Olympic athletes exhibit ability of the highest caliber and are celebrated and respected as heroes. They also, in many cases, happen to be on the brink of young adulthood.
Just like their non-Olympian peers, these young athletes benefit from the guidance and support of a parental figure. For many at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado, that guidance comes in the form of Sherry Von Riesen.
Riesen’s LinkedIn profile reads that she is a coordinator for the U.S. Olympic Committee. But she is so much more than that. Endearingly referred to as the U.S. Olympic team mom, she’s a shoulder to cry on, a stand-in parent and, as we found out from talking to her, a beacon of wisdom.
Much of that wisdom applies not just to her athletes, but to us mere mortals as well. From coming from a place of kindness to being mindful of the things we share on social media, check out these seven motherly anecdotes that are applicable in both Olympic and everyday situations.
Time heals all wounds
It’s not just the Olympic team members we see on television whose lives Riesen affects.
“People outside the games go, ‘Oh my god, you get to spend time with the Olympians,’” she said. “I go, ‘The whole world gets to spend time with the Olympians. I take care of the ones who don’t make it.’”
One of those athletes, a triathlete, missed his opportunity to get to the games because he got a flat tire on the way to trials.
“I’d sit and talk to him and he’d say, ‘I want to quit, I want to move on,’” she said. “I told him to talk to me in a few more days. Everyone else’s game plan is to get them there and on the podium. My game plan is to give them strength and be supportive as they’re making a decision for the next step. A few days later he said, ‘OK, maybe I’ll train for a World Cup.’ I said, ‘OK, talk to me in a few more days.’ A few days later he said, ‘I’m not ready to give up. I’m going to continue on.’”
Lead with compassion...
“What’s really amazing is that the other athletes who make it actually go very low key,” she said. “We are a community and a family. They don’t want to brag. Sometimes a roommate makes the team and another doesn’t, so they’re very cognizant of what they’re doing. It’s really a beautiful family.”
... And discretion
When asked about the athletes who have come forward to say they would be attending the games to represent the United States but not necessarily its current administration, Riesen told HuffPost that “people have a right to speak their minds,” calling that freedom “the wonderful thing about America.”
But politically charged or otherwise, she has instilled her maternal wisdom into some athletes when it comes to what they are ― and are not ― posting on social media.
“Once in a while I’ll see something silly that they said on Facebook and will call them up and say, ‘Well, this is how I look at that, I don’t think you’re looking at it that way, maybe you should take it down.’ And they do. You just have to see it through different eyes sometimes.”
Laughter is the best medicine
Riesen serves as a support system for the athletes, but she also serves as their comic relief.
“I’ll hit them hard, ask them what they’re whining about, but in a loving, funny way,” she said. “They’ll come sit with me because they just need to laugh and let something roll off their shoulders. It’s easier for things to roll off of mine, and I just show them how I do it. I tell people before a competition that if you had a good time, you did it right.”
Remember what’s important in life ― and in the games
It’s easy to feel bogged down by politics and world events at the moment, but the Olympic Games are a time for the entire world to come together in the name of athleticism and sportsmanship. She recalled one story in particular, from her first games in Salt Lake City in 2002, that serves as a reminder of that.
“That was a healing games,” she said. “As the world came to America, they helped us heal. There are so many stories people don’t know about. Each athlete at the games was handed a bracelet of someone who had lost their life in 9/11. One young man actually got the bracelet with the name of someone that was in his brother’s fire brigade that had lost his life ― just randomly got his bracelet.”
A little gesture goes a long way
Riesen works with Procter & Gamble, one of the sponsors of the Olympics and fittingly responsible for those “Thank you, Mom” ads. The company launched a family home near the Olympics site starting in 2012, where parents of athletes can hang out, meet up with their kids and get to know each other.
“I’m like the mom at the training center, but you come to the games and I am a distant aunt,” she said. “You see these parents who have fought and cried and screamed and laughed.”
Not every parent is lucky enough to be at the games themselves, and those who are can’t always afford to attend events or stay comfortably.
“The first year with P&G they gave out Visa gift cards ― just a little bit of money but a nice amount. One mother came up to me crying. I asked her what was going on and she said, ‘I’m staying in a hostel and now I can move into a hotel.’ Another time I was given a few tickets to the opening ceremonies. I went down to the parents in the house who said, ‘We’d love to go, but I can’t afford it,’ and I was able to give them the tickets. It’s stories like that I get to see every day and be part of and they’re just amazing.”
Peace is the answer
There is an international sense of camaraderie that washes over the world with every Olympic Games ― and Riesen told HuffPost she has high hopes that 2018 will be no different.
“Even with what’s going on with both Koreas coming to the games together, to me it’s like these are the games of peace,” she said. “I’m hoping the world, the media and politics will let us alone and let us have a games of peace. Just let us have this moment. I think we can do it as a world.”
Nothing like a little motherly optimism to hit you right in the feels, eh?