I should be really intimidated by Debbie van Kiekebelt. She’s 58 but looks a decade younger; she’s hosted over seven different television shows, and has her own production company, and if winning a gold medal in the pentathalon at the Pan American Games isn’t enough, this 6”1 mother of three can also boast having been Canada’s woman athlete of the year, and our country’s first female sportscaster. But sitting here in her house, talking about the importance of physical fitness for children, she is instantly warm and relatable.
We discuss the recent London Olympics, and her response to athlete Paula Findlay is telling. “She apologized to Canada for letting everybody down, and it ripped my heart out. I just wanted to tell her you have no reason to apologize to anybody. Its not always about winning. As much as I loved standing there with the gold medal around my neck, I am most proud of the work I put in before that.”
So, obviously, I ask her if she’s tried to impart this belief system to her own children. She nods emphatically. “I think sports, any athlete will tell you, it’s a metaphor for life. You have to know how to lose, and you have to learn that nothing in life comes easy. My parents weren’t wealthy, I had a job, and I grew up believing you went out, you worked your hardest, and you made your life happen. I think today, we love our kids so much we give them too much, and our kids don’t understand you’ve got to get out there and fight for what you want.”
Great advice, sure, but how to motivate the less sporty kids? Her answer is immediate. “You have to do it with them – talk to anyone who was on my street. They used to laugh, because we were out on the front lawn playing baseball, doing mini-olympics in the basement, my kids went to bed every night exhausted. But they felt good. And I think that’s the best gift in the world you can give your children.” Van Kiekebelt notes the difficulties for working parents to play personal trainer. “Not every kid is going to be a star … the best thing you can do is explore what’s offered, and give your child the opportunity to find the sport that makes them happy.”
Concerned with the growing child obesity stats, she urges parents to keep kids active. “They did a program in Mississauga, where they took half the school, doing nothing in the am, the other half of school did 20 minutes of on the spot exercise first thing, and the second group, their attention was fabulous, they excelled, and were thrilled to go to school because they felt good. The more your kid sits on that couch, sits in front of that computer, the less energy they have.”
Unsurprisingly, all of Van Kiekebelt’s kids are still active today, and they enjoy spending time as a family, keeping fit, and having fun. “It’s the consistency” she says smiling,” that keeps your engine running. There’s no magic pill, it’s just doing it. It’s like the old athletes say, the hardest thing is to get your shoes on, after that, it’s all uphill.”
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to “Alison Findlay” when we meant, of course, the great Canadian triathlete Paula Findlay. We apologize for any confusion.]