SwimSwam proudly presents the series, SwimMomMonday in which “ordinary” swim parent Anne Lepesant talks to “extraordinary” swim parents about the similarities and differences we experience in raising swimmers. This week we feature Susan Shoults, mother of UCLA sophomore Jacqueline (Jax) and rising Stanford freshman Grant, the fastest 200-yard and 500-yard freestyler in the history of high school swimming.
1. What is your background? Were you (are you) a competitive athlete?
I grew up in Orange County as well, Los Alamitos specifically. In high school, I was a cheerleader on the competition cheer squad which was a highly competitive team. That‘s where I happened to meet my husband Scott. He played baseball, water polo and was a yell leader. He continued as a yell leader at USC while I while I went to UCSD and was on the aerobic competition team.
Throughout my life I have remained active. I enjoy running daily and horseback riding. The last 15 years I have extended my love for horses and athleticism by volunteering at the Shea Therapeutic Riding center. This center helps disabled adults and children using horses (hippotherapy). I shared this passion with both children, (Jax) Jacquelyn and Grant, who have volunteered there as well over the years.
2. When did you first realize you had an exceptional athlete on your hands?
The word exceptional sets a pretty high bar. There are so many kids that are exceptional and gifted in many different ways, I really never really raised them or viewed them that way. I do know that both have a naturally competitive spirit, but exhibit it differently. Jax is a quiet competitor but would work extra hard to be as perfect as she could be. What I realized was her expectations of herself were very high. But she internalized it; you wouldn’t know it on the outside based on her happy and positive personality. She made it look effortless and didn’t make a big deal about her successes. I would say that was around 3 years old. On the other hand, everything was competition for Grant. He loved to race for anything, whether it was in the pool, playing chess, running to push the elevator button or fastening his cart before I could. But it wasn’t a combative, arrogant competitiveness; it was just for the fun of competition. And though he wasn’t a sore loser, there was no doubt winning was the goal. It was all about the competition. That was around the same age as Jax.
3. How have you managed to balance your athlete’s school / sports / social life / family life?
I’m not sure there is a perfect balance having swimmers, it’s more about fitting it all in in a way that gives them as many life experiences as possible. We did follow something of an order or priorities. In all cases, school was first. Then it was about fitting everything else in around the swim schedule, it was like a puzzle. A lot of homework was done in the car, in between sports and on weekends. One thing I learned early on is that getting involved helped us maneuver around the conflicts. Whether it was Scott or I coaching other activities or volunteering, it gave us the ability to manage schedule conflicts and be on top of managing commitments while still being present in their lives. Our family time in their younger years often revolved around non-swim activities, like special things such as the volunteerism at the Shea Center and the Jessie Rees Foundation (a charity for kids fighting cancer). And other non-swimming activities like National Charity League, soccer and Indian Princesses for Jax and travel baseball, Little League, soccer and Indian Guides for Grant. But it was always about being together. We have tried to fit in an annual family vacation every year, but that does get more completed with one child in college (Jax at UCLA). The family balance was found just doing as much of it together as possible..
4. How differently do you mother your children?
I don’t really mother the kids differently. I simply respond to their different needs. I’m pretty sure the kids would never say one has more than the other and I don’t compare their individual gifts or struggles. In the end, we act as a single family unit that ebbs and flows based on what is the top of the family priorities. The kids are very different even though they both happen to swim. The kids have been through some big time life situations. Jax was deathly ill entering high school and is working through a back injury today. Grant lost a dear friend around the same time and has had a couple of incredibly stressful years. We have lost 3 family members in 3 years and have had to go through a couple coaching changes along way. All of these things help keep things in perspective and as a mother draws upon different answers and actions. But in the end, I’d say it’s not about how I “mother”, but how to let the kids grow in their own unique direction while making sure both know they are equally cherished and loved. Confidently knowing the family is always there for each of them when any need arises.
5. What is the best part about being a swim mom?
I think it is unquestionable; the type of person that becomes a swimmer is a unique breed. Maybe a little masochistic. Swimmers’ commitment to their passion maybe one of the largest commitments of all sports and one that requires incredible time management. Being a mom of one of those swimmers is something only other swim parents can truly appreciate. And the single best part of being a swim mom is seeing your child hit their goals. Whether it’s having a great meet, seeing them happy with friends or achieving lifelong dreams for college. That is no different than any other mother.
The next best part of being a swim mom is the relationships I have developed with the other swim moms. The bonding with them occurs in so many ways. Together, we have sat under tents in the pouring rain and scorching heat. We have managed to carpool our kids to and from 5am practices and weekend meets all over the country. The emotional rollercoasters we ride with the ups and downs of our swimmers link us in a very special way. The deep relationships and friendships I have developed with other swim moms is probably the other best part of being a swim mom.
6. What has been your biggest challenge?
There are many challenges I could name, but the ones that weigh the heaviest are those that involve emotions. Having two swimmers, with different skills and development cycles, typically means they rarely have the same success and struggles at the same time. It was inevitable, if one child was hitting their goal, the other fell short. So the biggest challenge was managing heartbreak and exuberance at the same time. The challenge was to find the right way to hug one in sadness and celebrate with the other. The biggest challenge is developing the right “swim poker face”.
7. What is your favorite memory of your child’s swimming career?
For Jax, it was getting her Junior National cut in the 100 backstroke as a comeback from being in a life threatening situation months earlier being in the hospital for weeks after contracting E-Coli. She was days away from nearly having a life of dialysis as her pancreas and kidneys were shutting down. Seeing her celebration with her teammates was such a contrast from seeing them visiting her in the hospital. She has had many awesome accomplishments, but that one in particular was more about her perseverance than just getting a swim cut. It was my favorite because she was back at full strength and celebrating with her friends and coaches.
The favorite memory for Grant, though he has started to have some international achievements, was the 2015 High School CIF-SS finals when he raced the 200 free and 500 free side by side with his Mission Viejo Nadadores teammate Nick Norman. Though they swam for different high schools, they raced it as Nadadores. They entered both races with a strategy that would drive each other. They pushed each other to personal bests, county and national records and finished gold/silver in both. It was my favorite because it wasn’t about who was gold/silver, but that they were happy for each other for having a plan and hitting their goals. Their dual celebration for each other was so fun to watch. Having them pushing hard, and the stands going crazy, was such a fantastic memory.
8. Do you get nervous watching them swim?
There is no doubt, I’m always nervous. How couldn’t I be? But I have to keep it inside and not let them see it. They don’t need me piling on. I have all the confidence they have worked hard and are prepared and they will perform. But it doesn’t change that’s my little girl or little boy standing there alone on the block, forget the fact they are adults now. So to not let it get the best of me, I make sure I’m doing my swim mom job. Doing all I can to make sure everything I can do has been done. When they were young, it was the standard stuff. Are they at their lane on time, did they go to the bathroom, do they know what stroke to swim, do they have goggles? Now it’s more about good food in the fridge, clean towels stacked up and transport if needed. Of course, taking pictures and being encouraging. Always making sure they know I’m standing by in case something comes up they have someone ready to respond. As they have gotten older, there is less to prepare but often more at stake. So the nervousness gets larger too. I try not to show or share it, remember, “swim poker face”.
9. How have you handled disappointing races/meets?
It’s always been the same. First, talk to the coach. Make sure they are in sync with their coach and know where improvements can be made. Also, letting the coach set the tone as to how they should feel about it. Often, it’s a learning opportunity for the kids and their coach has the plan. So no matter how disappointing, not undermining the learning moments is so important, no matter how sad I am for them. From there, it’s about finding the good things about any performance. Whether it seemed like they showed commitment to finishing to the best of their ability, or something as simple as a solid and sincere congratulations to the winner. And then, it’s about moving on. Whether it is the next race or the next meet. There is no “undo” button, so take it, file it and move forward.
10. What advice do you have for other swim moms?
Looking back, I’m sure I wasn’t the model swim mom, but there were certain things I tried to stay consistent with. But I do have certain things I live by now and would say is good advice for other swim moms. Most importantly, when you find the swim coach you believe in and signed up your swimmer, TRUST THE COACH. It’s hard not to be involved, it’s my son/daughter, but don’t undermine the coach and swimmer’s working relationship. If there is a concern, don’t speak ill about the coach with your kids or other parents. It’s hard in the heat of the moment, but you have to control it and not get caught up. If there is a concern, no sooner than the next day after a meet or situation, go have a private one on one with the coach off the deck. Share your concerns in a non-emotional manner and then be prepared to accept the response.
Keep the whole experience fun. They have the rest of their life to have a job. And swimming, as much as swimmers do, will be monotonous and will be job-like if it’s not fun. Make sure they are finding the fun both in and around the pool and learning good sportsmanship and having a fun team experience. If it’s not fun, it’s only a matter of time until they don’t want to do it anymore.
Know that your kids are not setting out to fail. Berating them or showing any disappointment is not productive. Swimmers are their own hardest critics, even when they are young. I have watched a lot of parents who think they are their kids’ coach and are hard on their kids. It’s hard to watch and nothing will come from it. Refer to my first advice, trust the coach and take on the support role.
Be sure to volunteer. It aligns with my early comments about being involved. Whether your kids see you sitting behind the blocks at meets or having them see you setting up the facility a day before the meet while they are practicing. It shows your commitment to them, and allows you to be around without being a helicopter parent. And it helps your club. Don’t view it as meeting the minimum requirements of the club, view it as showing your kids you are doing your part and you are there.
Finally, take lots of pictures! The time speeds by and you will wish you took more. Not just in the races, but around the tents, stands and climbing in the trees (yes, many times that is where I would find Grant and Jax). Capturing those candid moments with their friends is special. Doing this will help capture these times forever. And, it keeps you busy and gives you something else to distract you so you can let the coach take care of the racing. Did I mention, trust the coach?
Anne Lepesant is an ordinary swim mom. Her four daughters have been with Swim Pasadena since 2004 and now three swim in college (Caroline at SCAD Savannah; Victoria at Princeton; Madeleine at Hamilton) and one in high school (Isabelle at Pasadena High School). In this series, Anne explores the question: “ordinary” swim mom to “extraordinary” swim mom, what it’s like to raise truly exceptional swimmers? What experiences have we all shared? Where do our paths diverge? Stay tuned for more interesting #SwimMomMonday conversations.