In all the conversations I have had with elite athletes this past year there have emerged recurring elements – love of sport, drive to achieve and most of all family support.
The stories weave through tales of early morning, after school and late night runs for training; hours spent in the family car going to or from some ground or the simple words of reassurance when it all seems like a dream too far.
The word culture has also been frequently mentioned: family culture, team culture, sports culture and the more it happens the more I ponder exactly what it is in relation to an athlete’s life and success.
In watching the Olympics and speaking with those involved it becomes apparent from an arm’s length exactly what it is – respect, trust, honesty and devotion – in other words, family.
Finding them in the crowd
When all you want to do is embrace the people that mean the most.
The swimmer who gives Mum and Dad a wave in the stands realising she’s touched the wall first in record breaking time or the girlfriend who gets teary when speaking of her partner’s work ethic and humility.
It is the parents who not only support their child but everyone else’s child because it is a journey not taken alone.
Alicia Quirk recently told me that it is not only her mum she looks to – if she’s not there then longtime friend and housemate Emilee Cherry’s mum is always handy with a cuddle.
“Her mum is like my second mum and then there’s Charlie Caslick’s mum and Emma Tonegato’s so if my parents aren’t there, there’s always some parents that are going to be there to look after us and give you that ‘Mum’ cuddle after the games.”
The camaraderie that comes from not just being players together in a team but being parents, siblings and loved ones of those players is a core foundation that has added to the success of the Aussie Sevens squad and is part of what they collectively refer to as the ‘culture’ of the team.
Luckily the Rugby Sevens families have rented a BIG house in Rio just so they can add to that ‘bonding’!
And in fact become an even bigger ‘family’ from shared bonds and pathways.
Plus follow your journey to the rugby fields across the world – sometimes in weird costumes!
Surrounding the team with family and underlining the importance of the shared journey the Rugby Sevens women are on is something that is very much on coach Tim Walsh’s mind – so much so he secretly invited the parents in Rio to make the traditional pre-tournament jersey presentation to each of the players.
And when the support is needed to put the important message out, the team is there for family.
Nicole Beck says her daughter Sophie makes an appearance at training most days and in fact thinks of the group as her extended family – she has at least 19 aunts and Tim Walsh can see another talented recruit down the line.
And she will know what her ultimate goal is in 2036!
The overwhelming tone from athletes who go as far as they can on a journey of achieving, excelling and testing their limits is that it is not a lone journey.
As for siblings, there are few who would agree to spend even a small amount of time together and yet the drive for excellence and goals act as a special bond for the rare few.
Emma and David McKeon are just one set of siblings who have gone to Rio among seven sets in the Australian team.
While a few simple words of support from one who is blazing a trail of his own on the other side of the world can be all you need.
Rivalry and camaraderie become the driving force for some.
— 60 Minutes Australia (@60Mins) May 21, 2016
But always acknowledging the ties that bind and where it all started.
The story of Aussie Sevens player Ellia Green has been told at great length over recent months but once you get past the speed, the rapping, the strong friendships within the sisterhood of her team, she will always go back to the rock that is her mother. Wearing ‘Mum’ written on her wrist taping every time she ventures onto the rugby field, she openly admits it is the sight of that and the thought of the main role model in her life that gives her an ‘X’ factor when she plays.
There is no getting away from the value the family support network has for an athlete – whether they taste success or not.
“They were the people I wanted to see after the race. They came over here from back home and it was so good to see them – mum and dad and my mates. Your mum and dad do so much for you when you’re young, it was epic to have them here.” – Jarrod Poort speaking after his 10km Open Water swim.
When the culmination of all the years of tears, sweat, doubt and dedication unfold at an event like the Olympics, my faith in human nature is not only restored – if it in fact it has reached that point – but it is rejuvenated by the unwavering faith, love and support given to athletes whether they succeed or not.
And, of course, that then depends on your definition of succeed when the final ruler is placed over the results table.
But despite the nay-sayers and the detractors when the gold coffers are not overflowing, athletes know that there are those in their lives who will always be standing there beside them with a high-five and a hug.