Spouses: The Unsung Heroes of Sports, By Heather Wilson

For better or worse, for richer or for poor, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. While these vows are commonly heard at weddings, they tend to be especially tested when it comes to being the spouse or loved one of an athlete. It is customary to hear about all the sacrifice and hard work that an athlete must endure. But the immense support of and demands placed on a spouse are often overlooked.

The obstacles and challenges that arise can cause some strain. However, these road bumps can also contribute to a stronger and closer relationship. To delve deeper into these challenges and the effects performance has on a relationship, the spouses of Cocoa Elite athletes shared their unique perspectives.

Challenges

Just as an athlete must face training and competition challenges, there are obstacles and hardships that their spouse must endure. The biggest and most common challenge tends to be time. The time an athlete spends training takes away time for their other responsibilities such as family or household duties. These extra obligations and increased support often fall onto the spouse. Julie Benson’s husband, Eric Benson, echoes this sentiment. Eric stated, “It can be challenging to allow time to be supportive so she has time to train. I know it’s super important to her, which means it’s important to me.” Striking that balance between work and life and athletics can be difficult.

Cocoa Elite athlete and wife to a fellow athlete, Veena Rhodes, explains, “Making time for both of us to get in our training with three kids, jobs, etc. is very challenging”. Cocoa Elite Founder and wife to cyclist Jim Bruno, Deb Bruno, adds, “Finding a way to help them learn to balance family, work, and their athlete time without impacting the household’s quality time is difficult.

Another common demand that can arise is jealousy.

Jealousy of the lifestyle, experiences and accolades of an athlete can sometimes occur. There are numerous perks to being an athlete. Getting to travel, being outdoors or meeting new people are just a few. Cocoa Elite athlete Amanda Eccleston’s husband, Jordan Eccleston, hits the nail on the head when he states, “Honestly, the most challenging part of being the spouse of a professional athlete, and a very good one, is that I get jealous of the lifestyle she lives. I know better than anyone the hard work she has put in to get where she is. I don’t think anything she has right now hasn’t come without sacrifices. But I sometimes wish I could travel Europe or experience many of the things she gets to do while I am stuck at home.”

Debbie Bruno brings up yet another difficulty when she says, “Understanding their overwhelming need to compete can be hard.” For an athlete the desire to compete is innate.  However, sometimes for a spouse, understanding why their spouse would rather go train for three hours instead of spending that time with their loved ones can be hard to grasp. While it is not personal, it can often feel that way. It again is finding that time and a balance between everything that can prove problematic.

Glass Half Empty

While challenges can be viewed as positive or negative, there are a few perceived downsides of being in a relationship with an athlete. The biggest negative tends to be the sacrifices that must be made on behalf of the athlete, but even more so by his or her spouse. As mentioned before, family time can often be affected by an athlete’s training. Compromising is a way of life. Veena explains that frequently both her and her husband who is also an athlete must, “Cut things shorter due to time and respect each other’s time. Also the time we need to give to our children and other family activities needs consideration.

Bruno emphasizes the sacrifice of time, stating, “TIME – that’s the biggest sacrifice. We must give up our time.  Plain and simple, my time is his. Even more taxing is that our time is under the pressures and the demands of their training schedule.” The idea of an athlete’s training or competition schedule dictating the lives of both the athlete and the spouse is another popular theme. Eccleston explains, “We make sacrifices all the time because her running dominates most of what we do in our lives. Are there family events we can’t go to because she needs to be able to x-train on a weekend? Or we need to leave a friend’s house so she can go to sleep? I don’t think of it as a burden, but it definitely dictates many of the things we do.

Another trouble for spouses is the prospect, or worse, the occurrence of injury.

Injury not only has devastating effects on an athlete, but it inevitably seeps into the dynamic of their relationships with others. Benson puts it simply, “Oh boy, injury is a doozy. It affects most of our waking hours. Either in conversation or mood.” Other familiar spousal emotions regarding injury are helplessness, guilt, or dismay for the athlete. Eccleston expresses, “When she does get injured, I sometimes feel like I get more upset for her than she does.

Rhodes states that her injury, “took a toll on everyone in the family. My husband felt bad for me and felt guilt for going out for a run. He had a hard time finding ways to console me.” Some sports such as cycling carry the risks of not only injuries, but accidents as well. Bruno expands on that, stating, “The accidents are terrifying. I have spent hours worrying, praying, and worrying some more and praying again. There is absolutely no fun spending time in the ER or days at the hospital. You feel helpless and at times hopeless.

Glass Half Full.

For every negative there is a positive. A relationship with an athlete is no exception. When asked to expand on how being in a relationship with an athlete has positively influenced him, Eccleston expressed how it has allowed him to continue to follow his own running, saying, “Post-collegiately I have continued my own running. I don’t race very often, despite training to always be in decent shape. If I were married to someone else, they may not understand why I like to keep running most every day. Obviously being married to an athlete, Amanda understands why I keep running.

Both Rhodes and Benson explain that their relationships with an athlete pushed them to be better. Veena Rhodes adds, “He makes me want to be better!” Being able to travel and experience new things is another advantage. Bruno states, “We have met some amazing people and seen different places.” She adds, “But I would say the most important thing is that it leads to an overall healthier lifestyle of living. Nutrition and exercise is a way of life for the household.

The transition to a healthier and more positive lifestyle is a common trait.

Eccleston states, “Both of us have a pretty big sweet tooth. We always ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it during our college years. We still love dessert. But we are consistently making efforts to eat healthier and cut out foods that we don’t always need to be eating. I know I don’t have to eat as healthy as she does, but it’s something I like to do to support her.” Benson adds, “She definitely inspires me to workout and has an astounding work ethic. I just try to keep up.” Bruno echoes, “I think I am more active since my spouse is so active. Eating healthier. I also find we are encouraging others to be more active.

Sport not only has positive effects on relationships, it can bring loved ones together. Sports can increase the closeness or strength of the relationship. Eccleston shares, “I feel that running is a huge part of our relationship. I believe that it brought us together, as we were on the same team at Hillsdale. Furthermore, I also believe that I understand her running so much that she can always talk to me about every little detail about her running and how she is feeling. I understand what her running means to her just as she understands what my running means to me. We don’t always get to run together often, but when we do it is something we both enjoy experiencing together.

Performance.

Performance or competition results can evoke euphoria or elicit despair. These emotions are not exclusive to athletes. Their loved ones often feel the aftereffects of these feelings. A poor performance can wreak havoc on a relationship. Because of all the sacrifices and compromises that a spouse must make, the disappointment an athlete feels is often experienced just as intensely by the spouse. Bruno explains, “It’s always very disappointing to see a loved one in emotional pain. Seeing someone you love not achieving something they worked so hard at only breaks your heart.” Rhodes adds, “We are disappointed for each other and ourselves after a poor performance.

Besides feeling disappointment, a spouse is tasked with the difficulty of recognizing the athlete’s poor performance while still giving support. Benson states, “When she gets down in the dumps, there is a balance between acknowledgment and positive encouragement.” Eccleston adds, “There are a few times that I need to give some encouragement, but mostly I am reinforcing ideas that she already has about how good of a runner she is.

On the flip side, the positives of a good performance can trickle down into an athlete’s relationship. 

Just as a poor performance reveals the emotional investment a spouse has in their loved one’s performance, a positive performance can also reveal how intensely devoted a spouse is to their loved one’s athletic outcomes. There is certainly a shared sense of excitement. Eccleston shares, “I think we both get excited about her potential and what we hope she can accomplish, and good races reinforce what we both know she can do.” Rhodes adds, “We are super proud and excited for each other.

Benson echoes, “I am just happy for her hard work and success.” Bruno sums up the effect of a positive performance nicely, explaining, “The high/happiness associated with a great/winning performance trickles down into a relationship.” The positivity and joy of a good result is not only shared, but the sense of accomplishment is also mutual, and rightfully so with all the time, support, and compromise that a spouse puts forth.

As an athlete approaches a big competition or race, testing their commitment and devotion is constant.

Every athlete deals with the stress of a looming event differently.  Commonly this pressure and anxiety is directed in some way at loved ones.  Eccleston shares, “I learned early, back when we were dating while attending Hillsdale College, that Amanda likes to get in the zone before her races and is not social at all. She wouldn’t talk to me before some of her races. I didn’t quite understand in the beginning, but now know it’s just part of her getting ready and mentally preparing herself to run well. If she has a race, I give her plenty of space for her to do her thing.”

Eccelston states, “Oh my gosh, watching her compete are the most stressful experiences I have ever had. The bigger the race, the worse it is for me. There have been many times when I thought my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. When watching her win her DMR National Title while at Michigan, running the whole last leg from the front, I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. And then in the Olympic Trials when she just missed going to Rio, my hands went numb when she hit about 200 to go. My body felt like it was going into shock. It’s way more stressful for me than it is for her.

During these times, routines, and schedules will often change and sometimes a spouse must take over additional responsibilities. 

Rhodes states, “Tapers are always hard – routines are off.”  Benson adds, “I just try to be there for the ups and downs along the way and be there on race day, physically or relieve as much stress as possible by taking care of the kids.” Bruno can relate as well, “As an involved/supportive spouse, I must adjust my schedule to accommodate the event schedule. Taper week really needs a new name, not fun for other spouses I am sure.

Once again spouses are diligent in stepping up to ease the pressure and tension of the athlete, often taking on those emotions themselves.

Bonds and Investments.

Regardless of the challenges, benefits, and effects of performance on relationships, the one constant is the investment that spouses make for their loved ones. Whether it is time, money, or emotional support, it’s undeniable the essential role spouses play in the lives of athletes. The bond formed in these relationships seems to only make the relationship stronger.

Spouses often express more worry and anxiety for their loved one than the athlete does for themselves.  

Bruno echoes, “I worry about his safety.  I also worry about his mental health if things don’t go the way he wants. I experienced that horrible feeling every time he jumped on his bike and goes out the door. I’ve had way too many calls like ‘Hi, I’m okay but you will need to meet me at the hospital”. Or, “Hi, I’m okay, but I crashed. Can you come pick me up?” Those are the worst calls to get. So yes, my anxiety level goes over the top every time he races or trains. A 20-lb bike is no match for a 2-ton car.

Spouses can also experience the joy and excitement of a great performance.  

Rhodes explains, “I feel anxious, but I think mostly in a good way. I’m excited to see results and participate in athlete tracking! We are usually out there on the course for each other, with the family in tow.

While athletes are often reveled as driven, committed, and disciplined, it is often forgotten that they have a secret weapon. The behind-the-scenes support system aptly headed by their spouse. Without the emotional and physical assistance these loved ones contribute, an athlete would be very hard pressed to excel in their sport. So the next time you look up to and admire an athlete, do not forget the unsung hero who holds it all together.

So, thank you spouses for all your unwavering love.

Here’s to all your support and allowing us athletes to be the stubborn weirdoes we are.

Here’s to you.


 

Heather Wilson is an Elite Track Runner. She became the 60th U.S. woman in history to break the 4:30 barrier in the mile.  Heather clocked in with an impressive 4:29.39.

 

 

 

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