do what?" And no Olympics? I thought.

"Mom, I just want to be normal."

My mind wandered back to the beginning of our journey. Ariel was only three when she decided she wanted to dive. She began taking diving lessons at age seven and joined the prestigious Santa Clara dive team when she was eight. Despite the long drive and rigorous schedule, Ariel had found her niche, and I had found mine. She was going to be a world-class diver, and I was going to be the one to help her get there.

then when Ariel was 12, she was invited to join the Trojan Dive Club at USC. Her coach, Hongping Li, was a former Olympian diver. His experience gave him the ability to recognize Ariel's potential. Later that year, Ariel won a gold medal at her first international competition—the Junior Pan American Games in Belem, Brazil.

I sadly remembered the bond I felt when sharing that moment with my daughter. It was the same games I'd once competed in. From then on, diving became her life. At times I wondered if all the moving and striving for perfection was too hard on her, but I couldn't let her quit. This was my dream too.

Finally, after two years of rigorous training, 17-year-old Ariel, and her partner, Kelci Bryant, made the Olympic team. It was so rewarding for our family to see Ariel—the youngest springboard diver—walk into the Olympic stadium. They placed fourth at Beijing in three-meter synchronized diving, just shy of winning a metal.

Now what am I supposed to do? I wondered. And a small voice within me questioned back, Have you crossed the line between nurturing and pushing her too hard? I pushed that thought away.

By the end of the week, Ariel told her coach that she wanted to quit the team. I drove to Los Angeles and barely recognized her. When she left for college, she was one of the fittest athletes and top diving prospects in the country. Now she was overweight and no longer looked like an athlete. Still determined that she wasn't giving up the dream, I thought, How can she ever get back in shape in time for the competition?

Sharon and Ariel in 2006.

Sharon and Ariel in 2006.

I felt lost. I'd watched other parents push their children—I never wanted to be one of those parents. Now I realized that's exactly who I was. While I'd taken so much pride in her diving, I began to overlook her needs and who she is as a person. Maybe she was trying to tell me that she needed to be a normal teenager—an experience she'd never had. It was time to start thinking about what was good for Ariel.

She'd often said, "Mom, I just want to be a normal girl," and I'd brushed it off. How could I have missed the signs? None of us knew what it was like to be in her shoes. All that scheduling and striving for excellence had taken its toll.

I flashed back to when Ariel was 13. She had to leave her family and friends and transfer to a public junior high school in Los Angeles to study with her coach. Then, at age 14, we packed up once again and headed to the National Diving Training Center in Indianapolis. This time she enrolled in an online school and began a rigorous training schedule.

No wonder my daughter rebelled and gave up diving. She never got to be a kid. She wanted my approval and needed my support more than ever now. I could almost hear her thoughts: You're disappointed in me.

She was right.

"It's your decision, not mine."

As much as I hated to confront the truth, I knew that it wasn't my job to control her life. I was the one who needed to change, not Ariel. Had she ever felt completely loved and accepted? I wanted to follow my mom's path and be supportive, not pressure her.

Oh God, I prayed, help me to support Ariel and let her go. She's still my daughter, and no matter what happens I still love her for the person she is.

I began to thank God for giving me the opportunity to be her mother and for all the good times we shared together when she was growing up. A feeling of peace swept over me.

Once Ariel was released from USC, she received a call from two-time Olympian coach, Pat Jeffrey, at Florida State University in Tallahassee. I felt myself get excited about this new opportunity, but God reminded me this had to be her decision. So I quietly waited.
After some wrestling with her desires, Ariel decided to meet with him. They both knew that they'd be a perfect fit. I was thrilled, but knew I needed to keep my goals for her in check.

After taking a year off, Ariel started up again, realizing she had some work to do. She now specialized in the three-meter springboard. This time, however, she was doing it for her, not me. "It's your choice, not mine," I told her. "I'll honor your decision either way." Once again, Ariel was flourishing. And this time, I prayed that I would support her whether she went on or decided again to quit.

Sharon and Ariel at the 2007 Rio de Janiero Pan American Games.

Sharon and Ariel at the 2007 Rio de Janiero Pan American Games.

The next time I saw her months later into her training program, I couldn't believe how good she looked. She was no longer a teenager, but a 21-year-old woman following her dreams.

She trained hard for a year, pushing past her experience with post-Olympic burnout. She made the U.S. Olympic diving trials, competing against the top divers in the country, but failed to qualify for the Olympic team this year. She knew it would be an improbable push for London 2012 on less than a year's training. But she's okay with that, and is back in Florida continuing to train.

And I'm okay with that too. Through Ariel's challenges, I learned a thing or two about the importance of not pushing my children into my dreams, not living vicariously through them, but rejoicing in the dreams they have for themselves.

When I was finally able to stand back and not try to control the situation and my grown-up daughter's decisions, I realized what a precious daughter I have—just as she is, with or without diving medals.

What more can a parent ask for? She'll always be a winner to me.

Sandi Olson is a freelance author and journalist who lives in northern California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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