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Ready for Anything: Olympic Athlete Summer Sanders Explains Why You’re Never Too Young — Or Old — to Play Sports

Summer and 6-year-old Skye at the Fourth of July 5K in Utah

My kids are obsessed with how sweaty I get while training for a race. As I prepare for Disney’s Princess Half Marathon on February 24, I am ready for anything, and I expect to be sweating through many days of training. It’s also motivating to know that Spider, my soon-to-be five-year-old son, will be by my side on race weekend.

This will be the perfect run, location, and timing for me. The fact that it’s in Orlando, and I get to run at sea level, is amazing. Training in my hometown of Park City, Utah at 7,500 feet isn’t easy. Plus, the race is in Disney World, which is my childhood dream location. It’s also my children’s dream, so it’s awesome that Spider will run, too. He’s going to do the Disney Royal Family 5K with me on the Saturday before the big marathon. This will be his first race.

I want my kids to see mom competing as an athlete — pushing myself and getting stronger. When my kids watch mom training for something and seeing it through, it’s a life lesson. It’s not about finishing first or being number one. (Spider will be the first one to say his mom is not going to win — he knows I won’t finish first). It’s about the sense of accomplishment I feel after a race. I learned it at 4 years old in the pool. Now I’m getting a chance to realize it again through running, and so are my kids.

It’s much more harsh to learn lessons in real life, so why not learn them on the field, in the pool, at the gym?

Despite what some may think, I don’t think my kids are too young to be involved in sports. I was the youngest in my family, which meant I wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps. I was always begging to do everything he did. I was four and half when my mother let me join the recreational swim team. If you could swim a lap of the pool, you were in. My mom put it in the hands of the coaches, and they saw that I could do it. When it came to year-round swimming, I pushed my mom because I wanted to swim like my brother. She recognized that it might be too much at that young age, so she held me back until I was about seven.

It’s much more difficult now to hold kids back than when I was a kid. (And that’s a good problem to have!) There are many more opportunities and options. Every week I get an e-mail about a different program, and similar to myself at a young age, my son is always trying to keep up with his sister, Skye. At 6 years old, she has already done two 5Ks! When she nears a finish line, she picks up her pace and soaks up the attention. When I see my kids shine like that, they inspire me, and it makes me want to show them that anything is possible if you work hard.

As a parent, you have to help your kids understand when they’re ready. I won’t say I’ve never signed Spider up for a sport when he was under the cutoff age. But it was his choice, too. Spider’s birthday is January 15 and many cutoffs are January 1, so he’s often 14 days too young to join a team. I’ve had to be his advocate because I know him; I know when he’s ready. If he couldn’t keep up, it would be a different story.

Of course you want to enourage your kids so they can find the sport that gives them confidence. The goal is not for every kid to be an Olympian. I learned so much more from my journey, compared to touching that wall in Barcelona in ’92. It’s the life lessons that sports taught me, and are teaching my kids, that are so important. It’s much more harsh to learn lessons in real life, so why not learn them on the field, in the pool, at the gym?

Swimming is one example. My kids have learned so much by swimming. At first they only wanted to go to the meets and get the ribbons. They had to learn that you can’t just get the reward, you also need to be there for your team and your coach. There’s more to it than showing up on game day.

I teach my kids that when they join a team, they have to follow through. If they hated something, I wouldn’t make them do it, but they do go to the games, even if they don’t want to play. They can sit on the sidelines if they want, but they must be there for the team. That means cheering and being supportive as well as playing. They’ve cheered for me and Erik, and we do the same for them. I want them to know I’ll always be their biggest advocate, no matter what they do and no matter what sport   they pursue.

Running is a selfish part of my life and I love that I can involve my family. At this race, I won’t only be teaching myself, I’ll also be showing Spider a good example. Actions speak louder than words, and this is the proof that you can work toward a goal and meet it.

Use hashtag #GoRun on Twitter to follow Summer and be part of the ongoing conversation.

 

MORE FROM SUMMER: 
How to push yourself physically while knowing your limits
Making exercise a family affair — yes, it is possible
7 ways to get your family to eat healthier this year

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