Patrick McDonald’s alarm goes off each day at 6 a.m.
But McDonald (Madison, Wis.), the skip of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team, isn’t headed to the rink just yet. First, he’ll get his 11-year-old daughter, Andie, up and ready to be at the bus stop by 7. Then, he’ll wake up his 7-year-old son Kaelan to get him to school by 8.
After that, it’s off to throw stones with his coach Steve Brown or his wife Carrie, who is also a recreational curler. On-ice workouts and cross-training must finish up before the kids’ school days are over because Kaelan and Andie both have soccer practice, and McDonald helps coach Andie’s team. Andie curls, too, coaching other kids or playing as a sub in her father’s league several nights per week.
Cook dinner, help with homework. Get some much-needed sleep. Repeat.
It’s all in a day’s work for McDonald and the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team nominees, of which four of five members are parents. Only Meghan Lino (Falmouth, Mass.), 29, does not have children.
Jimmy Joseph (New Hartford, Conn.), has one daughter. David Palmer (Mashpee, Mass.) has a daughter and two sons. Penny Greely (Green Bay, Wis.) has one son. For these athletes, each day is a challenging but worthwhile balancing act.
Not enough time
The life of a “Paralympic parent” is busy, and it’s certainly not easy.
On top of the countless hours of training the team puts in at home, they travel throughout the country and internationally for bonspiels and training camps throughout the year.
All that time on the road can take a toll. Sometimes birthdays are missed; sometimes spouses are left to handle behavioral problems on their own.
“I was in Canada for Thanksgiving, and I had my 7-year-old remind me that I’ve only spent a couple of Thanksgivings throughout the years with the family,” McDonald said. “I’m never home for their birthdays because that’s usually when world championships are. So yeah, you know, it’s hard.”
Palmer’s children are older, and he wasn’t a serious curler when they were young. But Palmer hasn’t always been able to be there in person when his 17, 19 and 20-year-old children need a little parental guidance.
“There have been a couple issues with behavior and things like that, where I was away at a bonspiel and not able to help with the situation,” said Palmer, the vice skip for Team USA. “That’s probably one of the most frustrating things, just not being here if something does happen. It’s always on your mind.”
Making ends meet
The life of a professional curler isn’t luxurious, either. Paychecks are small, and sponsorships aren’t abundant. Greely and Palmer’s balancing acts include full-time jobs, while McDonald and Joseph make ends meet as full-time athletes.
“Luckily my work is behind me supporting me,” said Palmer, who is employed by Mashpee Public Schools. “I know they’ll give me the time off that I need to travel, so that’s worked out.”
Most of the athletes’ families won’t be joining them in Sochi due to the cost of the trip. Mashpee Public Schools had plans to hold a fundraiser for Palmer’s family to attend but ran out of time before travel plans would’ve needed to be arranged.
But being a Paralympic parent has its benefits, too. Like being able to show their children that setting goals and working hard to achieve them leads to great things – proof that if you have a dream and put in the work, you can realize it.
“You do your best to give your kids everything and support them when they try their best,” McDonald said. “When they don’t win a game and they’re upset with themselves, that’s when you have to put your arm around them as a parent and tell them how much you love them, how proud you are of them, and let them know that losing games is a part of life. And when they do succeed, you get to feel their joy and excitement.”
All in the family
The balancing act certainly wouldn’t be possible without a heavy dose of family support and understanding.
“My wife, she’s such a sweetheart,” said Joseph, a two-time Paralympian and one of the most experienced wheelchair curlers in the U.S.. “She gets two weeks vacation every year, and here I am traveling the world while she stays home. My daughter misses me, but they support me 100 percent. Without the support back home, you feel bad and you’re not focusing on doing your best.”
Having family members also involved in curling helps, as is the case with McDonald and Andie, one of the youngest Level 1 curling coaches certified by the United States Curling Association.
“She wants to be the next Debbie McCormick or Erika Brown,” McDonald said. “I’ll call her after a game and she’ll sit there and be that fellow curler and trusted daughter. She’ll say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and ask me what happened, why I did this and that. I get to talk to her like she’s a fellow athlete.”
But curlers or not, the families of the U.S. Wheelchair Curling Team recognize the magnitude of earning a berth at the Paralympic Winter Games.
“I think [my kids] are at the age now where they’re getting the full realization of how big this really is,” McDonald said. “They see me interviewed on TV or in Sports ‘N Spokes magazine. When we were at worlds a couple of the events were live streamed, so they would get up and 3 a.m. to watch it. I think they enjoy it.”
Set for Sochi
With a foundation of family support and a strong base of training, the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team, which was nominated on Dec. 12, is on the home stretch to Sochi.
The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are set for March 7-16. Team USA has never medaled at a Paralympic Winter Games in curling, having finished just shy of a bronze in Vancouver in 2010.
The five members of the 2014 team won’t compete again together at a major event until Sochi, though they have several training camps planned and each participates in a local league while not on the road.
Though currently No. 6 in the world rankings, Team USA believes a medal at the Paralympic Games is more than possible.
“The main objective is to come back with something around our necks,” Joseph said. “A Paralympic medalist – that’s huge.”
All wheelchair curling matches will be streamed live from the Paralympic Winter Games at TeamUSA.org. NBC and NBC Sports Network are also broadcasting the Games.