Olympic-Size Sacrifices: From Leaving Home to Relying on Food Stamps

iVillage's Kelly Wallace talks with moms of U.S. athletes about the huge sacrifices they and their children have made to realize Olympic dreams

Had Gabby Douglas, one of the star members of the "Fab Five," not done something incredible for a teenager, she might never have made it to London.

Two years ago, at the ripe old age of 14, she left her mom, her three siblings and her two dogs and moved from Virgina to Iowa to work with an Olympic caliber coach, Liang Chow, who coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic gold and silver in 2008. “She goes to Iowa where she doesn’t know a soul, she probably didn’t even know where Iowa was on the map," said her grandmother, Carolyn Ford. "I don’t know if I could have made that decision, I know I wouldn’t have at 14."

My conversation with Ford got me thinking about the amazing sacrifices athletes like Gabby and families like the Douglas's make to get to the Olympics. So I set out to talk with moms of athletes about the sacrifices they made and their kids made to realize their Olympic dreams: the moms of newly crowned silver medalist Abby Johnston in synchronized diving, bronze medalist in men's all-around gymnastics Danell Leyva, beach volleyballer Jennifer Kressy, who's still competing, and weightlifter Sarah Robles who competes Sunday.

Giving Up Senior Year 

When Abby Johnston's diving coach moved from Columbus, Ohio to Charlotte, North Carolina to coach at Duke University, Abby went with him. The Olympic silver medalist in synchronized diving got an apartment and took online courses, missing all of the activities of her senior year. "I cried all the way home from North Carolina," said Abby’s mom Elaine.

The pursuit of an Olympic dream also impacted the family and Abby's two sisters, with vacations planned around diving meets - sometimes even holidays played second fiddle to diving. "We were at a meet in Tennesse that we didn’t get home from until Christmas Eve so we are in Tennessee for five or six days leading up to Christmas. We put a tree in the hotel but (the kids) are not at home, they’re not with their friends, so all those things are sacrifices," the mom of three said.  "I mean they support their sister but I appreciate what they’ve also given up and changed their lives for.

Pursuit of Perfection 

Gymnastics may be in Danell Leyva's blood -- his stepfather and coach, and his mom played for Cuba's National Team -- but that doesn't mean it comes easily.  He has made the sport his life, which means day-long workouts at his stepfather's gym.  "He is usually (in the gym) from nine (a.m.) to six, seven, eight. (He) even sometimes closes the gym," said Danell's cousin.  "If he can’t get something right in one event, he’ll be in that same event, even if (his coach) tells him, 'No, go on to the next thing,' he’ll say, 'No, I want to get this right,' and until he gets it right, he will not move ... he'll stay until midnight if he has to to get it right."

"He's always there, always there," he said.  That dedication clearly paid off.  Levya bounced back from 19th place in the men's all-around to win the bronze medal!

The Juggling Act

Charlotte Kressy, mom of 35-year-old beach volleyballer Jennifer Kressy and two younger sons, remembers the days of dividing and conquering with her husband.  "We've always tried to go everywhere to see her play no matter what," she said. "When she was younger, it was just splitting up the family as far as who would take the boys and do football because both of them played varsity football. And when she was in college, I could go to Los Angeles to watch her play and he would be in Dana Point (their hometown) watching the boys play football."

After missing the 2008 Games by 50 points, Jennifer spent the past four years training hard and living out of a suitcase a lot of the time.  "It's just constant, working out and watching her diet and traveling is probably the hardest thing," her mom said.  "She travels eight months out of the year … so I think that’s really hard on your body."

It's also hard on your personal life. Jennifer has a serious boyfriend, a French volleyball playter, and they'd love to have a future together but it's tough when they're both traveling, she added.

Relying On A Food Bank and Donations

Weightlifter and first time Olympian Sarah Robles (who turned 23 Wednesday -- happy birthday Sarah!) lives on $400 a month from U.S. weightlifting.  How does she do it? "I don't know," her mom Joy said, while she got her first manicure in 30 years (30 years!!!) at the P&G Salon.  "People have been very, very nice to her, and she'll come in to the gym sometimes and they’ll be like bags of groceries anonymously for her," said Joy.  "And she goes to the food bank and (gets) food stamps" she added, although she doesn't get many.

Her financial struggles, while a huge sacrifice, may ultimately have helped her, said her mom.  "I think even more than the Olympics, I am proud of the person she is," Joy said.  "Because I'm gonna say anybody can be an Olympian but not everybody can be a good person."

How true indeed!

Watch here as Sarah talks about making it to her first Olympics, and how she hopes to inspire women of all shapes and sizes that they can be whatever they want to be:


Kelly Wallace, chief correspondent of iVillage, is in London covering the 2012 Games.  You can find all of her daily behind-the-scenes blogs here and follow all of her Olympic tweets (@kellywallacetv).

The cost of Kelly's transportation to London was paid by Procter & Gamble.

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