Olympics

I have always loved the Olympics. It is four days post-Rio and I am already experiencing withdrawal. Like all of the past Olympics I have followed, this one became an obsession, with nightly viewing of events and keen interest in the athletes’ backgrounds and inspiring stories.

In these troubling times and during one of the most contentious of political seasons, this Olympics not only served to unite our fractured nation, but also, brought families together, bonding us in a special way that other national events—sports or otherwise—could not.

Prior to the proliferation of electronic media, thousands of cable channels, live streaming as well as hundreds of computer and mobile phone apps, families would gather around the television, brimming with national pride, and watch top athletes from around the world compete. Even though today’s technologies make it easy to watch continuous coverage of the games all day and all night from a phone or laptop, there remain many families who convene and watch the old-fashioned way—in their living rooms on live (or seemingly live) TV.  Fortunately, mine is one such family.

As avid sports fans, our family watches NFL football; we love the annual spectacle that is the Superbowl. We meticulously research the college basketball teams in the NCAA tournament and pore over our March Madness brackets. We particularly enjoy following the NBA (despite being long-suffering NY Knicks fans) and view every playoff game no matter where we are. We watch the tennis “Slams” and the golf “Majors.” Basically, we follow all sports all the time.

Yet, something feels different about the Olympic games, though it is neither the sports contests themselves nor the outcome. It is something more. The uniqueness of the Olympics is rooted in the exceptional athletes who, unlike NBA and PGA players, are generally out of the public eye. The vast majority are only in the public view for two weeks out of every four years. During that time, we become immersed in their “back stories”—their work ethic, the sacrifices that they and their families make, the extraordinary effort expended, the physical and mental strength required and the toll it takes on their bodies—all in hopes of representing their country and challenging other top athletes from around the world.

Certain Olympic athletes like Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Kerry Walsh Jennings and the USA women’s gymnastics team, do become mega-superstars, with lucrative sponsorships, commercial endorsements and national tours. But the vast majority do not win medals. They do not become superstars, and their Olympic experiences do not make them rich. They are passionate about their sports, strive to be the best they can be, and view the Olympic games as the pinnacle of competition… this, in and of itself, is reward enough. The unwavering dedication and sacrifices like pre-dawn daily workouts, continuous travel, school tutors, and missed rites of passage like homecoming and prom, are well worth it— for the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream. For these athletes, and for their families who have guided and supported them every step of the way, the realization of this dream is priceless.

The Olympics has always been the ultimate “family event,” as the entire world tunes in to watch. Family members of competing athletes are in attendance in support of their child, grandchild, brother, sister or cousin; as fans, we get to know these families as well as the athletes themselves. A different, though equally important, kind of family bonding also occurs at home for the viewing audience. Our family reveled each night in the Olympics, enjoying each competition and discussing the events and athletes with great enthusiasm. We even enjoyed watching sports we have never seen played competitively, like archery, table tennis and badminton. Never mind that we were sleep deprived, having stayed up until the wee hours to watch the gymnastics, swimming, diving, track & field and, of course, the midnight beach volleyball “parties” live from Copacabana beach… but it was all worth it.  We never tired of listening to the “Star Spangled Banner,” as the USA won medal after medal.

And, as we congregated around our TV like days of old, raptly watching the competitions and unique stories unfold, I smiled contentedly with the realization that family togetherness was back in full force in the USA. I will miss feeling the distinctive pride of being an American and cheering for all these awe-inspiring athletes whose talent, spirit and personalities filled our homes and hearts for two weeks. I will miss the comfort and camaraderie of sitting around the television, enjoying unforced, organic family time.

Thankfully, two years from now we will get to do it again… I am already looking forward to the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang.

Go USA!!!

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Camp

This summer I have had the distinct pleasure of hanging out at summer camp— neither as a camper (an experience which I treasured in my youth,) nor as a camp parent (which I also enjoyed)— but rather, as a professional consultant and spouse of a camp owner/founder.  Now several years removed from being a camp parent and having had the opportunity to view camp from a unique vantage point, my perspective on camp has been both reinforced and redefined. image

I have always embraced camp as a welcome break for children and teens from the rigors and structure of their school and home routines.  In today’s fast-paced, high-pressured world in which children are basically raised with electronic devices in their hands at all times, summer camp offers even more of a reprieve from our insane, anxiety-laden lives.

Camp sessions run from just a few days to 7 or 8 weeks and offer a range of activities from outdoor adventure skills to sports training and all types of special interest programming like theatre, music and culinary arts.  Yet, whatever a camp’s program/activity focus, most provide tremendous growth opportunities and lifelong benefits. Among these are to experience being away from home for the first time; to learn to get along and live with others in close quarters; to make new friends; to take healthy risks and conquer fears; to unplug electronics and be present; to play joyfully; and to appreciate natural outdoor beauty.

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Growing up, my sisters and I came home after school and played in the backyard or with the neighborhood kids until it was dark outside.  We were all called home for dinner, not on our cell phones but by our screaming mothers. Our fun was pure. We often came home dirty, with scrapes and bruises. We were allowed to watch one television program before bed. There was no Cable TV, no Netflix, no Hulu, no DVR. There was no social media, no stressing over which photos to post of each activity we engaged in, paired with the perfect hashtag. We ate dinner every night as a family.  We had long conversations.  Dad quizzed us on current events and asked if we had “read any good books lately?”  We talked about our days and our dreams and our friendships and the things we enjoyed.

I’m not suggesting that none of this happens today.  Families still sit around the dinner table and have real conversations.  But those dinners are fewer, sandwiched as they are between soccer practices, karate lessons, dance recitals and basketball games. Many other meals are eaten in the car and on the run.  Today’s children are so fully scheduled with activities and so completely absorbed in their electronic devices and social media that they live less and less in the moment and focus instead on “what’s next.”

At camp, if only for a few days or for several weeks, these same children have a chance to just be kids.  To sit around a campfire and sing songs.  To scream cheers in the dining hall until their voices are hoarse.  To catch their first fish, waterski or canoe for the first time, create art from a block of wood, or climb a tree to face a ropes course challenge. To make new friends from across the country or around the world.  To have meaningful, in-person conversations with cabin mates or teammates instead of texting and Facebook messaging friends in the same room.

Even with all of the modern enhancements and amenities at today’s camps (and there are many, to be sure, including private coaching for elite athletes, indoor gyms with complete fitness training equipment, heated pools, extensive trips across the country and even internationally, healthy food offerings that include nut and gluten-free options, and so much more,) camp remains a place of pure and simple comforts, a respite from the stresses of the real world. The key for many camp owners/directors is to strike a balance between providing a high level of instruction/skill-building that is bringing children to camp in the first place (and the reason parents are shelling out substantial tuition fees) with the core values, traditions and joy of summer camp.

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At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I would like to share some thoughts about one camp that has successfully bridged this gap: The Berkshire Soccer Academy for Girls.  The Academy (more affectionately known as “BSA”) is a girl’s soccer camp in Otis, Massachusetts, set on a pristine 116-acre campus in the Berkshire mountains.  BSA offers multiple five-day sessions for girls 10-17 who are passionate about soccer and who want to improve their skills while having fun.  BSA has created a “special sauce” which combines professional-level soccer instruction for several hours each day— plus fitness training, health and nutritional components— with fun and engaging activities like cooking, fishing, kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding, yoga and arts & crafts.  At night, campers partake in wacky game shows, sing-a-longs, campfires and s’mores. This balanced, well-rounded approach to sports-specialty camping has proven quite successful, with campers and coaches/staff yearning for more.

Many other summer camps offer a balanced, ‘complete camper’ approach, and lots more are likely to follow suit.  The challenge for camping professionals is that all camps must continue to evolve to remain relevant to today’s families, while retaining the important core values and essence that define “camp.”  In other words, the more camp changes, the more it stays the same.

Each time I leave home and arrive at camp, my spirit hearkens back to my days as a young girl and the pure joy I felt at camp.  I feel blessed to be able to spend time now, later in life, in such bucolic and peaceful surroundings.  I breathe deeply, inhaling the scent of fresh pine needles, gaze out at the gently rippling, spring-fed lake and listen joyously to the cheerful shouts of “happy campers” everywhere… and I know I am home.  I am so profoundly grateful to experience, first-hand, what camp means to so many children, teens and their parents—all of whom need camp more today than ever before.