For the parents of an Olympic contender, the Games involve some of the same mysticism and drama and thrilling excitement that the rest of us see. And then there’s a lot of logistics.
“I was watching six months out, and all of a sudden, Delta came out with this great deal,” Cathy Vollmer told BuzzFeed. Cathy’s daughter is Dana Vollmer, an American swimmer who dominated the Olympics, winning three golds and setting a world record in the 100m butterfly, where she became the first woman to ever break 56 seconds. But the United States Olympic Committee does not pay for or arrange the transportation of athletes’ families no matter how fast their progeny swim, so Cathy was watching deals for flights.
“People assume that if you’re the parent of an Olympian, they’re paying your way, they’re taking care of everything, that you have these tickets up front, but that’s not true at all,” Cathy said. With Olympic trials positioned so close to the Olympics themselves, the decision to wait until your kid qualified could mean astronomically expensive overseas airfare — or not getting tickets at all. On the other side of the equation, some parents whose sons and daughters didn’t qualify found themselves in possession of tickets they had no desire to use.
Then there are the events themselves, tickets for which were famously hard to acquire this time around. Anja Grevers’ son Matt won two golds swimming for the U.S., and his individual 100m backstroke performance set an Olympic record. Getting to see him do so was a challenge.
USA Swimming, Anja wrote in an email, gives parents two tickets and allows them to purchase one more. If you’re worrying about more people than three — in the Grevers’ case, nine — things become more difficult. “The tickets were a nightmare, and I was almost as nervous about getting them as I was about Matt’s races,” Anja said. Fortunately, the swimming parents had received each others’ email addresses from U.S. swimming officials and were able to help each other out, pooling and trading tickets.
The trouble didn’t end there. After ensuring that her whole party was spoken for with Matt’s preliminary heats and finals, Anja arrived at the pool to find that the tickets were less than ideal.
“The U.S.A. tickets were in the nose-bleed section, and I am petrified of heights,” Anja said. “After almost breaking down and hyperventilating, I settled and watched all the races. I will never understand why the U.S. has such horrible seats.” Before the final of the backstroke, Matt’s eventual Olympic-record race, the Grevers saw a man holding a placard with their name outside of the stadium. Turned out he was an employee of the BBC — the network provided the Grevers with better tickets that allowed them to be closer for the race and awards ceremony, a service they repeated for the 4x100 medley final (the network wanted to curry favor with Matt, a fan favorite).
Outside of the events, the Vollmers and the Grevers said they had pleasant London-sightseer experiences. Both credited USA Swimming for helping them with information about London and ways to support their kids, including flags and signs. Proctor and Gamble provided refreshments for families of American Olympians and ran an ad campaign thanking Olympic moms. And, of course, watching your children not only medal but set records makes up for plenty of frustration. Cathy Vollmer called her daughter’s race “better than I could have ever imagined.”
One of the remarkable things about the Olympics is that athletes are simultaneously one-in-a-million achievers and, in the Olympic village and venues, a dime a dozen. Parents of even the most accomplished winners are similarly anonymous. After Grevers medaled, it took his parents hours to get into the studios where he was being interviewed, fighting through crowds and officials who had no idea who they were.
“Being a parent at the trials, you’re someone special,” Anja said. “But being a parent at the Olympics, you’re just another spectator.”