Courtesy of Elizabeth Wickham
Legendary swimmer Cynthia “Sippy” Woodhead 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. Sippy’s 11-12 and 13-14 age group times are as fast or faster than many women’s 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. You’re there to provide equipment and food and get out of the way. Swimmers put so much pressure on themselves,” Sippy said. “It’s so much easier to be a parent than the swimmer. I don’t mind going to meets, there’s no pressure on me. I get to sit in my Tommy Bahama chair all day.”
When Sippy’s 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 don’t ask them how they feel. I don’t ask them about their races. I don’t ask them about practice. I don’t ask about who they beat. I don’t ask. If they want to talk about it, they’ll talk about it. I don’t debrief them. I think they’re 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 I’m 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 they’ve 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 don’t remember the parents being so wrapped around their kids. I honestly don’t remember seeing my parents at a meet. I know they were there, but I don’t think I ever communicated with them. It was more like a play date. I don’t see that anymore. I see a lot more hovering and parents carrying towels, getting kids their heats and lanes. It didn’t 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 don’t want them to think I’m taking credit. I don’t want to hover and I don’t 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 they’re drinking, but they don’t notice that I was even there. If I run into them on the deck I’ll say something like, ‘good job,’ but I don’t 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 weren’t there. It was fun to be at meets, it wasn’t 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.