It took years to figure-out that I’d lost my son. I only noticed he was missing after he stopped exercising 22 hours a week. That’s 4 km of swimming every morning before school, a couple of hours of running, biking and weights every evening after classes and then five more hours of the same on Saturday. We had long insisted that Sunday was a day of rest otherwise there would have been a 2-hour easy run on that day. This was the schedule 11 months of the year.
It is the life of a elite junior men’s triathlete. Along with a handful of other youngsters on the Manitoba National Triathlon Centre team, Ben was learning how to swim, bike and run at such a high level that this gruelling sport looked easy.
For much of the year he left the house when it was dark and came home again in the dark for a late supper. Then homework, household chores and perhaps a bit of reading or computer time before heading to bed because it all started again the next morning at 5:30. Month after month his world was school and training plus the anticipated Sunday morning sleep-in, when he could snore until noon.
When Ben was invited to join the MNTC, the parent of a program survivor told us: “Your kid will always hurt. He’ll be tired all the time. That’s what it takes to be an elite athlete.” I didn’t understand then. I do now.
At the end of September each year, as the annual one month break came to an end and the training year was about to begin we’d have the family chat. Do you still want to do triathlon? Is there enough passion to train for nine months before the first race? And those mornings – are you still up to facing dark and frozen Winnipeg days in February before 6 am in order to get into a pool? Do you still want to be late for school every day, smelling of chlorine? Do you want to continue to deal with the metrics of high performance sport where personality, laughter, kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness, human generosity mean nothing because all that matters is milliseconds, pain and results… always results?
For years Ben said yes. So we supported him. Early morning chauffeuring until he got his driver’s licence. The $3,000 bike, the costly clothes, the spring training camp in Tucson and the races around the country. We paid because it was his passion. But we also paid in ways that money can’t measure.
Ben and I never went to movies because of his training. We always skipped the fair when it was in town. Family holidays became memories, unless you figure a holiday means standing at the sidelines in chilly dawn air and yelling yourself hoarse. Hikes, walks, camping and biking trips, meals together before 8 pm or huge greasy weekend breakfasts that fuel the young and clog the arteries of the middle aged… none of this was possible. During the years when teens can still tolerate their parents, we sacrificed this time together on the altar of better performance. Our family got used to living life without Ben, the absent roommate in his own home. While he was hurting and tired, so were we with the hurt of losing a son too early and tired of the creeping sense of regret that the strength of a primary relationship was ebbing away.
But then it ended. Ben’s desire melted. One day he said “I’m done”. Finished. Need a break. Haven’t got the drive. Just two months before grade 12 ended, he decided there was more than triathlon. He quit. And with the same passion he had brought to training, he tried to pack years of missed social activities into his final days of school. He had turned 18 and as a newly minted adult put aside his sport as one eventually does with all childhood interests.
But as he put aside his childhood I still clung to it. As he tried to make up for lost time in high school, I wanted to make up for lost time with my only son. He swam, biked and ran away long before I was ready to let him ago. Now I want to see those movies, catch the Red River Exhibition, see a concert and play a round of golf. I want to do things that fathers and sons do. But it’s too late.
I’m out of practice. My ability to include him is no longer fit. I don’t have the vocabulary. I don’t know how to make the connections, the invitations. I don’t know how to deal with having a son again. And now that high school is over, he’s still making up for lost time. He has his first job – something else that was pushed aside in the triathlon years – and his girlfriend naturally holds more appeal for him than his aging Dad.
It’s a given that parents sacrifice for their kids. Our money, time and support is their birthright. But as we willingly give, parts of us are torn away unwittingly. Like Abraham, as we bind our children to the altar of high performance sport, we secretly hope that perhaps a ram will turn up as a proxy. In our family, we didn’t find any goats.
Elite athletes on any podium, and the thousands who don’t make it there, are most likely strangers to their parents. But in an odd way it’s the parents who are the orphans, their child having been adopted by a sport and culture long before they appeared with medals around their neck or under the five rings.
But for me there is hope. Today it might be different. Today Ben and I head to Asia on a two month working trip. For Ben it’s something of an apprenticeship; for me it’s a chance to rediscover my son and find out, once again, how to be a Dad. It’s the rarest thing in the world… a second chance.
Originally posted January 2013