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Nurturing the Naturals: Teacher-Parents at the Olympics

The teaching profession has played a little-known yet key role in helping the crop of Olympic athletes en route to the games in Turin this year.

Many of Canada's best and brightest hopes - from hockey to speed skating - have teaching in their blood. They come from homes that have one and sometimes two teacher-parents. These households have spawned an all-star cast of Olympians, including former world champion in skeleton Duff Gibson. Skeleton is the sport where athletes zoom down the course on a sled, headfirst.

by Teddy Katz

Duff Gibson jokes about the fact that he couldn't get away from his teachers when he was growing up in the Toronto area.

Gibson's parents taught at his school, Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate in Scarborough. His father Andy specialized in history and physical education and his mother Carole taught mathematics and physical education. Both also spent countless hours coaching school teams. Carole Gibson says Duff was taught the value of sport at a young age.

"Because my husband and I were both involved in athletics, the children were basically raised in a gym," says Carole Gibson. "They would come there after school, go to games with us when we were coaching and the next thing we knew we were coaching them as well."

Carole Gibson says her kids had certain advantages because of their profession.

"Kids coming from teachers' homes tend to be very stable - both financially and as far as their schedule goes. They always know where their parents are and have all summer together. Both Andy and I would work or play with the kids until they got it right because we thought it was part of the success story in life."

Duff Gibson remembers every little detail from a football practice that happened when he was about six. His dad was coaching the high school football team. At the end of practice the players made Duff take part in one of the drills - holding onto the goal posts. The 6-year-old went on to do twelve chin-ups, impressing everyone watching and gaining confidence in the process. But despite that early memory, Duff isn't sure how much his parents' profession had to do with him being an elite athlete.

"I don't know how much of it stems from them versus me. It has to be a combination of nature and nurture. Obviously you're born a certain way and you learn throughout your entire life. So what can be attributed to what, I have no idea."

Never thought of Olympics

Bill Wotherspoon spent more than 30 years in education as a physical education teacher and school administrator. His wife, Sharon, was also a teacher. He says some of their experience may have rubbed off on their children, Danielle and Jeremy, two of Canada's best speed skaters.

"As a parent, your goals are to get your kids involved in activities that have lifelong benefits, where they learn about making commitments, developing a sense of responsibility, gaining social skills and working with others. Never did we think of putting our kids into sport with the goal of making the Olympics."

Wotherspoon clearly saw the values that sport and other extracurricular activities offered his children. So they were encouraged to try everything and stick with the sports they enjoyed most. There was one strict rule in the Wotherspoon household: The kids were prohibited from watching television during the week.

"As a teacher, one of my pet peeves was that so many of the kids went home after school and watched TV and played video games that weren't valuable at all for their learning."


That teacher-parents can provide extra opportunities was evident as well in the case of Canada's top female hockey player. Hayley Wickenheiser's parents built a backyard ice rink and gave her private lessons when she was little.

Tom Wickenheiser was a mathematics, science and physical education teacher. Marilyn Wickenheiser was an elementary teacher who also taught physical education. In addition to the backyard rink, they went with their kids to the gymnasium across the street almost every weekend.

"We had some extra opportunities to whip the kids over to the gym just because we had the key," Marilyn Wickenheiser jokes.

She believes the values they learned as educators may have seeped into their children's home life.

"I think they learned commitment and setting goals because when you work in education you are always looking ahead. You're always planning where you are going with your students. That also happens in the organization of your home - it's just kind of incidentally modelled." She adds that teachers are always striving to have all of their students do the best they can. "I think that's a huge value they may have picked up as well."

No coincidence

Some believe it is no coincidence that so many aspiring Olympians have parents who are teachers. Jon Montgomery has his sites set on making the Olympic team in 2010 in the sport of skeleton. He's struggling right now, juggling a job as an auto auctioneer and training, without financial support, to make the Olympic team.

Clockwise, from top left: Duff Gibson; Bill, Sharon, Danielle and Jeremy Wotherspoon; Eldon, Jon and Joan Montgomery; Hayley and Marilyn Wickenheiser

His father Eldon - a school principal as well as Jon's history and geography teacher in the tiny community of Russell, Manitoba - taught him one lesson that has stuck: Once you start something you enjoy, don't give up no matter how difficult it becomes. Without his father's influence as an educator, Montgomery says, there's no way he'd be an elite athlete today.

"I think there is probably a correlation. As teachers, they're always encouraging you to do your best and to believe in yourself."

Instilling values

Teacher Marty Shouldice agrees. Her son Warren has become one of the top ten freestyle skiing aerialists in the world. Marty believes many of the qualities that come with an elite athlete are instilled during childhood.

"I believe that parents with teaching backgrounds have a unique influence on their children," says the elder Shouldice. "By modelling behaviour and emphasizing education, discipline and an inquiring mind, teachers pass along their values to their children."

Milaine Theriault says she wouldn't be on Canada's cross-country ski team today if it wasn't for her father, a shop teacher and a coach. She admits there was a downside to having her father teach in her school:

"I was a shy person to start with and my dad was a disciplinarian so he would always catch the troubled kids," says Therieault. "And of course those kids can turn on you because he's your dad."

But her father started a cross-country ski club and that's how Theriault got her start. When she finished high school and had a choice of going to university or concentrating on skiing, her father advised her to go the sports route. He told her she could worry about the academics down the road.

"He encouraged me to go for more in life. He told me to go for skiing. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have."

Not everyone agrees

Marilyn Wickenheiser believes that her daughter Hayley's drive to be the best in her sport comes from somewhere else.

"I do firmly believe a lot of it is innate. You're born with a certain amount of it. And you can be fostered."

Duff Gibson's mother also downplays her role.

"I really don't think it would be environmental. It's almost as if that would come with the kid. Besides, when you are raising a family as teachers it can go either way. There are lots of teachers I wouldn't want raising my children."

But one of this country's leading sport psychologists finds himself more than just a casual observer in the nature and nurture debate.

Stimulating start

Cal Botterill has worked with many of Canada's Olympic teams since completing a PhD in physical education and sports psychology. His wife, Doreen McCannell Botterill, a former Olympic speed skater, is also a teacher. Their son Jason went on to win three World Junior Hockey championships for Canada after he began as a stick boy for the Edmonton Oilers - where his father worked. Their daughter Jennifer is one of the stars on Canada's Olympic hockey team. Botterill says he's noticed a trend with kids of educators - especially teachers who coach or who specialize in physical education.

"It often produces a very stimulating start for young people. They get exposed to elite programming. The beginnings of some of our best athletes happen when they've had exposure to these opportunities and it's inspired them and they've gotten over the intimidation factor and say why not me," says Botterill. "Those early experiences probably have a lot to do with whether or not kids go on to realize their potential."

But Botterill has a word of caution for teachers who suddenly think they are going to produce the next Olympian.

"Teachers in general have more training in child development and better ideas on how to facilitate it. But there's no guarantee."

Botterill points out that many Olympians got their start on the playground or with pickup games on the street. He laments that sport today has become "way too organized".

"I think one of the big crimes in childhood development right now is that pickup games are disappearing. The main reason is security, but it's a shame. There are a lot of things in free play that are critical for child development. Things like decision making, problem solving, communicating and creativity. As they say, play is the work of a child."

Marilyn Wickenheiser still teaches in Calgary. And she thinks teachers can learn something else from her experience.

"Too often we give kids too much information and not enough practice time. It's the same in my phys ed classes as when kids are learning math skills. The curriculum is so loaded these days, we're teaching them things and then moving them on with only a little practice. That is not what kids need. They need to do it again and again until they get good at it, until they feel some confidence."

Those words are spoken by a teacher who knows what it takes to help children reach their potential. She'll be in Italy in February cheering Hayley on to what she hopes will be her second straight Olympic gold medal.

Clockwise, from top left: Rick, Warren and Marty Shouldice; Doreen McCannell representing Canada in a speed skating competition; The Botterill family: Cal, Doreen, Jennifer and Jason