Sippy Woodhead’s Tips For SwimSwam Parents

by SwimSwam Contributors 14

July 17th, 2017 Lifestyle

Courtesy of Elizabeth Wickham

Legendary swimmer Cynthia SippyWoodhead broke her first world record at age 14 and won a silver medal in the 1984 Olympics six years later. She now enjoys life on deck as a swim parent. Her 13-14 NAG records in the 200m and 400m free (1:58.53 and 4:07.15) from 1978 are the longest-standing records on the books for girls. Her 500y (4:49.51) 11-12 age group record held for 40 years and was broken earlier this year. Sippys 11-12 and 13-14 age group times are as fast or faster than many womens times in college today. As a swim mom, I have fond memories from meets at the Sippy Woodhead Pool in Riverside, California.

I spoke with Sippy and discovered she has a great perspective as a swim parent. Here are some tips she shared:

Leave your kids alone. Let swimming be their thing as much as possible. Youre there to provide equipment and food and get out of the way. Swimmers put so much pressure on themselves,Sippy said. Its so much easier to be a parent than the swimmer. I dont mind going to meets, theres no pressure on me. I get to sit in my Tommy Bahama chair all day.

When Sippys kids were younger and their practices were an hour long, she could be found on deck watching practice. I was happy to sit at the pool and listen to the water. I love the sound of kids swimming, the splashing,she said.

I dont ask them how they feel. I dont ask them about their races. I dont ask them about practice. I dont ask about who they beat. I dont ask. If they want to talk about it, theyll talk about it. I dont debrief them. I think theyre pretty happy. I want them to be able to forget about swimming while they are home.”

She also explained that she doesn’t leave heat sheets around the kitchen or remind her kids that a meet is coming up. I never have given them time standards for meets. They know them, but Im not holding them up in front of them. They know how to look those things up. They know more than I think they do because theyve done it on their own.

Sippy talked about changes in the sport since she was a young swimmer. We did a lot more yardage. I swam with Chuck Riggs. We did a whole lot of swimming and not much race pace,she said. Also, I dont remember the parents being so wrapped around their kids. I honestly dont remember seeing my parents at a meet. I know they were there, but I dont think I ever communicated with them. It was more like a play date. I dont see that anymore. I see a lot more hovering and parents carrying towels, getting kids their heats and lanes. It didnt use to be that way.

I treat my kids the way I was treated. Swimming was my thing and I want this to be their thing. I dont want them to think Im taking credit. I dont want to hover and I dont want them to think that their swimming is because of me or something I did.

Sippy said she does a few things for her kids at meets. I give them their food bags and put $20 in them and leave them with the team. I check on their water bottles and refill them because I want to make sure theyre drinking, but they dont notice that I was even there. If I run into them on the deck Ill say something like, good job,but I dont hunt them down. I want them to be free. The most fun I had at meets was hanging out with my friends. You felt like your parents werent there. It was fun to be at meets, it wasnt stressful. I want them to have that same experience.

How do you keep the experience fun and not stressful at meets?

Elizabeth Wickham volunteered for 14 years on her kids’ club team as board member, fundraiser, newsletter editor and “Mrs. meet manager.” She’s a writer with a bachelor of arts degree in editorial journalism from the University of Washington with a long career in public relations, marketing and advertising. Her stories have appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Parenting and Ladybug. You can read more parenting tips on her blog.

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4 years ago

Yes to all of this! It was still very much this way in the 1990’s; so much so that I would always dread that inevitable time when I would miss an event at the swim meet (horsing around with friends) and get the “choice” of 200 fly or 400 IM as my punishment from the coach. My mom ran hospitality at home meets and my Dad was often a meet referee, so while I would see them they very rarely had time to be around and trying to run every aspect of my swimming.

PS – Sippy Woodhead was probably robbed of a rather epic 1980 Olympic performance and plenty more hardware to add to her collection due to the… Read more »

nihongo sensei
4 years ago

“swimswam parents” what’s up with the cultish branding attempt? How about tips for parents. You don’t get to claim parents who happen to read swimswam or follow Woodhead.

Reply to  nihongo sensei
4 years ago

You make no SENSE.

Lane Four
Reply to  nihongo sensei
4 years ago


4 years ago

I have loved this woman since I was 12. Even more now. Copy and send to…everyone.

Swim mom
4 years ago

My son, age 12, puts a lot of pressure on himself, especially trying to keep up with his older sister. I told him the other night, I don’t care if you come in last place at the wall as long as you have fun and try your best. He gave me the biggest smile. I rarely have a heat sheet, and never write down times, splits, etc. That’s too much pressure for me…ha! Thanks for this great article.

bbq billy
4 years ago

Reading this was a breath of fresh air. Thanks Sippy. I really hope your approach becomes the ‘normal’. Your children are lucky to have a SwimMom who knows what’s best.

4 years ago

What swimming needs is more parents like Sippy. The hovering parent syndrome is such a horrible horrible thing for our youths, but I only see it getting worse before getting better! And this isn’t just in swimming, it’s in all walks of life.

I have seen many good coaches walk away from the sport over the past few years because of overbearing parents. If more parents take Sippy’s lead, maybe we can reverse this trend.

ice age swimmer
4 years ago

What a great champion Sippy was. She was world class from 100-1500 meters. I often wondered how anyone’s muscle fiber type can pull that off. Saw her swim at Pan Am Games in 79. A thrill. She sounds like the ideal swimming parent now. Cool lady!

Swim Mom in Texas
4 years ago

AWESOME!!!!!!!!!!!! This is what I do and I feel like the odd bird out by doing it. But this is who I am at the core of my Swim Parenting – yes, it can be a verb. I leave everything between Coach and Athlete. Always have…even when my children started swimming in summer league at age 4. Our trips to and from the pool provide that wonderful quiet space where we can tell funny stories, laugh, talk about anything, but swim and IF we talk swim my swimmers bring it up first. And then it’s usually about hilarious stories they tell me regarding all the goofy time-waster activities with friends on deck at loooong swim meets. As if this sport… Read more »

Reply to  Swim Mom in Texas
4 years ago

OMG!!! They talk about which girls are starting to develop on our team! So perverted, but they think that it’s ok because they’re moms.