Kristin Armstrong un-retires after birth of baby boy.

Kristin Armstrong.

Things us mere mortals don’t understand: the relentless competitive drive of elite professional athletes.

At age 37, Kristen Armstrong is un-retiring and returning to racing with the hope of making it to the Olympic Summer Games in London in 2012. It’s not just the decision to jump back on the saddle and train like an animal again that might surprise cycling fans and mere mortals.

It’s not that Armstrong already has a gold medal in the time trial from the 2008 Beijing games along with two world time trial championships. No, it’s that Armstrong had a baby, her son Lucas, just one mouth ago.

One of the first things you learn as a parent is to never judge any one else’s parenting skills. You don’t know the personalities or have any true picture of their family dynamic. Still, we’d question why Armstrong needs to come back to the sport and begin the grueling, time-consuming and exhausting training when she has a four week old baby.

Sorry, can’t help but wonder. It’s entirely possible that Armstrong and her husband make better parents than you or I or any super-parents you know. Having children grow up watching their parents do something they’re passionate about is a terrific lesson for kids.

Parenting has also changed significantly in the last few decades. There’s no reason why Armstrong’s husband can’t do just as good a job at the mommy role, be the go-to dad for diapers, meals, doctor appointments and bedtime stories. That’s all good.

Still, we wonder if this is a wise thing. Professional athletes are by nature people who lead an extremely self centered lifestyle. Just part of the job description. It’s all about you, your body, fitness, training schedule, meals, travel, your sometimes fragile ego that needs attention. That doesn’t change whether you’re Lance or Kristen or Michael Jordan or Brett Favre. The world revolves around you.

One definition of parenting is that you learn that the world no longer revolves around you. Your children require your full attention and their many needs take priority. You’re no longer free to do whatever you like. Parenting is putting yourself in second or third place. Not always fun and we’re guessing extra hard for people who have come to love the spotlight.

Armstrong’s husband Joe Savalo will travel with Lucas to races and also Kristin plans to keep her February and March training local and focus on the domestic race calendar. No trips to Belgium. That’s great to see and says alot about their priorities.

When my son was young, my wife wasn’t too pleased with any bike ride I took that lasted longer than 2 hours. I’m also not a professional athlete, an immensely talented rider like Armstrong. Bike racing is her life, who she is, what brings joy to her life.

Still, we wonder: when is it enough? How many medals, how many wins, how much gold before you say, it’s time to focus on someone besides myself. You don’t train for the Olympic Games by wedging in some hill intervals between nap times. Recovery time at age 37 isn’t great when you’re in charge of the 2am and 5am feeding.

One of the enduring and damaging fantasies of American life is that we can have it all. We never have to compromise. We can put in a 50 hour work week, spend lots of time with our kids, coach little league, train for half marathons or bike races, take gourmet cooking classes, have a full social life, do all the yard work, help the kids with homework, save some energy for sex with your partner, the list goes on and on.

The truth is, you can’t do it all and anyone who says they can is a selfish liar and control freak and everyone around them is miserable. Parenting reminds Twisted Spoke of the old theme line for the Peace Crops: “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It’s deeply rewarding and endlessly exhausting and doesn’t mix well with making an Olympic team.

We never had an astonishing talent like Kristin Armstrong. That combination of God given athletic prowess and an addiction to using it. We envy her but we don’t envy the juggling she’ll have to do as a parent and an Olympic hopeful.

And we wonder, when is enough enough?

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  • http://cynthialou.com Cynthia

    Great commentary and insight as usual!

    As a non-parent myself, I hadn’t thought of all of the details you mentioned above, but have heard how much harder it is to raise children than the media (by media, and I mean pop TV shows and mags) lead us to believe.

    I have seen many a pro-male bike riders up and leave their tired wives and children at home to fend for themselves, while dad travels the world, only to come back and be hero for the few days he’s home.

    Not fair either way – it takes a special person to marry a pro-athlete.

    • http://mildstallion.wordpress.com Al

      Wait – are you saying TV and movies have LIED to me?

  • Anthony

    Interesting that these questions are raised with Kristin but not Lance. Didn’t Lance just have a baby and then announce his 2011 racing season will start in January at the Tour Down Under?

    • http://www.atwistedspoke.com walshworld

      Yup, always a double standard and the Boss does whatever he wants.

  • Sam

    Double standard…hmmm. I suspect that Ms. Armstrong made/makes a good living doing what she does as a competetive athlete, maybe a better living than her partner. Any one of us has chosen to "go back to work" post delivery, after a period of time. If she was primary bread winner, she should go back to work.

    As an enthusiast in this sport, I have absolutlely no idea what it is like to be successful enough as an athlete to actually make a good living doing it. I read about baseball/football/basketball players that make obscene amounts of money in their chosen sport. It gets to be a bit much to swallow actually. But for a cyclist to actually be able to make any money, let alonre a female cyclist…I can truly admire this.

    Give her the benefit of the doubt you bring up. Although she may be driven by continuing to succeed as an athlete, if she is also driven to be the primary source of income for her family, just like you and me, she deserves the right to make that choice. Too often the assumption is made, especially in other counties and cultures, that women should be doing something that men feel they should and have to combat that social influence. This is one of the few countries where a woman like Ms. Armstrong gets any kind of opportunity/support to be a paid athlete. Let's not raise the issue any further up the flagpole…you may not have enough room in your inbox to address all of the women out there that may choose to weigh in.

    • http://www.atwistedspoke.com walshworld

      Good points Sam. I simply question at what point the focus on me, me, me famous athlete ends. It don't question her right to make money for her family (sounds like dad also makes a decent income, by the way) nor am I pushing a dated standard that women don't have exactly the same rights as men to leave the house everyday and be the primary income provider. All well and good. As a parent of two kids I do question the decision to try to train for the Olympic games at age 37 with a one month old kid. I know what parenting takes and I'm not sure they understand what they're in for. At her age, with already so many big wins and medals, I'd guess that juggling is going to be difficult. Being a parent to a small child and training for the olympics are two largely full time gigs and I'm doubt she can do both well at the same time. Just my two euros

  • Trina

    It sounds like you are done wondering "when is enough" and judged it to be enough for Ms. Armstrong.

    You wrote, "Bike racing is her life, who she is, what brings joy to her life." Can you imagine someone judging what brings you your joy in the same manner you just have with Ms. Armstrong? Parents shouldn't give up what brings them joy just because they are a parent. A joy-less parent is not a good parent. In addition, you might be a parent, but you are not a mother. Only a mother can decide what she can handle.

    As you know, the moment your first child is born, EVERYTHING changes…including your ability to compartmentalize, plan, compensate, focus while away from your child, and ensure quality time while with your child. At least it did for me. The current Ms. Armstrong is not the same pysically, emotionally, or mentally as she was before having a child, therefore you cannot assume training for the Olympics will be any more difficult for her than if she didn't have a child.

    Constantina Diṭă-Tomescu of Romania won the 2008 Olympic Marathon while training with a young child. At 38 years old, she is the oldest Olympic marathon champion in history.

    Women get better at EVERYTHING with children and age. ;)

    Not only is there a double standard with women vs. men in athletics, there is a double standard with women in athletics vs. women in business. I don't see any big articles announcing a mother's return to her role as VP of International Sales after the birth of her child or blogs criticizing the choice to do so.

    Go, Kristin, Go! Go, Mommies, Go!

  • Anthony

    Matt, there’s only a double standard if a biased person applies it.

    To suggest or question that an elite female athlete’s career should come to a sudden and complete stop because she takes a year off to have a kid is non-sense. If an athlete, regardless of gender, can make it at the highest level then more power to ‘em.